A monument to frivolous spending

Some in MSA want to spend leftover money on a statue of Goldy the Gopher.

Christopher Meyer

When asked to describe her goals for the year, the first objective Minnesota Student Association President Lizzy Shay laid out was that MSA must strive to spend all of its money. “I think it’s really important to move past the idea that saving money is responsible,” she told the Minnesota Daily in a September interview. This was not a one-time slip of the tongue; she reiterated her priority two weeks later at the first forum of her term. After lamenting the $30,000 carryover from the previous MSA administration, which she noted “is extremely high in proportion to our total budget,” she informed us that, “Saving money is not a responsible way to spend money because when the Student Services Fees Committee gives us a check, they’re expecting us to use that money.“

Judging by Shay’s criteria, MSA has been a catastrophic failure thus far. At MSA’s Executive Committee meeting Friday, Shay announced that MSA currently has a staggering $85,000 left in unused funds. For perspective, MSA’s entire annual budget is $172,760.

MSA is thus poised to indulge in an epic spending spree. There’s so much money and so little time to get rid of it.  MSA members must pay close attention to ensure that it isn’t squandered.

I attended the MSA Executive Committee meeting as the director of its Facilities, Housing and Transportation Committee. I’m not a member of the Executive Committee, but I was there to update them about my committee’s activities and funding requests.

The executive committee meeting was immediately followed by an ad hoc committee meeting to determine the winner of MSA’s new “Improve U” grant. This grant is a new service initiative that awards a grant of up to $10,000 to a student or group of students to improve campus in some way. 

One of the proposals was to build a 6’3” bronze statue of Goldy the Gopher in front of Coffman Union. The statue would ultimately cost a total of $70,000. The grant would get the project started, and the rest of the funds would come from the Student Unions & Activities Board of Governors and from voluntary donations. The grant application reported that President Eric Kaler and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Jerry Rinehart are both supporters of the statue, and have verbally committed to pay for at least half the funds if students raise the other half.

 I can scarcely imagine a more flagrant monument to frivolous spending.

Mercifully, the statue proposal was rejected in favor of a far worthier project that would establish a website to help students with mental health problems. However, while the statue proposal did not win the Improve U grant itself, there was discussion that MSA could simply vote to fund the proposal with its excess funds.

In the midst of recession, with tuition skyrocketing, with furloughs, program cuts, salary freezes being imposed, and with so many people just struggling to get by, this statue would  announce to the world that students could find no better use of $70,000 than a pile of metal. Republican state legislators have already been looking for excuses to justify their spending cuts to the University. If students build this boondoggle, they will deliver an ideal target of mockery on a shimmering bronze platter.

It’s not just the waste of funds that concerns me; it’s the waste of copper (the primary and most expensive component of bronze). Copper is a scarce and valuable resource; we shouldn’t squander it on a vanity project.

Copper prices are extremely high right now. Thieves are stealing air conditioners and digging up utility cables just to salvage the copper from them. Canada’s government recently announced that it will stop producing pennies because they now cost 1.6 cents to produce. 

The reason copper prices are so high is because China, India and other developing countries are in a period of rapid growth. In early stages of development, nations require vast quantities of copper to bring pipes and electricity to new homes and businesses. If for some reason we feel compelled to purchase a large quantity of copper, we ought to give it away to an impoverished community that would use it provide basic necessities, like copper pipes to supply clean water, rather than a decorative statue.

A bronze statue would also be violently contrary to the University’s stated sustainability objectives. Copper mining destroys mountains and generates vast quantities of toxic sludge and air and water pollution. Copper mining companies also have a notorious record of safety and labor violations. The fact that the pollution and oppression would take place in distant places, out of sight and out mind, does not absolve the University of responsibility for contributing to those problems.

I have no desire to see MSA’s funds reduced, but MSA needs to demonstrate it deserves students’ support. Students are a severely disempowered group; when used properly, MSA can provide students an extremely valuable service by advocating on their behalf. MSA  must concentrate on its core mission of advocating on behalf of students’ interests, not frivolous projects.