On paper, N.C. State's John Taylor Willis was the perfect student body treasurer. So why did his tenure end with impeachment proceedings and a resignation?
Above: Photo from the News & Observer.
This story was written by Jackie Perini for N.C. State’s advanced reporting class.
On paper, John Taylor Willis was seemingly the perfect student body treasurer.
He represented the Poole College of Management during the 95th and 96th sessions of Student Government. He was the treasurer of the University Student Center Board of Directors. He was an Alexander Hamilton scholar. He had a whole laundry list of other relevant experiences and distinctions from his peers. In other words: He wasn’t just a dark horse candidate plucked from the masses and placed into a leadership role.
But the seemingly perfect student body treasurer allegedly missed self-imposed deadlines for paperwork required by the student appropriation committee to perform their duties and delayed the appropriation process significantly.
Students pay a fee as a part of their tuition annually that is equally divided between departments and academic resources. This includes Student Government, which designates $100,000 of its annual budget to fall and spring student appropriations that fund basic operational needs for student organizations. Funds are distributed to clubs and organizations based on an application and an interview to determine need.
Willis’ fellow student leaders say he delayed that process, preventing student organizations from getting the funds they need to operate.
On Aug. 28, five student senators filed a bill of impeachment against Willis on the grounds of abuse of power and neglect of duty, an infraction that would, if passed, cost him his title and reputation as a student leader. In a statement, the senators wrote, “The Treasurer is in charge of all Student Government funds, including hundreds of thousands of dollars of student fees earmarked for appropriations. Due to the inactions of Treasurer Willis, this process has been delayed.”
On Nov. 1, Willis resigned via letter emailed to each member of student government member, officially concluding the two-month long punitive, impeachment process.
“I have been forced to accept the harsh reality that a handful of people in Student Government have priorities that simply do not align with serving the student body,” read the letter. “Instead of addressing their concerns and communicating with me in a mature and direct manner, they have chosen to engage in unjustified attacks on my job performance and my character, all the while wasting the time of other Student Government members who just want to do their jobs.”
The attention to his mismanagement of the budget of roughly $430,000 has students and staff alike questioning the liability and expectations of students in the appropriation process. But at what point does one stop blaming the person and start blaming the process?
“The appropriation process has always been kind of messy and needs to be streamlined,” said Paul Nolan, the former student body president for the previous academic year.
What those five senators failed to see was that Willis attempted to fix the process. He pulled all-nighters working on the process. He met with Appropriations Chair Molly Mueller in the summer to work on the process. He dealt with countless snags in the process. And he did all this while maintaining the day-to-day demands of being a student.
“I haven’t been able to meet with my advisors because they are occupied. I haven’t been able to meet with anyone from the business office because there is one position missing, and the other person is occupied,” Willis said in an interview. “I noticed problems with the receipts from last year, and it my responsibility to go back and be thorough. I would be negligent if I did not. At some point, you have to realize not everything is a perfect process, even though I say we are shooting for a specific goal or date.”
Several campus organizations and clubs rely heavily on the funding from appropriations to function. During the appropriation cycle last fall, Student Government disbursed $80,054.18 to over 100 organizations for basic expenses and start-up funding.
Andrew Morrison, president of College Democrats and a junior political science and economics major, said all kinds of organizations incur expenses.
“For example, for Packapalooza we needed to make a trifold to advertise College Democrats, and that requires the actual trifold, paper to print and write on, writing utensils, glue sticks and so forth,” Morrison said. “The university also charged each club $10 if they wanted a tent to keep the booth workers in the shade, which we weren’t able to buy because of lack of funds, and it was hot and sweaty.”
The student body treasurer is tasked with providing the appropriations committee with accurate documentation about which organizations are eligible and ineligible for the upcoming appropriations. Each organization agrees when accepting funds to use them for a specific purchase and then validate it with receipts, and failing to do so can result in ineligibility for up to three cycles.
Willis noticed errors from his predecessor where receipts had been approved that violated the rules set forth by the appropriations committee. To ensure accuracy when assessing need for the upcoming cycle, he tirelessly combed back through all the receipts from the previous year.
“When they do not turn in receipts, we lose that insurance and that accountability,” Willis said. “They could be going out and using that money for anything. My goal is just to make sure things (with the appropriation process) are running as efficiently as possible, and I have really noticed some holes in how the process has been run in the past.”
The hefty responsibility of delegating funds is bestowed on only seven students. All student senators must serve on one permanent and one standing committee. The statutes also require a minimum of six students on the appropriations committee.
The committee is led by Appropriations Committee Chair Molly Mueller, who served on the committee in years past, with the assistance of Student Senate President Mitchell Moravec. Some of the committee members are first-year senators, with no committee experience whatsoever.
“(The committee members) are responsible for looking through and dealing with tens of thousands of dollars in all these different requests,” Nolan said. “I think it is a lot of pressure.”
The team of seven reviews application materials and the content from interviews over the course of one long, strenuous weekend.
“They review applications with interviews from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Then from 8 pm. to 1 a.m. on Sunday, they decide how much money students will get,” said Laura Stott, an associate director for Student Involvement.
“It is really meaningful at the end of the day,” Willis said. “For me, personally, meeting the students leaders over interview weekend and getting to hear all the opportunities available to students really excites me.”
Though it is not required for the treasurer to be present during the interview and scoring process, Willis’ work with appropriations extended long before and after that part of the process. Conflicting schedules with advisors and lack of institutional support hindered Willis from completing appropriation documentation in his ideal timeframe.
“On the back end of things, we have not had a business manager that typically helps out with the appropriations process, and we have had some major restructuring within student involvement with regards to the advisor structure,” Willis said.
While many student leader positions can act completely independently, Willis argued his position relies more heavily than others on being able to communicate with the business manager, other people from the business office and the technical advisors, especially in regards to the appropriation process.
“I am constantly the one responsible for ensuring money is spent appropriately and working with accounting systems that I have some access to, but limited access to,” Willis said. “It’s tricky and I would definitely argue that the treasurer definitely has more technical skill required for that particular position than any other student body officer.”
Students are held accountable through a punitive process when neglecting their responsibilities, as demonstrated in Willis’ case. Unfortunately, this process can be critical of student leaders without the context of their responsibilities or understanding of the extenuating circumstances.
Willis’ experience is a direct call for improvement in the process. Student Government relies on feedback from past experiences from executive members of clubs and organizations and input from the past committee to assess areas for improvement. Faculty are working towards digitizing the process entirely to make it easier on students who apply and the treasurer when organizing financial records.
“Right now when they apply, all the receipts are paper,” Stott said. “The form is paper. Some things get mismatched. Students will want copies of the receipts for their own records, so we scan them and give them back. If we don’t scan them or something happens, there is a disconnect and we are like, ‘You didn’t turn them in,’ and they are like, ‘But I did turn them in!’”
Student Government is planning to go digital using the Get Involved system’s finance module, similar to other universities. Get Involved is a web software used to hub organization information, event details, and to track involvement. N.C. State currently uses the software for other Student Government actions, including elections for student body officers.
“In the process of appropriations, the appropriations committee receives the applications and makes the decisions, but the treasurer manages the receipts for the committee, so eligibility is managed between the two of them so it is kind of a joint process,” Stott said. Switching to a digital process will allow all hands and eyes to be involved in the process with different levels of accessibility without having one paper copy to share.
Integrating a digital system is a step towards creating an efficient system with limited room for human error, but increases the potential for errors on the organization’s behalf that could result in ineligibility.
“My only hesitation to the digital system is that it might decrease the amount of communication with student leaders,” Willis said. “I don’t want to go into the spreadsheet every time I look for a receipt and see so many errors because, instead of asking me questions or coming in to complete it with me in person, they will try and do it online.”
Another concern that the appropriations committee is attempting to address is the number of organizations that mishandle funds or fail to comply to the appropriation rules. One reform to the process Willis is suggesting implementing in his term is a document attached to checks that reminds organizations of what the money was allocated for and that outlines the rules set forth by the committee. The organization agrees to cooperate by accepting and cashing the check.
Until the new system and additional documentation is implemented, students can take solace in the work their peers are doing through appropriations, and their ability to recognize their own shortcomings.
“The appropriations committee has been voted best committee by senators two years in a row. People (on the appropriations committee) are really passionate about helping students and connecting in such a direct way,” Stott said.