News | Student Life

Lacking standard event review process, student groups and councils sometimes forced to cover larger security bills

When Columbia College Student Council Vice President for Campus Life Nathan Rosin, CC ’18, was planning the council’s Homecoming pep rally, he was told by a Public Safety representative at a required event planning meeting with administrators that between five to eight security officers would need to be present on the scene.

Without a definitive or formal security estimate, Rosin said he left that meeting unsure if he’d have to budget an extra $1,052 for the event.

But at a second event review the following week, Public Safety Director of Special Events John Murolo changed his mind and said that only one guard would be required on the condition that CCSC members help with crowd control at the event, according to Rosin.

Student group leaders interviewed by Spectator have described both positive and negative experiences with security costs determined by Public Safety during the event planning process, indicating that there is no universally understood protocol for determining these costs. Although some student leaders have spoken favorably about their experiences with event review, multiple student leaders have also said they have been unable to negotiate or understand security costs incurred by their events once they’ve been communicated, forcing them to foot larger-than-expected bills.

The University declined to make either Murolo or Vice President of Public Safety James McShane available for comment.

The issue first came to light two years ago after Bacchanal organizers criticized Public Safety for a lack of transparency in event reviews. The issue surfaced again last year when organizers expressed frustration with last-minute barricades and other security measures that came with an unexpected $16K price tag. In response, Dean of Columbia College James Valentini pledged $7K in additional funding to cover the cost of Bacchanal.

In order to host any event on Columbia’s campus requiring Facilities or Public Safety involvement, student group leaders must go through event reviews—meetings between group leaders and representatives from University Event Management, Public Safety, and Facilities—to determine what equipment or safety precautions will be necessary. The number of event reviews required for an event depends on the size and scope of the event.

A University spokesperson told Spectator that a cost estimate is almost always provided at the event review, except under certain circumstances—such as events open to the public—where an estimate is provided soon after the review. In some cases, however, estimates can fluctuate after event reviews if Public Safety receives new information about the event.

“When they make that discretionary decision whether they have five, six, seven, eight guards, I have no idea,” Rosin said. “They decide that.”

Public Safety provides students planning events with a document titled “Criteria for Successful Event Planning,” which outlines potential security and safety considerations as well as event planning criteria. This document does not include information about what factors will incur any given cost, however, and instead states that “levels of support (and the associated costs) can fluctuate greatly.”

None of the student leaders interviewed by Spectator said they recognized the document or had seen it in event reviews.

Meanwhile, some groups reported clearer cost outlines from Public Safety in event reviews.

For example, Caribbean Students’ Association events chair Farrah Simpson, SEAS ’17, told Spectator that CSA was provided with a set number of security officers and a cost estimate for its Dollarama party at an event review.

And Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs, who made several last-minute changes to the location and size of its annual Ignite@CU event, was still able to agree on a written invoice with Public Safety prior to the event without any problems, according to executive board member Josh Zweig, SEAS ’18.

But these disparities in event review processes can be most disadvantageous to student councils, which often end up footing the bills for student groups’ event security due to the Securities Fund. The fund, which is co-sponsored by CCSC, the Engineering Student Council, General Studies Student Council, and Barnard’s Student Government Association, automatically covers any security expense under $600. Expenses in excess are covered by student groups’ own budgets.

According to CCSC Vice President for Finance Anuj Sharma, CC ’17, the fund was initially created to equalize the playing field for smaller student groups that might not receive the same allocations.

Rosin and Sharma both said they believe that the fund’s automatic approval system—paired with the unclear event review process—makes student groups less accountable for the costs of their events, less able to modify their event or negotiate with Public Safety to reduce security costs, and has resulted in higher security costs that the councils must cover.

Though student leaders believe that there is no malice on the part of UEM or Public Safety, many agreed that a uniform event review process and clarified security cost breakdowns would benefit both student groups and councils.

"It's a little difficult for me to get a sense of what I've spent. I would say it's confusing,” Rosin said “I don't know if it's any one person's fault, but I have been planning events at Columbia for a while now. I don't think they have any malintent, but it's a systemic issue."

larson.holt@columbiaspectator.com | @lshlarson

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