Stanford to bar students on leaves of absence from VSOs despite remote learning

Aug. 26, 2020, 8:38 p.m.

Stanford will not allow students who take leaves of absence to participate in or hold leadership positions in voluntary student organizations (VSOs), according to the University’s Aug. 13 “Re-Approaching Stanford” newsletter. The decision comes even though most undergraduate education will be delivered remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision to enforce this policy for the 2020-21 academic year marks a reversal of the policy’s suspension by Stanford’s Office of Student Engagement (OSE) during the spring 2020 quarter, when VSO leaders who took leaves of absence were permitted to keep their positions.

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sarah Church wrote that only “students who are enrolled or on their Flex Terms will be able to continue their involvement in student organizations.”

Before the 2020-2021 academic year, students were expected to enroll in autumn, winter and spring quarters, with the summer quarter serving as an optional term. This year, Stanford is expecting undergraduates to enroll in three of the four academic quarters in autumn, winter, spring and summer, with the option of taking one quarter off as a Flex Term, in which students are not enrolled in classes but retain access to university services and resources. 

Financial officers of VSOs must be enrolled students, and are not eligible to retain their position if they choose to take a leave of absence or are on their Flex Term “because of the level of liability and financial responsibility they carry in that role.”

OSE oversees and supports more than 650 registered undergraduate and graduate VSOs. OSE’s student organization policy on membership states that “student organization members must be currently registered students in good academic standing with the university.”

The policy also clarifies that “students on ‘leaves of absence’ or ‘suspension’ cannot serve as members or leaders and must fully disassociate themselves.”

A number of students have expressed concern that the enforcement of this policy in the upcoming remote academic year could be detrimental to student organizations and leaders.

Julia Thompson ’21, an undergraduate student majoring in aeronautics and astronautics, said that the policy “forces students who may not have the resources to be successful in online classes to not take leaves of absences and enroll remotely.” She added that racial injustices, unstable home environments, the impact of COVID-19 and other barriers to academic success may limit many students’ ability to engage in academic responsibilities.

At Stanford, Thompson holds leadership positions in several VSOs, including the Stanford Student Space Initiative, Fascinate, Applied Cybersecurity, Society for International Affairs at Stanford (SIAS) and Health Education for Lifetime Partnerships. 

Thompson, who lives in a rural community, told The Daily she has difficulty connecting to the internet to attend online classes and complete coursework. She noted that it would be nearly impossible for her and her two brothers to engage in online classes at the same time, given the lack of high-speed internet in her home. 

“Moving elsewhere,” Thompson said, “would require paying rent, and I would need to take a job or internship for the fall quarter. And to do that, I would need to take a leave of absence.”

The University’s decision, however, requires her to choose between a leave of absence and her leadership positions.

Thompson started a petition on Aug. 13 that calls on President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Brubaker-Cole to “reconsider [the] decision to ban students from participating in and leading VSOs while on a leave of absence.” At the time of publication, the petition had more than 180 signatures, comprised of undergraduate and graduate student leaders and a wide variety of student organizations on campus.

The petition emphasizes that “VSOs provide crucial resources, communities, and opportunities for students,” and “the loss of student leaders who are on a leave of absence will also mean that many smaller or newer organizations will cease to exist.”

OSE requires each VSO to have at least three student leaders and at least ten members. The petition claims that “without enough enrolled members to continue leading the group, many VSOs will be forced out of existence over the coming year.” Since some cultural organizations tend to be smaller in size, “many students of color and international students will lose a critical resource and community.”

Lily Liu ’21, president of SIAS, told The Daily that she signed the petition because she believes that students who take leaves of absence should be able to participate in VSOs, as these organizations can provide critical support to students while away from campus.

Liu said that she is “extremely disappointed by the school’s lack of adaptability,” especially since “many students are facing financial difficulties or personal crises that prevent them from enrolling.”

The University’s decision puts Liu and other SIAS leaders in “a cruel dilemma: choosing between personal well-being and responsibility.”

Senior Director of Student Engagement Snehl Naik shared an Aug. 19 email with The Daily, which he sent to student leaders to clarify the upcoming year’s policies. In the email, Naik wrote that “taking a leave of absence from the university includes taking a leave from most experiences of and related to the university, including involvement as a leader or member with student organizations.”

Acknowledging the desire among students to remain connected to the Stanford community during leaves of absence, Naik added that students on leave can still attend public events of VSOs.

Naik told The Daily that his office granted exceptions to this policy during spring 2020 to be flexible and support students in a time of great uncertainty. Exceptions would not continue in the upcoming academic year “now that we’ve had some time to pause and rethink how we approach the upcoming academic year,” Naik said.

While the University’s leave of absence policy is beyond OSE’s purview, Naik and Jerald Adamos, assistant dean of students and associate director of the Asian American Activities Center, co-chaired the Phase 2 Student Organizations implementation team, which made recommendations to Vice Provosts Brubaker-Cole and Church on how students can remain engaged during their Flex Term or leave of absence.

According to Naik, the implementation team initially recommended that the University allow VSO financial officers to keep their positions during Flex Terms. The vice provosts’ steering committee, however, decided the liability and responsibilities these roles held required financial officers to be enrolled students.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs did not immediately respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Naik said he was concerned by the assertion that some VSOs will cease to exist because of the leave of absence policy, noting that OSE is currently reviewing membership policies that require a minimum of ten students and developing guidelines to streamline the re-entry of inactive student organizations.

Naik wants Stanford students to know that OSE “is here for student engagement, we want student engagement to happen, and we are operating from a framework of kindness and grace.”

“And if there are ideas,” Naik added, “please share them with us because we are listening.”

Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’

Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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