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Voluntary Student Organizations’ selectivity raises concerns

As students will head to the polls next week to vote on special fees for some of Stanford’s Voluntary Student Organizations (VSOs), concern has been raised that some VSOs — all of which are supposed to be broadly accessible to students — have become too selective.

Nanci Howe, associate dean and director of student activities and leadership (SAL), said that while some selective procedures are acceptable, others violate the mission of VSOs to be broadly open.

“The criteria for selecting members should be objective and is critical to the operation of the group,” Howe said. “For example, a cappella groups have auditions and everyone has the opportunity to audition. As long as those auditions are open to everyone and there is a fair and non-discriminatory process for choosing who can participate and be selected, then we would consider that within the guidelines of objective criteria.”

Elise Timtim ’13, chair of the VSO Stanford in Government (SIG), said selectivity is sometimes necessary to whittle down demand.

“It has to be [selective] in a structural sense. The organization has been the same for a long time and is organized into different committees,” she said. “There is a huge demand, which we’re still trying to accommodate.”

Stanford in Government (SIG) is a VSO that uses special fees — funding that will be voted on by the student body next week — to fund its activities, such as funding summer fellowships and stipends. SIG only accepts members at the beginning of the year through an application-based process, which Timtim says is “pretty competitive.”

“This year, we received more than twice the number of applicants we could take which is unfortunate, because the whole point of the group is to get students involved in policy,” she said.

Last year, undergraduates voted overwhelmingly — almost 80 percent in favor — to fund SIG.

Other VSOs such as the Stanford Pre-Business Association (SPBA) and the Stanford Federalist Society rely on general fees, which are approved by the Undergraduate Senate and — because they request less than $6,000 — not subject to approval from the student body.

According to Feyi Lawoyin ’13, SPBA president, the level of group selectivity varies depending on whether members want to take on leadership roles.

“All it takes to be a member is to be part of the mailing list, and anyone can attend our events,” she said. “We only have applications for those who want to become a core member. Currently, we have 15 core members.”

SPBA also recruits for associates in the fall, accepting “a dozen or so freshmen and sophomores.” According to Lawoyin, the application serves as a mechanism to identify students who would take the club seriously.

“The application process is just to deter from anyone who wants to sign up and not do anything necessarily,” she said. “Some students join student groups and are not active because they’re not getting paid, for example.”

Stanford Consulting — a VSO that does not use either special or general fees from the University — has had to turn away up to 90 percent of interested students.

“We’ve had to talk about how we choose members,” said Tim Shi ’13, Stanford Consulting’s chief executive officer. “We’re open to the Stanford community, but there are limited spots because there are only so many cases. We have to stay small.”

Stanford Consulting recruits new members every fall and conducts two rounds of interviews in addition to applications, accepting only a fraction of the students that apply.

“We typically receive 150 to 200 applications a year. We take a class of about 20 new consultants and put them through rigorous interviews that mimic the consulting process,” Shi said. “We want students who are strong problem solvers, think quickly on their feet, are articulate and come across as really smart, which is what consulting firms also look for.”

However, most VSOs on campus solicit members through an open casting call.

“They just have to get on our mailing list and show up to our events. There is no application but students are self-selecting,” said Ilan Wurman J.D. ’13, co-president of the Stanford Federalist Society.

All VSOs need to meet SAL’s criteria for approval and draft a constitution to be reviewed, approved and filed by the University. If SAL believes a certain VSO is becoming too selective, these founding documents may be referenced in meetings with administrators.

“What we do is we work with those groups, sit down and look at their constitution and go back to their philosophy, which we think is a very important part of Stanford and Stanford student life,” Howe said.

While she said she “cannot answer” as to which specify which groups SAL has worked with to discuss selectivity guidelines, Howe did cite a particular instance in which SAL worked with a student group to remind them of their goals as a VSO.

“The one thing I should say is that [SAL Associate Director] Snehal Naik has met with [Stanford Consulting] and has talked to them about rethinking the mission of the group because it seemed that there were issues in making clear it is a student organization for a learning experience, not for making money,” she said. “So he just actually talked to them [in March.]”

Howe emphasized that most VSOs receive guidance from SAL on many governance items.

“We work with groups on membership issues and other issues like this periodically because groups transition every year,” she said. “Not just about membership but a slew of other things.”

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