Forget “No Meal Plan:” We Will Pay
Streets of Blagoevgrad still remember the day of Feb. 29, 2012. “No Meal Plan!” and “We will not pay!” echoed through the town, as protesters were making their way to AUBG’s Main Building, blocking traffic and attracting the attention of local media. Four years later, that echo is still disturbingly loud in BAC’s Auditorium, where AUBG students, members of faculty and President Stratsi Kulinski gathered together for the Student Government session on Wednesday, Oct. 19.
As students were filling in the Auditorium, Kulinski pulled out his phone to take a picture that he later posted on Facebook. “You, guys, are official!” he said after SG members had opened the session with due accordance to the By-Laws and invited him to take the floor. “I don’t think I can be accused of being too diplomatic,” the President, placing his hands in a steepling position, said and asked all the attendees to speak their mind.
The agenda for the meeting included three issues — the meal plan, the tuition, and the budget of the Student Government. Over the past years, the issues with the meal plan and the increasing tuition fees were part of an ongoing debate within the AUBG community. The problem with the SG budget, nevertheless, arose this year. The Student Government received $28,143.00 for the academic year of 2016/2017, compared to $28,681.00 last year. The unexpected decrease with $538 left SG with no choice but to cut the amount of money given to the student clubs.
“AUBG has a big financial problem, not existential, with this year’s deficit of $2.4 million,” Kulinski started his answer on the first question regarding the $300 meal plan. The president also said that this year less funding for scholarships is available from donors. Moreover, he explained that only 193 new students were admitted, though 270 new AUBGers were expected in the Fall 2016 semester. The canteen, he said, lost almost half a million dollars last year, so the new meal plan gave the canteen guaranteed revenue. “A meal plan is not loosing money, it is prepaying for food,” Kulinski added.
However, the students’ concern is not so much about the $300 that need to be paid. They, in fact, are much more vocal about the quality of food and service. “It is not an easy equation to solve. A lot of work was done over the summer to analyze what can be fixed,” the President continued. As it turns out, after 300 signatures expressing discontent with the dining services were put on his table at the end of last semester, Kulinski assigned the Administration with the task of solving the problem. It gave an impetus to opening the negotiations about changing the dining management. “I was optimistic, but, unfortunately, things worked out in a different direction,” he said.
According to President Kulinski, out of five interested companies, only two submitted their proposals to take over AUBG’s canteen. However, one of them was “financially bad” and the second one was “somewhat adequate, but not comparable to what is done today.” He admitted he doesn’t want to lose the profit and the revenue of the canteen. “I need enough money to pay the faculty and staff,” Kulinski said.
“I cannot make the meal plan go away, the canteen will lose its profit. The staff is underpaid. They receive barely above the minimal wage. And the problem is not so much about the cost — it is the quality, presentation of food. It will take at least a couple of months to improve the performance,” Kulinski added.
Carl Addoumieh, a third-year student, spoke of incidents, when AUBG students found worms, bugs, or nails in their meals. The President said he hadn’t heard of such incident before and gave a somewhat devious answer, “These are only a few days of bad service. Nobody says anything about the good quality of food the other 360 days of the year.” He then addressed students with “I don’t avoid the place like the plague” and “I eat in the canteen all the time.”
Moving onto the next question about the increasing tuition, President Kulinski shed the light on his past as a member of the Board of Trustees. “I can be theoretically blamed for the increase,” he said. However, he added that it was the last time he voted for such a measure at the meeting of the Board that was held in New York last year. He promises not to recommend any tuition increase at the next meeting: “I will be recommending tuition freeze for current students, and, perhaps, the tuition decrease for prospective students.”
Nonetheless, this aspiration seems not to be shared by everyone based on the comment from the audience right after Kulinski’s promissory remark regarding the tuition freeze. During one of the promotional events in Sofia, as it turns out, AUBG Admissions acknowledged the fact that tuition costs might see an increase in the nearest future. The president was genuinely surprised by this revelation and promised to investigate the matter.
“There is no decision or proposal to increase the tuition, and I am fairly optimistic to see good results next fall,” he told the audience.
Kulinski dedicated a third of the session’s time to his vision on how to improve AUBG’s financial situation. According to his plan, a new business strategy includes a more aggressive behavior on the US market, a bigger focus on AUBG’s graduate program in Sofia, and potential partnership with Bocconi University in Milan that would allow AUBG students to study both at AUBG and Bocconi University on a double diploma program.
“We never had a closer relationship. So on the donor front I consider AUBG on a good track,” the president added with regard to university’s long-established relationship with donors like Open Society Foundations and America For Bulgaria Foundation.
Albeit AUBG’s success in its relationship with donors, there is still much to work on. As the President stated, the question is how to ensure new scholarships and attract students. AUBG is currently spending money on existing commitments, and the challenge for the university is to optimize its spendings.
In the light of AUBG’s financial hardships, it was inevitable not to touch upon the necessity of spending money on the newly built sports facilities and Aspire center. Calling it “tough” to talk about AUBG’s new sports facilities, the president said that the decision to build it was made before he entered office.
“We have it, and we should make the best out of it,” he said.
As for Aspire, he thinks that the 10,000 leva spent on it is not a big amount of money, and that the space can be attractive to prospective students. “We should stop building new buildings, we should start investing in people, students, and professors,” he then added.
A discussion of the SG budget was also put on the agenda. How are the activity fees being allocated? Where does the money go? – neither the Student Government nor President Kulinski were able to find the answers on those questions. “I don’t know how the student budget is allocated. Nobody wanted to reduce the budget. I will try to increase it, and I don’t want to cut it, as we need to put more effort and resources into the student body,” the President affirmed.
The discussion quickly moved to the part regarding the activity fees and the fact that roughly seven per cent of the total money collected from students actually goes to the Student Government to be allocated between the clubs. President Kulinski wasn’t able to say where the rest of the money flows and advised to request the information from the Administration.
President Kulinski’s final message was clear, “It is not me versus you. We are on this boat together! I will always be open to fix the wrongdoings if I can.”