Inside the green campus fee that collects hundreds of thousands more than it spends

Ackerman Union, where The Green Initiative Fund’s office is located, is pictured. A Daily Bruin financial analysis of public budget records has uncovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars in student fees collected by TGIF go unused annually. (Photo by Jeremy Chen/Assistant Photo editor and Daily Bruin staff. Photo illustration by Emily Tang/Assistant Design director)

By Dylan Tzung, Lori Garavartanian, Rachel Rothschild

March 13, 2023 at 12:08 a.m.

Hundreds of thousands of student fee dollars go unspent each year as a campus sustainability fund amasses a substantial surplus, according to a Daily Bruin financial analysis.

Nestled between the charges for health insurance and Bruin Bash, The Green Initiative Fund fee appears as just one line on every undergraduate student’s BruinBill. The $4.80 quarterly fee intends to fund student projects that build “a culture in which the entire UCLA community is aware of, engaged in, and committed to advancing sustainability,” according to TGIF’s website. In the past, the student-run TGIF committee has provided grants for projects ranging from environmental research to cultural graduation ceremonies.

But between 2017 and 2020, roughly 60% of TGIF funding went unused each year. Budget analysis by the Daily Bruin found a surplus increasing by around $90,000 annually during this time period. This surplus comes at a time when several other fee referendums have failed to pass in recent years, including one to fund emergency relief for students, as well as some meant to support the Black Bruin Resource Center and the Transfer Student Center

An Undergraduate Students Association election referendum created TGIF in 2008, passing with nearly 77%. But the program was created with an expiration date in mind. The fee was set to end in 2018 until another successful referendum in 2016 extended it indefinitely. At the time, student critics raised concerns about the fund’s massive surplus, highlighting hundreds of thousands of dollars in unspent funding in previous years. Now, still standing at $4.80 per quarter, TGIF collects a total of $57.60 from every student who spends four years at UCLA.

A six-month Daily Bruin investigation – which included analyzing public financial records from 2017-2022 and conducting over a dozen interviews – found that hundreds of thousands of TGIF dollars collected annually from students have gone unused over the past six years, accruing large sums in a surplus account.

For example, TGIF had nearly $600,000 available to spend in the 2017-2018 academic year, but the fund spent only $230,000, according to an analysis of annual Associated Students UCLA budget reports. A surplus exceeding $350,000 remained and reached nearly $450,000 at the end of the following year. TGIF was the lowest proportional spender among all of the 32 student fee funds that year at only 60%, according to a Daily Bruin analysis.

Although the surplus did not increase between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, records show more than $200,000 of TGIF money was used in 2020-2021 for COVID-19 relief funding. This spending substantially decreased the surplus’s size. The most recent budget report shows TGIF still ended the 2021-2022 school year with a surplus totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

UCLA officials have offered various explanations for the unused funding.

TGIF grant coordinator Jessica Alexander pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for the fund’s large surplus, explaining that pandemic shutdowns limited many projects from using their allocated funds in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years. She added that the pandemic has continued to impact subsequent school years’ spending.

However, the surplus existed long before the pandemic, with concerns surfacing as early as 2014. 

According to Alexander, TGIF allocates all of their funds each year, although she said allocation does not necessarily translate to spending. Data shows that from 2017-2022, on average, 31% of the funded projects and clubs spent none of their allocated money. 

Alexander said not all clubs spend their allocated money because they often find other funding sources and do not need the full TGIF grant. This unused money gets absorbed back into the TGIF fund for future years and possible re-allocation, she added.

One way the leftovers may be used is for long-term, big-ticket infrastructure projects that cost more than $10,000, Alexander said. However, no such capital grant projects are currently active, she said, and only one past project – funding for a student leadership program in fall 2021 – is listed publicly on the TGIF website as of March 11. 

In the past, TGIF’s sustainability goals have drawn criticism for using broad language with a seemingly limited ability to help UCLA fulfill its long-term sustainability goals. In contrast, a similar TGIF program at UC Berkeley lists specific sustainability themes in its mission statement, such as water conservation and habitat restoration. Lacking a similar form of categorization in their mission, UCLA TGIF committee members interviewed by The Bruin did not provide a uniform set of sustainability criteria. 

Tamar Christensen, a continuing lecturer in UCLA Writing Programs who serves as TGIF’s faculty committee member, said the committee considers sustainability in the context of each project, even if an event itself is not inherently sustainable. Projects are likely to receive funding for sustainable aspects of a larger event such as having plant-based menu items, Christensen said.

Organizations have also received funding for items such as reusable cutlery, said Mia Rosati, the TGIF internal outreach chair and a third-year ecology, behavior and evolution student. The committee also has specific practices they do not fund, such as using fossil fuels or buying things from Amazon, but they are open to working with applicants to make their proposed projects more sustainable, Christensen said.

In the past, TGIF has funded a wide variety of sustainability projects such as the development of sustainable small-scale farming technology at the university, installation of sustainable water practices on campus and ecological restoration projects.  

However, a review of TGIF’s website also reveals multiple projects with seemingly looser ties to sustainability. Student fees collected by TGIF have been used to help fund USAC’s iClicker rental program, biodegradable diningware for volunteer dinners, a vegan cookbook promotional event, the creation of poetry booklets, and multiple student music festivals and fashion shows.

Based on publicly available descriptions of TGIF projects, professors and sustainability experts have raised concerns about how the committee’s funding choices make a meaningful impact on sustainability.

“I am not saying music festivals and fashion events should not be funded, but those would not be the first things that come to mind for the Green Fund,” said Deepak Rajagopal, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, in an emailed statement.

Sangwon Suh, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, echoed unease about a lack of clarity regarding how some TGIF projects promote their proclaimed goal.

“TGIF was formed with a clear purpose reducing the environmental impacts of campus,” Suh said in an emailed statement. “It is not a little pocket money that fills up the shortfalls here and there.”

But Moira Zbella, Scope 3 Emissions program manager at Stanford University, expressed support for broadening the scope of sustainability. She said addressing scope 3 emissions – the indirect emissions resulting from the activities of a particular organization can take many forms on a college campus. 

Zbella said active efforts can include purchasing from suppliers that rely on renewable energy sources or substituting a disposable product with a reusable one. 

Even after successfully funding many such projects, the TGIF surplus has remained significantly large. Despite efforts to use TGIF, student club members have also experienced obstacles when trying to access their allocated funds. 

“(Grants) tend to really slow down, and they’re still backed up from last year,” said Kinjal Vyas, a fourth-year economics and psychology student and the artistic director and executive producer of HOOLIGAN Theatre Company. 

She added that her club has needed to email TGIF directly multiple times in order to process their funding requests for payments on a storage unit for costumes and props. TGIF has acknowledged recent issues with late payments on their website, although Alexander said these delays generally do not contribute to the fund’s surplus.

“There’s a lot of logistical issues just because there’s a lot of bureaucracy in any public institution, especially as large as UCLA,” said former TGIF committee member Ragini Srinivasan, a third-year mathematics/economics and political science student.

Club members also described a lack of TGIF oversight for their funded projects. 

“We have never received follow-up emails asking about our project or about the success of it,” Vyas said in a written statement in October.

However, TGIF undergraduate committee member Grace Leary, a fourth-year history and political science student, said TGIF reaches out to club members for midpoint updates and an end-of-project summary. The TGIF website states that these summary reports are mandatory. TGIF Outreach Coordinator Kamea Taylor, a fourth-year political science student, said the reports are only encouraged, rather than enforced, in practice. Multiple other TGIF members said the reports are not required as an oversight measure.

Keeping track of all projects who have and have not submitted these reports would prove difficult,” said a written statement from Taylor, the sole TGIF support staff member responsible for supervising the fund’s allocation. 

In contrast, UC Berkeley’s TGIF requires a final club report and semesterly check-ins with all project leaders, said Carli Baker, the UC Berkeley TGIF coordinator and sustainability initiatives and operations manager. 

UC Berkeley’s TGIF also has a surplus right now, partly because of delayed projects while students were not on campus during the pandemic, Baker said. In order to better manage the surplus, Berkeley’s TGIF created a multi-page report specifying what they wanted to do with the excess money, which included starting a new fund that created scholarships and student internships. 

Multiple experts offered possible solutions to UCLA TGIF’s current problems.

Rajagopal said TGIF needs to have greater oversight over funded projects and should provide more public transparency related to the criteria used to allocate funding. TGIF released its first-ever midpoint report via social media Tuesday, a day after Alexander was notified of the upcoming publication of The Bruin’s investigation. 

“In our efforts to promote transparency, the current committee has produced this summary of some of the progress we have made behind the scenes throughout the year,” the post read. 

Zbella suggested that TGIF should require clubs to report metrics on the sustainable impact of their projects, specifically for projects falling under the umbrella of scope 3 emissions. She said in the case of large musical events, for example, these metrics could include asking exactly how many sustainable vendors were included in the event and requiring the clubs to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions for their work. She also said TGIF could provide students with a template for calculating their emissions reduction.

“That’s a skill-building and professional development experience for the students working on the projects, and then would also help in terms of reporting so that TGIF could really measure its impact,” Zbella added.

Zbella also said TGIF may be able to reduce its surplus by maintaining a broader definition of sustainability, thus allowing TGIF to fund more projects. But despite TGIF’s already broad definition and wide scope, the most recently available budget records still showed a surplus of more than $220,000 at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Alexander said that in response to TGIF’s large surplus, the committee is focused on increasing awareness and outreach to generate more student applications for funding. The committee has not considered lowering the $4.80 student fee, she added.

“The student voice is the voice that matters and has to approve the funding,” Alexander said. “That would really be a broader conversation for the student body to have.” 

Contributing reports by Iris Shi, Daily Bruin contributor. 

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