OBSERVER NEWS

A Policy Without a Process

This past December, SAIS Corps’ annual trip to Honduras was abruptly canceled by the SAIS administration due to their concerns over the safety of participants. The resulting controversy over the decision has highlighted the school’s lack of a consistent process regarding trip pre-approval and funding. Campus News Editor Thomas Procter reports.

Last year's SAIS group to Honduras (Credit: SAIS website)

Last year’s SAIS group to Honduras (Credit: SAIS website)

THOMAS PROCTOR
CAMPUS NEWS EDITOR

This past December, SAIS Corps’ annual trip to Honduras was abruptly canceled by the SAIS administration due to their concerns over the safety of participants. The resulting controversy over the decision has highlighted the school’s lack of a consistent process regarding trip pre-approval and funding.

According to SAIS’ policy, any school-supported travel must be pre-approved by the administration if the trip is to an unstable or dangerous area. This need for approval is generally defined by whether or not the US State Department has issued a travel warning on the country.

In the case of SAIS Corps’ Honduras plans, travel warnings had been in place for several years. The travel warning at the time of the trip stated that “crime and violence levels in Honduras remain critically high.” However, similar trips had been approved for the previous three years, and there had been no significant changes to the travel warning at the time of the rejection. Several departments at SAIS had already provided funds to the trip prior to the administration’s decision.

After discussions with various analysts from government agencies, risk management teams and the university, “the consensus was overwhelming that this was not a safe thing to do,” said Associate Dean of Operations and Finance Myron Kunka in a meeting with SAIS Corps this March. The trip was canceled two weeks prior to the student’s flights. Later on, most of the participants successfully petitioned the school for the reimbursement for some of the expenses related to their altered travel schedules.

While the pre-approval process remains on the books, the administration has largely agreed that reforms to the process are necessary. “We have a policy, but we don’t have a process,” said Noemi Crispo Rice, the chief student affairs officer, during the March meeting.

Several specific problems have become clear as a result of the Honduras trip’s cancellation. One problem central to the situation is the lack of coordination in SAIS’ funding process. There is no comprehensive database of school-sponsored trips. Instead, trips are brought to the attention of whichever departments are asked for funding.

“There wasn’t miscommunication regarding the funding, but a lack of communication between the administration, the departments and the organizers. … People had known about the trip for a while,” said Sean Griffin, a member of the SAIS Corps group.

The Honduras trip is also significant in that the US State Department had not issued a new travel warning on the country at the time of the trip’s cancellation. With no drastic change demonstrating a new threat in Honduras, students had few ways of predicting the decision or appealing the decision.

“It was reasonable to take security into account with the funding. However, the organization had their own security protocols. … Security depends on who you are working with and how well you know the local contacts,” said Griffin.

Most of these issues would have been more manageable if the rejection had been made early in the planning process. Ending funding for the trip two weeks before the group’s departure functionally prevented SAIS Corps from developing a new trip or effectively appealing the decision. It also left students in a financially precarious position as they petitioned for the coverage of some of their costs.

International trips have been an important element of the SAIS experience, giving students a more realistic image of life abroad while learning the difficulties of both development work and event planning. The school’s sponsorship of these trips has expanded the number of students that can attend these events.

However, the current process led to real consequences for the students and the non-profit based in Honduras.

“[The non-profit] was the biggest losers from this whole ordeal, because they spent thousands of dollars on non-durable supplies that ultimately went to waste, and were unable to provide work to many people in the village that were depending on it for their livelihoods,” said Daniel Wessler, one of the trip’s members.

Without addressing the problems mentioned here, future groups risk experiencing the same challenges that SAIS Corps faced with this trip.

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1 Comment on A Policy Without a Process

  1. Daniel Schwartz // April 18, 2014 at 11:44 am //

    That SAIS was sending students to Honduras was an error from the beginning. Dr. Riordan Roett (head of SAIS’ Latin American Studies Program) along with current students with years of experience in the country never came close to giving their blessing on the trip. I am very much on board with bringing groups of gringos to developing Latin America to install much needed stoves, latrines, filters, etc., but that this trip continued happening even after the State Department pulled out Peace Corps from the country boggles my mind. With so many underserved communities in Latin America it boggles my mind that SAIS Corps didn’t simply plan to go elsewhere. The error was not the SAIS administration’s decision to not allow the trip, but rather it was deciding to pull the plug at the last second; that’s disrespectful to both the hard work it takes to plan a trip like this and also the opportunity cost for students who could have used their winter break for other productive purposes. Without hindsight that this trip would be pulled, how could they have planned for anything else?

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