SSE late on student payments

Feb. 10, 2012, 2:09 a.m.

Correction: This article previously referred to Feross Aboukhadijeh ‘12 as the founder of Stanford ACM. While he did not found the group, he currently serves as its president.


Student-group leaders and financial officers have increasingly voiced their frustration concerning Stanford Student Enterprises (SSE) banking process, with some students reporting delays of up to four months before receiving compensation for expenses they paid out-of-pocket on behalf of a group.


Feross Aboukhadijeh ‘12, leader of the Stanford Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), bought iPads last spring quarter as prizes for a hacking competition that ACM organized and independently funded. According to Aboukhadijeh, his request for reimbursement has been rejected three times for small mistakes in documentation.


Once, SSE put the group’s request on hold because the amount filed for was exactly one cent less than what was on the receipt, Aboukhadijeh said.


Each time his request for reimbursement was rejected, Aboukhadijeh said he had to wait five to six weeks for the requests to be evaluated before he could refile. It took four months for SSE to reimburse $600 from the funds his club had independently raised.


“Dealing with the reimbursement process and…SSE with all their finances has been the worst part of my job,” he added.


More than 35 users “liked” a status Aboukhadijeh posted Jan. 23 on his Facebook wall, which expressed his frustration with the SSE banking process. SSE, an independent branch of the ASSU, manages the finances for all student groups.


Internal setbacks


Dylan Plofker ‘12, director of SSE’s Capital Group, acknowledged the backlog.


“We are working to speed [the reimbursement process] up,” Plofker said this week. “We have actually caught up half of the backlog in the last few weeks.”


According to Plofker, the backlog was caused when several crucial SSE components fell apart in a short time span.


At the end of the 2010-11 academic year, SSE lost one of its full-time accountants and has struggled to replace her through a slow recruitment and training process, he said.


At the beginning of this academic year, SSE’s documentation server crashed, causing them to lose access to their system for several days, as well as deleting all of the requests that were being processed at the time.


In addition, due to a new documentation policy instituted last spring requiring both a credit card statement and a line-by-line receipt, reimbursement requests take more time to process, according to SSE’s Chief Executive Officer Neveen Mahmoud ‘11.


“[We] have realized that the main issue is that requests actually take a lot longer than they used to in the past, with the same amount of staffing,” Mahmoud said at an ASSU Undergraduate Senate meeting on Jan. 30. “[But] I think we should be fully caught up, definitely by the end of this quarter.”


Students experience delay in process


Students interviewed by The Daily disagreed with Plofker’s claim that over the past two years requests typically took three to five days.


Aaron Acosta ‘13, drum major for the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB), estimated that over his two years as a band section leader, reimbursements took an average of six to seven months after a request was filed.


Acosta said he is still waiting for one payment of $251 from the beginning of the academic year when he bought new drumsticks and replaced old equipment. Acosta filed the reimbursement request in October, he said.


“It’s frustrating because if our student group were to just process all of our finances through a normal bank like Wells Fargo or Bank of America, everything that we do would be ready the next business day or the same business day,” said Wesley Ford ‘13, who has served as the financial officer for both the Stanford Cycling Club and the Solar Car Project. “But somehow, because we have a student bank, transactions take a month. If you had to wait for a month for Wells Fargo…it would be unacceptable…but somehow it’s different here.”


Ford — who has lodged formal complaints against the SSE and met with officials from Capital Group last spring — said that other University departments that fund student projects don’t take nearly as long to process requests.


“Other University departments usually have a hierarchy above them so they’re actually accountable to someone, whereas [for] the SSE, as far as I know…there is [not] that much oversight,” Ford said.


Several students have complained about the minute particulars that cause the SSE to reject reimbursement requests. For instance, Acosta said SSE rejected a reimbursement request because his last name hadn’t been printed on the receipt, despite being on the scan of his attached credit card statement.


Fleet Street singer Andrew Forsyth ‘14 said he purchased tuxedos for the group’s new members in late September, an expense of about $700. Despite re-filing almost immediately when a problem with his paperwork was reported, Forsyth said he has still not received reimbursement.


Voluntary student organizations (VSOs) are required to bank through SSE in order to use Stanford’s name and retain their non-profit status, according to the ASSU Constitution.


Forsyth said, however, that the lengthy and complex reimbursement process has led Fleet Street to seriously consider opening a Wells Fargo account.


“Student groups are resorting to other measures to get their funds,” Forsyth said. “We do not want to put our money into the SSE banking system…We have enough econ majors on this campus to tell you that if you don’t have liquid assets, then they’re not worth anything. If we can’t spend our money, it is worth so much less to us.”


Understaffed, but ‘looking up’


Ford argued that the SSE is understaffed — a statement with which Plofker agreed.


“It definitely is [understaffed],” Plofker said. “We are currently looking for another full time accountant… [But] since [he or she would be] a full time Stanford employee, it takes a lot longer than a normal hiring process.”


According to Plofker, SSE has been looking to fill the position since fall quarter, and the hiring will not be finalized until spring quarter.


“Unfortunately it is somewhat of a bureaucracy,” he added.


Meanwhile, students say they feel left out of the SSE loop.


Several students — including Ford, Forsyth and Aboukhadijeh, who all approached SSE or ASSU members with complaints about the process — said that the responses they received reflected more concern with public image than actual reform.


“All of us student group leaders are trying to get stuff done, trying to put on awesome events,” said Aboukhadijeh, whose group does not get any of its funds from The Stanford Fund, general fees or special fees.


“Even though it’s our student group who raises all the money…we’re stuck…giving them our money and then begging for them to give it back,” Aboukhadijeh said.


Still, students said things seem to be looking up. SSE members said they are confident that they will get through the backlog by the end of the quarter and encourage all financial officers to come to them with problems.


“Right now, this week, things are pretty good,” Ford said. “Things are taking two weeks, maybe, to process.”


“[But] it shouldn’t take a special request to get important transactions processed,” Ford added. “Just by default, it should happen within a couple days, [or] a week at most.”

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