Recall, if you will, your first visit to Stanford. Perhaps you were an ambitious, awkward high school junior shuffling starry-eyed through an official tour. Maybe you were fleeing the stresses of impending AP tests by attending Admit Weekend. Regardless, it’s a safe bet that somewhere along the way, someone excitedly told you about the diverse opportunities available to undergraduates, epitomized by the 600-plus student groups on campus. Yet how many student groups are active and adding value to Stanford? A tenth? A third? The sheer number of student groups created every quarter raises questions about whether each group truly serves a well-defined and unique purpose.
Though Stanford students like to brag about the humility of campus culture, the abundance of voluntary student organizations (VSOs) seems to challenge this ideal. No amount of tanning on the Oval can undo the ambitious mentality of achievement that led many of us to Stanford. Students who apply for prestigious postgraduate scholarships or employment know that selection committees look favorably upon individuals who have founded new organizations. As a result, the campus framework for entrepreneurship tends to reify initiatives that are new and revolutionary, fitting neatly into the rhetoric of innovation.
Part of the problem lies in the way new VSOs are often founded; a great deal of focus is placed on launching the initiative, but comparatively little time is invested in building a sustainable organizational infrastructure. As a result, once the enthusiastic founders graduate, many VSOs decline and eventually become inactive. Creating new student groups is not inherently problematic, but the impulse to found new organizations often leads to groups that duplicate each others’ missions. This problem is not unique to Stanford – indeed, it is common in nonprofits all over the world, and it stems from the hubris inherent in a founding mentality. By being more cognizant about the dynamics of sustainable versus unsustainable student groups, VSO leaders can mitigate this problem.
Resolving this issue is difficult, as it means shifting the focus of Stanford culture from one that exalts the founders of new entities to one that gives credit to those who breathe new life into existing organizations – a far less glamorous role. Yet while entrepreneurship, as embodied in the current campus mentality, is the source of the problem, it may also be the solution. Reviving struggling student groups requires entrepreneurial skills at the highest level – aggressive fundraising and recruiting, adept management and passionate vision. A truly entrepreneurial campus would place as much emphasis and value on sustaining and reviving existing student groups as it does upon founding new ones. This means having the humility to recognize the value in realizing other people’s ideas, as well as one’s own.
Stanford students are infatuated with the rhetoric of entrepreneurship, but this means that entrepreneurship is defined in dangerously narrow terms. The Editorial Board recommends that the ASSU execute a comprehensive review of VSOs, identifying areas where student groups can combine or collaborate. This process would allow the ASSU to conduct a needs assessment of student group resource needs, as well as an evaluation of the ASSU’s own successes and failures in aiding VSOs. The hundreds of VSOs on campus offer a false promise to prospective students. By focusing on quality, rather than quantity, Stanford can build an entrepreneurial culture that is both effective and sustainable.