By Ellie Bowen
One year after Student Activities and Leadership (SAL) began rigorously enforcing its policy of open membership in student groups, the benefits of increased student membership have for some organizations come at the cost of financial strain and new administrative challenges.
SAL’s open membership policy prohibits the use of applications, resumes, transcripts and interviews to determine membership in voluntary student organizations (VSOs), and it does not allow for membership tiers within an organization. This policy solely permits “a few basic expectations to meet and sustain membership” such as attendance at meetings and events.
According to the SAL website, open membership aims to increase the inclusivity of student organizations, and make them “welcoming to all Stanford students that are interested in supporting the mission of the student organization.”
According to Nanci Howe, associate dean and director of SAL, the University has significantly increased its enforcement of this policy in the last two years due to “complaints from many students, especially frosh and sophomores who often experienced great difficulty in joining selective student organizations.” In response to these complaints, SAL conducted a random sample survey and “learned that 36% of students surveyed felt that selectivity of student organizations was extremely competitive and some felt unfair.”
Howe emphasized that the policy is essential to cultivating a welcoming and open student organization community.
“The goal of the policy is to give all students an opportunity to participate fully in a range of activities the university has to offer,” Howe wrote in an email to The Daily. “Through participation in these organizations, students develop leadership and interpersonal skills that will serve them beyond their years at Stanford and the organizations benefit from a wide range of student perspectives.”
Club leaders laud membership growth, inclusivity
Despite initial concerns that open membership “dilutes the quality of experience,” many VSO leaders support the policy’s intention, expressing their desire to include anyone who is passionate about the mission of their group. They also noted some unexpected benefits that came about as a result of reconsidering their organizational structure to better align with open membership.
Stanford in Government (SIG) chair Libby Scholz ’17 stated that as SIG started moving toward fully implementing the policy, general membership started expanding and is “the largest ever this year.” Scholz conveyed excitement about the energy, opportunity and ideas brought about by new members.
“We can do a lot more because we have more people,” Scholz said. “I hope we take advantage of everyone who is enthusiastic about politics.”
Chris Yuan ’18, co-president of Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES), said that the open membership policy also makes the selection process less arbitrary. Instead of evaluating students based on limited information gathered in an application form, club leaders now have the chance to fully evaluate students’ passion and potential based on participation and commitment.
“It’s sometimes difficult to tell a lot about a person through a single interview, and a lot of times all we can do is to make a guess based on what we’ve been told and what we can see,” Yuan said. “Having a kind of extended trial period this year, when people were on the team for a couple of weeks and doing the work, allows us to better figure out who’s not really in it, and who actually cares.”
At the same time, Stanford Women in Business co-Presidents Anna Gurevich ’17 and Kitty Kwan ’17 noted that the absence of membership selection helped the group achieve greater diversity and inclusivity.
Gurevich echoed the optimism of BASES and SIG, stating that the policy “allows us to refocus on our mission of reaching as many women interested in business as possible.” SWIB has taken the opportunity to clarify language in their constitution to be more inclusive and emphasize that SWIB encompasses all students who identify as women in business and their allies.
Logistical challenges due to larger membership
However, the leaders of SIG and SWIB also acknowledged the administrative difficulties that come with catering to a larger membership. Scholz noted that SIG has faced some monetary strain as a result of the policy because increased membership inherently “takes more funds.”
Likewise, although overall enthusiastic about the benefits of open membership, Gurevich and Kwan have noted some problematic effects such as smaller attendance at events. They attribute this to the significant expansion of the group, saying that as membership increases, it becomes more difficult to keep people accountable and involved.
Yuan added that the new policy takes away some of the club’s autonomy, especially leaders’ ability to lead and make independent decisions about their membership.
“The fact that we were selecting people previously is a good learning experience for our leaders,” Yuan said. “They got the opportunity to take on that leadership role and really think about the people that they want, the skills that they want, the type of personalities that would make a really diverse… balanced and enthusiastic team.”
Yuan also cited other challenges he faced as a student group leader, such as setting a common club vision and designing a coherent leadership structure that caters to the larger membership.
Policy enforcement too inflexible, some organizations say
Other VSOs appreciate the ideal of pursuing a more inclusive student body, but take issue with the way SAL is enforcing the policy, arguing that it prevents them from running their organizations effectively.
The leader of one pre-professional organization, Alpha Kappa Psi (AKPsi), believes that there is a mismatch between SAL’s ideals and its practices. President Grant Means ’16 M.S. ‘16, who is currently completing his co-term at Stanford, expressed a need for more flexible stipulations. Means argued that basing membership upon objective criteria is not always feasible when the organization’s aim is more nuanced and, as a result, the criteria harder to meet.
AKPsi is under SAL’s jurisdiction, rather than the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC), because it is all-gender and has a pre-professional business orientation. Means explained that AKPsi must remain somewhat exclusive to adhere to the constraints placed on it by the national branch of its fraternity, such as membership limits and payment requirements.
He added that AKPsi inevitably violates the open membership policy as a result, which has led to reproof from SAL in the form of emails that threaten to end SAL funding for the club. Means believes this criticism is both misguided and unhelpful, pointing out that AKPsi is “more gender inclusive and financially inclusive than any other Greek life organization.” Means said the tone of the negotiations with SAL has been demanding rather than collaborative.
“[We] can’t focus on ways to improve the community if we can’t even improve ourselves.” Means said. “The student community would be better served if SAL was willing to gradually help student leaders implement desired policies and give them to adjust to growing pains.”
Allen Yu ’17, president of Stanford Finance and Stanford Consulting, echoed these sentiments. He expressed that the additional stipulations imposed on VSOs, such as mandatory workshops and budget requirements, have added pressure on leaders.
“The biggest challenge this whole situation poses is that there are a lot of hoops that SAL has been making organizations go through that make it very hard for students to contribute to the Stanford community,” Yu said.
Meanwhile, SAL has maintained its rigorous enforcement of this policy.
In an email to The Daily, Howe commented, “If [groups that are struggling with the open membership expectation] cannot meet university policy they will eventually lose the privilege of university recognition and all the benefits this status brings including funding opportunities, space and use of the Stanford name.”
Howe explained that the policy ought to benefit both students and VSOs by giving all students the “opportunity to participate fully in a range of activities the university has to offer,” while organizations gain “a wide range of student perspectives”.
The adjustment has clearly been more difficult for some student groups than others. As SAL negotiations continue, Means and Yu’s difficulties with the policy recalls an op-ed last year that argued that some student groups might just “need a certain degree of exclusivity” to “create effective and supportive communities”.
However, several pre-professional organizations seem to have embraced the spirit of the policy despite initial logistical difficulties.
Gurevich said, “Even if it’s challenging, it allows us to refocus on our mission of reaching as many women interested in business as possible.”
Celia Chen contributed reporting to this article.
Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu and Celia Chen at xinuo ‘at’ stanford.edu.