The real cost of Presidents' Ball
Misreporting, accounting errors evident after analysis
The DeVos Place ballroom is illuminated by multicolored lights as Grand Valley State University students of all class standings gather around the stage. "Are there any Lakers in the house?" GVSU President Thomas Haas shouts over a roaring crowd of cheers. "We've got the best students; we've got the best faculty. Did I say we have the best students? In America!"
A longstanding GVSU tradition designed to be a celebration of both the university president and the student senate president, Presidents’ Ball is the largest (non-athletic) student event at the university. The event consistently attracts more than 4,000 GVSU students and community members, and this year, the DeVos Place hosted a crowd of 4,500 people that included students, administrators, faculty, staff and alumni.
However, what many attendees may not know is the cost for creating such a grand night has totaled close to a quarter million dollars the past two years.
They also may not know that, rather than running a profit, as university officials told the student senate, the event lost thousands of dollars in 2016 and 2017.
In 2017, student senate allocated $45,000 to Presidents’ Ball from the university’s Student Life Fund—a fund comprised of $1,235,000 for the 2017-18 academic year, according to Brian Copeland, associate vice president for business and finance. Monies from GVSU’s general fund ($690,000) and housing and dining ($545,000) make up the Student Life Fund, he said.
In other words, the Student Life Fund is made up of students’ tuition money.
In 2018, senate dropped the Presidents’ Ball allocation to $40,000. The rationale for this decrease—presented in the student senate finance committee’s “FY (Fiscal Year) 18 Budget Proposal”—stated that the past two years, Presidents’ Ball has turned a $10,000 profit carryover into the following year.
“If the budget is reduced, it will reduce this carryover and allow the money to be used in another beneficial area of student life at Grand Valley while still leaving Presidents’ Ball with a $5,000 buffer,” the document states.
LeaAnn Tibbe, associate director of student life, recommended the cut, according to the budget proposal.
But an exclusive analysis of Presidents’ Ball budget documents obtained from a student senator reveals that even after a $5,000 increase from the student senate, the much-hyped event generated a loss of nearly $10,000 in 2017.
Presidents’ Ball expenses totaled $138,790.74 in 2017, the last year for which data is available.
The event generated $84,507 in revenue (from ticket sales) and was also subsidized by student senate ($45,000), for a total of $129,507.
As a result, the 2017 event had a $9,283.74 deficit, budget documents said.
Tibbe explained that the increase in cost for the 2017 Presidents’ Ball was largely due to the switch to online ticketing, which cost around $10,000 more than physically selling tickets at the 2020 Information Desk the previous year. To keep the ticket cost down for students, Tibbe said that the service fees—ranging $2 to $3 per ticket—are absorbed into the budget.
“Because we went to that electronic ticketing system, that cost me about $11,000,” Tibbe said. “So last year (2017) we did have a deficit.”
Expenses exceeded revenues in 2016, too.
The Grand Valley Lanthorn's analysis found that Presidents’ Ball 2016 also had a multi-thousand-dollar loss despite reporting a $10,000 profit. In addition to the documents submitted to the student senate, Tibbe said the event had “a surplus of about $10,000” in 2016.
In 2016, prior to the online ticketing, the event was reported to have turned a $11,647.90 profit, according to the 2016 Presidents’ Ball Financial Report.
But the event did not, in fact, profit that year either.
SMG, a management firm responsible for DeVos Place, Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Performance Hall, forgot to bill GVSU for the 2016 Presidents’ Ball.
As a result, the only amount GVSU paid SMG in 2016 was a deposit of $5,450.
“In 2016, we only paid the deposit on the venue,” Tibbe said. “So, the deposit is $5,400. We put the deposit on it, but obviously you have to pay for the rental of the room. We pay for all the security; we hire for that, all the staffing that goes into it. They never billed us for it, and if they did, it was just never processed through our accounting office.”
SMG declined to comment.
When placing the 2017 deposit, the Office of Student Life (OSL) made a payment of about $16,000, according to Tibbe, to SMG to cover the remaining costs, after the firm notified Tibbe of the missing money.
Despite making the additional payment, the number was not accounted for or added into the 2016 Presidents’ Ball budget.
After adding the missing $16,000 to the 2016 budget, the total expenses figure rises to $125,451.10. Presidents’ Ball 2016 brought in $121,099 in revenue (comprised of the $40,000 in senate allocation and ticket sales).
The numbers produce a $4,352.10 deficit, not the $10,000 profit Tibbe described.
The trend of deficits may continue, university officials said.
Although the numbers for this year’s Presidents’ Ball will not be available until after spring break, Bob Stoll, associate director of student life, said via email that “currently they are projecting to be over budget which they will need to cover from other funding where they may be under in their expense.”
Tibbe confirmed Stoll’s assessment, citing the cost of electronic ticketing.
“This year (2018), I expect I may have a deficit again because my electronic tickets are going to be just as expensive this year—maybe even more,” she said.
Officials from the OSL assert the event’s benefit of creating special memories, justifying its cost.
“It’s a celebration," Stoll said. "Grand Valley is a special place to be. ... I don’t know of any other schools that do anything like this, but for us to make that all come together, and Grand Rapids is a special place with a great facility for us to do that. … It’s one of those memories, I think, when you leave college that you remember going to the Presidents’ Ball."
Previously held in the Kirkhof Center, Presidents' Ball has grown from a couple hundred people to the thousands who attend today.
Student senate president Jonathan Bowman said that Presidents’ Ball is not a “profit event, ” adding that the volume of students who attend and their pleasure at the ball justify the money the senate allocates to it.
“I think the last few years we’ve sold out of tickets,” he said. “I think that just shows how much students enjoy this event, and it’s a tradition that has been going on for many, many years at the university, so I think it’s something students really look forward to in the winter semester.
“And, I mean, that’s what we’re here for—to serve the student needs and wants.”