Petition to Student Activities and Leadership to end open membership

Opinion by Neil Chaudhary
Oct. 8, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Ask almost any student group on campus and they will tell you the same thing: “SAL [Student Activities & Leadership] is suffocating us.” SAL has been enforcing recent changes to the guidelines for student organizations that have been diluting the value of the Stanford student life experience and contributing to a decline in program quality. Specifically, the SAL requirement for “open membership,” where all students broadly interested in a student group must be accepted, is destroying community building efforts, is infeasible with limited resources and space and is difficult to uniformly enforce. If you agree, please scroll down and sign the petition for administration to change its policies. If you do not, please continue reading to understand the effect of SAL’s “open membership” policies.

Open membership requires all VSOs (voluntary student groups) to accept any student into its programs if students meet basic requirements. The specific language on the SAL website mandates that VSOs “advertise and recruit broadly, giving all students access to their organization and its activities provided they meet basic membership requirements” and that VSOs “are not permitted to hold initiation activities or ‘tests’ as part of a membership selection process.” Since “basic requirements” can constitute something as minimal as joining a mailing list, attending information sessions or expressing interest online, these changes to SAL guidelines essentially means that most VSOs will have to accept all applicants interested in their programs.

The consequences of such a policy are catastrophic, especially for the creation of supportive communities on campus. When we think of communities we belong to as students, we typically think of small, tight-knit groups. A necessary ingredient to these communities is exclusivity — the very fact that they are small makes them valuable and allows individuals to bond on a deeper level. If student groups had to accept everyone and were not allowed “tests,” then all social and professional groups, ranging from the business frat AKPsi to the Latino brotherhood Hermanos to the multicultural sorority Sigma Theta Psi, would have to accept all applicants and would not be able to host rush events (considered “tests”). Students cannot develop cohesive and strong communities in such large settings, and, without events to filter committed candidates from superficial ones, the entire social bonding experience becomes much less effective.

In addition to community, many student groups have limited resources and space, which require selectivity and exclusivity for programs to continue. For example, Stanford in Government only has a limited number of summer fellowships and stipends but, as a VSO, would need to either broadly accept all applicants or randomly select from those who apply. This would mean that either selective programs cannot exist because there are not enough positions to accommodate for demand or that selective programs employ randomization, in which unqualified candidates could be assigned to positions. Historically, we have seen that the recruiting process is crucial in ensuring that committed, quality candidates are selected. A representative from Stanford Consulting disclosed that they usually have a rigorous interview process to ensure that those they accept “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.” Without selectivity in recruiting, organizations from BASES to CS+Social Good to Stanford Finance, would have to either eradicate their programs or significantly sacrifice on the quality and organizational fit of candidates.

Because exclusivity is so essential to student organizations, it will be extremely difficult to uniformly enforce open membership. Without exclusivity, many of the core programs within various student groups will die. As a result, in order to survive, student groups are already adapting new ways to work around SAL’s open membership laws. “Coffee chats” are replacing interviews and posters advertising various programs are replacing words like “Apply” with “Join.” These changes reflect the fact that student organizations will find ways to be exclusive because a certain degree of exclusivity is necessary for certain student organizations to exist and perform a meaningful role.

SAL’s reasoning for open membership is that it believes that, by definition, student organizations should broadly serve students who express general interest in the activity. Given that Stanford is already an exclusive place to be admitted into, SAL believes that VSOs should not add an extra layer of selectivity for students to get involved in activities. However, SAL’s recent enforcement of “open membership” is antithetical to the very nature of student groups. We need a certain degree of exclusivity within our student groups to create effective and supportive communities, to generate programs that have limited resources, to select for qualified and committed candidates and to have an enforceable and realistic set of VSO guidelines. For too long, SAL has attempted to control the nature and the pace of student activities on campus without soliciting feedback from the student body itself. SAL is not in touch with the needs of the everyday Stanford student and must change its policy toward open membership to allow students to thrive.

If you agree that SAL’s requirement for open membership must go, please sign the petition here


Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ 

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