He might be the most powerful student at Penn State, and you’ve probably never heard of him.
I’m talking about Jesse Scott, a down-to-earth 31-year old Penn State Ph.D. student who likes to cook, go dancing with his wife Laura, and watch Doctor Who in his free time.
Work time for Scott, however, is a good deal more serious. He chairs the University Park Allocation Committee, which allocates about $4 million in funding to student organizations throughout the year.
The Pittsburgh native has earned degrees from Penn State Beaver, Erie, the Behrend College, and a master’s from University Park. He joined UPAC in 2011, working his way up to chair for the past two years. Now, his goal in UPAC is to give students the knowledge and education to necessary to put on the most successful events possible.
UPAC is a bit of an enigma to most students. The 35-member board handles the majority of the Student Activity Fee and decides how much to allocate to requesting student groups. UPAC is responsible for determining Homecoming, Movin’ On, and SPA’s 6-and-7-figure annual budgets, along with hundreds of other students groups. Tuesday night allocation meetings have been known to last many hours and drag well into early Wednesday morning for some of the bigger, more complicated budget hearings. Scott and Co. have even more money coming their way with a recent (and semi-controversial) $6 increase in the Student Activity Fee, pending administration approval.
In short: Student organizations from Indoor Drumline to the Pokémon Society get a lot of their money from UPAC, and Scott shapes most of the agenda.
“We actually don’t spend money,” Scott said. “We allocate it to groups, and the spending happens by them…we’re kind of the gatekeeper, in the sense of making sure you’re following all the rules.”
As chair, Scott has some unique abilities. He is responsible for reviewing budgets that come to UPAC and holding them up if they contain any violations. If UPAC votes to approve an allocation, he again must ensure that the allocation does not violate any policies. Also, Scott has the unique authority approve fast-track budgets – requests by organizations with good standing and a history of success for an amount less than $10,000 — with the concurrence of faculty adviser James Arcuri. Yes, a fellow student has the ability to sign off on a $10,000 check using our Student Activity Fee if he wants to. Like a boss.
Even though he often puts in 10+ hour days sorting budgets, attending student government meetings, or just ensuring the gears of the operation are running smoothly, Scott stays humble and doesn’t think he wields great power. He defers to the requesting students themselves, saying well-informed students who present well-informed budgets are the ones who make the great activities happen.
“I think that alone is more power,” Scott said. “I can’t put on a program. UPAC is not allowed to allocate funds to itself to put on a program. So if no one came to us to allocate funds, we wouldn’t put on anything.”
Dealing with student dollars puts Scott in a position ripe for criticism. However, he said the criticism he hears most often does not have to do with the amount of the Student Activity Fee, but rather a lack of understanding as to where that money goes. While some of the fee does go to subsidize useful things like campus gyms and intramural sports workers (and of course, university programming), most of the criticism stems from travel requests, which allow students to receive huge reimbursements for travel costs to various conferences around the world, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars.
“I think if you ask most students, they wouldn’t know how much the fee is,” Scott said. “I try to do my best to teach people where their funds are going and what they’re benefiting from.”
Scott’s time as chair will end along with this term. He’ll work on his comprehensive exam and dissertation until around December 2014, when he hopes to achieve the Ph.D in computer science and engineering. Afterward, he’d like to teach at a university.
Until then, he plans to lead UPAC with that educational goal in mind.
“The committee’s sole purpose is to help organizations put on successful events. Our office is open from 9 o’clock to 5 o’clock in 208 HUB,” said Scott, “And for everyone who works in that office, that’s their goal.”