The final day of class last semester on the Queens Campus ended with a bang – an overwhelming, elaborate, and perhaps even ostentatious bang. Of course, I’m talking about the University Tree Lighting Ceremony and Fireworks Show on the Great Lawn, the usual conclusion to the annual Winter Carnival. And this year’s event went above and beyond any others I’ve seen on campus, providing an enormous light show that flashed across St. Augustine Hall, in addition to the typical fireworks display and Christmas lights strung around campus.
But while the Tree Lighting Ceremony was certainly an impressive moment in St. John’s history, I couldn’t help but ask myself a question I’m sure others wondered: just how much did this all cost?
According to Student Government, Inc. President Dana Lezama, the carnival “probably cost around $20,000 more” than the previous year’s. She also told me that the light show – in addition to other improvements, like a new sound system – ran around $30,000 alone.
SGI spearheaded the event, spending a great deal of its own money on the display, while other on-campus groups, such as the Office of Facilities, the Office of the President, and Campus Activities, also contributed money and support.
Though I could not obtain a concrete number on how much the entire carnival cost, I’d wager it was in the tens of thousands, most likely more than $40,000.
That number, given the economic recession and the way it has and will continue to impact the University, left me a bit baffled.Just days prior to the start of the annual Winter Carnival, I had heard rumors that St. John’s was considering wide-sweeping budget cuts and hiring freezes in light of the economic crisis.
Though these rumors have proven to be false, I’ve learned that the school undoubtedly is taking measures to watch its economic standing.
According to University Provost Dr. Julia Upton, St. John’s is urging its departments to keep a tight lid on their budgets, though explicitly stated budget cuts are not being implemented. “We have asked the departments to go through their budgets and return funds that are not essential so we can use them for aid to students,” Dr. Upton told a Torch reporter.
“For example, if a department prints a five-page newsletter every semester, maybe they can print a three-page newsletter,” she said.
Dr. Upton added that there is “currently no hiring freeze,” but that new hires must go through more filters now than in the past.
“If a department wants to hire a new person, it goes through an extra level of review,” she said. “So, for example, instead of a dean approving a hire, it’ll be the dean and the provost approving the hire.”
She added, “Say a department has three secretaries and one retires, We’ll decide to not replace the retired secretary because there are still two secretaries. But if there is only one secretary and that person leaves, we’ll have to replace them. So it’s all based on need.”
Though the University is not using explicit language like “budget cuts” or “hiring freeze,” Dr. Upton’s words show that St. John’s is being careful with its money.
So, the question begs to be asked: how could the University allow such an extravagant Winter Carnival, which likely cost upwards of $40,000, to take place on campus, but now ask departments to stop spending their money on whatever is “not essential?” If I were a department chair, I’d probably be more than a bit upset.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there should not have been a Winter Carnival, nor am I trying to take away from the tremendous effort of SGI and President Lezama to organize such a fantastic event. And, in all likelihood, an event that had been in the works for months probably could not have been altered too dramatically after the economic recession hit anyway.
But to hear that the school would allow such a tremendously expensive on-campus display, yet still ask academic departments to re-examine where they have been spending their money, is a clear warning for future cases.
In this economic recession, St. John’s needs to be careful where it spends its money. While the Winter Carnival’s expensive additions this past year proved entertaining, could some of that money have been used to ensure that academic departments would not have to cut certain expenditures from their budgets?
An answer to that question, in all honesty, is unnecessary. But, at the very least, let the example serve as a reminder to the University to continue to make very careful economic decisions as the year progresses.
We can only hope that rumors of explicitly stated departmental budget cuts and hiring freezes will remain just that – rumors.
But, if there ever are any budget cuts, and academics are hindered in any way, then the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the Winter Carnival will take on a whole new importance.