Throughout the quarter, Student Activities & Leadership (SAL) has sparked controversy among student groups over its open membership policy, which requires that voluntary student organizations (VSOs) “must be broadly open and welcoming to all Stanford students” and “are expected to develop recruitment and membership practices that ensure open and easy access to membership.”
Affected groups may establish a set of reasonable criteria that students must meet in order to become a member — criteria that may include attendance of a certain number of meetings or organization dues. However, the groups may not rely on applications or transcripts to determine membership. Those that do not comply with this policy lose their VSO status and their eligibility to apply for Stanford funding.
In a letter to the editor published in The Daily in early October, the associate dean and director of SAL, Nanci Howe, wrote that “the policy of open membership for recognized student organizations is not new and has been in existence for many decades.”
However, the timing of Howe’s letter and the response by student groups to the open membership policy have raised the question of why a decades-old policy has taken until now to become so controversial — and why SAL enforced the policy less in previous years.
“SAL and other University staff have met with the leaders of many groups over the last two years as they recommit to an organizational structure that embraces membership,” Howe wrote in an email to The Daily.
Two years ago, SAL conducted a random survey of 1,000 students regarding membership of VSOs, the results of which were not released. (Howe did not respond to The Daily’s request for information about the survey, including how it was conducted and what the results showed.) At an ASSU Senate meeting on Oct. 13, Howe claimed that respondents of this survey felt that the selectivity of these groups was indeed unfair.
It was also at this meeting that the ASSU introduced a resolution in favor of changes to the open membership policy. The resolution, which was authored by Senator John Luttig ’17 with input from Alpha Kappa Psi, Stanford Consulting and Stanford Finance, requests that SAL “reverts its membership policy to reflect its commitment to supporting pre-professional VSOs” by allowing these student groups to be more selective in their membership.
The resolution was tabled upon its introduction. It is currently being debated within the ASSU Student Life committee, who have met with SAL for further discussion. It has yet to be voted on by the Senate.
“A lot of people thought [the policy] was enacted this year,” Luttig said. “I think the reason why people think it was just written into the policy — the reason they weren’t feeling it before — is that SAL was not trying to enforce it. Now that SAL is trying to enforce it, people genuinely feel like it’s an entirely new rule.”
Luttig said that the student groups to whom he reached out “all have a disincentive to directly confront SAL and oppose their open membership policy [because] SAL has complete control over every student group.”
“That’s why I wrote the bill in the first place — because there was no other avenue that these student groups felt that they could express their concerns over SAL’s open membership policy,” Luttig added.
A student group speaks out
The Daily reached out to a number of VSOs to be featured in this piece, and nearly all of them did not respond to our requests. In fact, one of the groups that initially agreed to be interviewed recanted when asked to speak on-record because its co-president “[didn’t] want there to be any backlash […] if [they] say something that isn’t well-received by SAL.”
However, one pre-professional VSO agreed to speak with The Daily the on-record. One of the group’s leaders explained its membership practices prior to the open membership policy and elaborated on how the organization has been adversely affected by the policy.
“Open membership dilutes the quality of the experience that we are able to offer our members,” the leader said. “By having this open membership, it just means that anyone who meets the minimum membership objective criteria will be allowed to join [our group] and get access to all these projects and mentorship.”
The group has not been allowed to judge applicants based on interviews since 2013, and its application process now is held over a week-long recruitment that features a number of events that applicants are required to attend in order to join the club. Although the open membership policy lists “attendance at a certain number of meetings” as an acceptable criteria for determining membership, it comes with the catch that organizations must accept every student who attends the necessary number of events.
Pre-professional groups often like to keep a small size for two main reasons, explained one of the organization’s leader. The first is that the companies they deal with can only take on a handful of students at a time. This means that the group has to be very selective about who gets assigned to work on projects.
“If we were to open up and 50-100 people want to join, then we would not be able to put everyone on a project,” the leader said.
Second, veteran members of the group are assigned a newcomer to look after and train. The organization explained that under open membership, mentors would no longer be able to adequately establish one-to-one relationships with a mentee. As an alternative, SAL suggested that the group team up with BEAM, the career education center, to hold business-related workshops — something that the organization feels BEAM can already do in classes and would not compensate for the loss of a mentorship system.
“What we really want to do is preserve our identity and the quality of the experience for our members, as well as not have this painstakingly built-up, tight community be broken up because of the open membership policy,” the leader said.
VSOs: Know your rights
Pablo Lozano ’18, proxy for Senator David Wintermeyer ’17, who is abroad this quarter, is also a member of the Senate’s student life committee, along with Luttig. Lozano spoke at length about VSOs and their frayed relationship with SAL.
“There’s a lot of communication that’s not being done between what VSOs have the right to do and what SAL says they can and can’t do,” Lozano said.
Suppose a student group was to ask SAL what they could or could not do; Lozano said that VSOs that did seek such information had to navigate SAL’s website, which he found to be anything but straightforward.
“One thing that I think SAL has faltered on is, when I asked them questions about certain things, they made it seem like the information was easily accessible,” Lozano said. “To be completely honest, if you’re a student group trying to find out very case-specific rules, I don’t have time to read through 10 different documents telling me what my rights are.”
“If I wasn’t a member of SAL, I wouldn’t know whether to search for this specific keyword,” he added. “So how does a student who doesn’t know these phrases search this on their website?”
Lozano said that Luttig’s resolution fights for rights that VSOs already have — for instance, the right to clearly state a group’s expectations of its members (and to kick out members if they do not commit) — but only conditionally; these rights only exist if VSOs write them into their constitution. In other words, VSOs have to be aware of these rights in the first place for them to actually apply. This is further complicated by the fact that the rights VSOs have — as well as the rules they must follow — do not change after they have gone through the application process.
“I don’t think it’s been clearly communicated that the regulations and commitments that you have to make as you apply are the same exact regulations and commitments that you get after you apply,” Lozano said.
According to Lozano, all of the relevant information can be found on the application page, but a pre-existing group is “not going to think to look there” — which gets especially problematic when SAL’s guidelines can change from year to year. If student groups cannot access updated rules, they may be operating under procedures that are in violation of current policy.
“I don’t think that should be happening,” Lozano said. “[VSOs] should know what they can do and stay within those boundaries — versus knowing that this worked 10 years ago, and that every year it was just what was handed down.”
Even though the rules — and the leadership of student groups that follow them — can change a lot over a student’s four years, SAL personnel can stick around for much longer.
“Student groups… want an implementation of some policy quicky,” Lozano said. “Our time here is limited, but theirs is not.”
“SAL is willing to work,” he added. “I just don’t think they’re willing to work in the time frame that VSOs want them to work in.”
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.