Following the announcement early last week that the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) will spend $80,000 on a virtual Lawnparties to be held on Oct. 30, students took to social media to voice frustrations about how the University is spending money during an economic recession and global pandemic.
In response to student backlash, USG Social Chair Sophie Torres ’21 sent a follow-up email to undergraduates on Sept. 11, detailing USG’s reasons for holding Lawnparties, as well as the source of the funding.
Addressing calls to cancel Lawnparties and spend the $80,000 more effectively, Torres wrote that regardless of whether the event happens, USG had already sent the artist a binding bid over the summer and is now obligated to pay them. The artist will be announced in October.
Furthermore, the email emphasized that the funding for the event came from central University funds, in lieu of student fees that were waived this year. Those funds, Torres wrote, are allocated for peer-led, community-building events this semester.
University Spokesperson Ben Chang confirmed the funding source in an email to The Daily Princetonian.
“To help build community in the face of the challenges presented by the pandemic, the University provided an operating budget roughly equivalent to what the USG would have received via the student fees,” he wrote.
Chang also informed the ‘Prince’ that USG has sole discretion over how it spends its funds.
“The USG alone decides how to allocate its funds within applicable laws and regulations — this year is no different. The University does not oversee or dictate what the USG should do with its funds on behalf of the undergraduate student community,” he wrote.
USG determined its own budget based on long-standing funding allocations. The budget could not be spent on donations, as many social media comments suggested, because student groups at the University are not allowed to donate or spend money on gift cards or virtual payment platforms such as Venmo.
Torres and Chang also stressed that the funds could only be used this semester, as is the case for budgets provided to departments from general funds. This condition, Torres said, nullifies calls for the money to be put towards a Lawnparties act in future, in-person semesters.
Rindos is a former Multimedia staffer at the ‘Prince.’
Rindos said that, although he was initially satisfied by the specificity of Torres’s most recent email, upon further reflection, he was bothered by how rigid the funding regulations were.
“I started to question and think, it is completely and entirely possible for the University and for whoever has established funding rules to make changes to those rules,” he said. “When there is such a rigid thing that the student government feels they need to spend $80,000 on this, that’s not a very good situation. It should rather be open conversation to change the way that that money should be used.”
Other students expressed frustration with how the money is being spent, even after Torres’s email explained the money’s source.
Kelton Chastulik ’21 commented on the same Instagram post last week, “How can USG stand [with] it’s [sic] students who are financially suffering when it makes a blatant statement of carelessness like spending $80,000 on a virtual music show during a pandemic? Come on pton BE BETTER!!! @princeton_usg @princeton.”
Chastulik previously served on USG as a class of 2021 senator. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ he said that the second email from the Social Committee revealed how USG had mismanaged the situation.
“If you have to send an email out with information on why you made a decision, I feel like you shouldn’t have made the decision,” he said, noting that it would have been more useful if the email was sent out before the decision was made.
He said he was startled when he first saw how much USG was spending on Lawnparties.
“Understanding how, especially in my role on campus being a student leader in the inclusion offices, being in the Pace Center, realizing how cash-strapped they are also, realizing how tight money decisions have been, I think I was really shocked,” he said.
Torres addressed the backlash to the decision to host Lawnparties in her email.
“Understandably, the news that $80K was allocated towards this online event was upsetting to some of you, especially considering the stress that COVID-19 has caused everyone, whether financially, emotionally, or just all-around,” she wrote.
But, she added her reasons for wanting to hold Lawnparties.
“Not being able to have the same in-person social support has definitely made last semester difficult for many of us, including myself,” she wrote. “Coming into this semester, the USG Social Committee wanted to try and do something about this issue; we wanted to host events that would help bring people together despite how far apart we are.”
Chastulik said that many of the first-generation or low-income students he has been speaking with over the summer feel that virtual Lawnparties is not a sensible option. To him, holding such an event ignores the reality for low-income students at the University.
“If they talk about giveaways and things like that, unless you’re giving free WiFi away, I don’t feel like students are interested,” he said. “Students have real-world problems. They’re facing a pandemic; they’re facing struggle every day.”
Students are also concerned that Lawnparties is not the most effective way to foster community this semester.
“There’s so much other stuff going on, I’m concerned that turnout will actually be rather low,” Rindos said. “I’m concerned that this is not going to be a priority for people.”
To address this general concern, Torres wrote that the main aspects of Lawnparties will all be included, despite being online.
“I can say that what we love about Lawnparties — the music, the community, the festivities — will still be present,” she wrote.
Chastulik, however, argued that the event could divide the community.
“It seems like it’s really driven the community apart because there seems to be really tangential opinions on this,” he said.
Torres confirmed in the email that USG has not yet committed to hosting a spring Lawnparties.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect that Bradley Rindos ’23 formerly belonged to the ‘Prince’ Multimedia section.