Widgets Magazine


Petition to Student Activities and Leadership to end open membership

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’ stanford.edu. 

  • Erp

    Writing as an alum, the rules seem reasonable and fair,

    “Organizations may have simple, objective criteria that is based on a
    members’s direct participation with their organization. Such criteria
    must be easily achievable by interested members. Acceptable criteria
    include: 1) regular participation in meetings, 2) attendance at an
    organization orientation/training, 3) assistance with planning an event,
    4) organization dues or 5) grad/undergrad status. A one-time
    orientation or training the length of one evening (3 hours) or weekend
    day (8 hours) is acceptable but cannot be required during peak academic
    times. Ongoing orientations of a greater length cannot be used to
    determine who can become a member.”

    Allowing exclusion of students other than self-exclusion because the students weren’t interested has led in the past to exclusion because an interested student was not like us where us is a self-selected group of gatekeepers (and not like us often even if unconscious meant not the right gender, not the right ethnicity, not able-bodied, not a graduate of the right high schools, not the right religion, not the right political party, not the right parents, not the right friends, etc.). I note btw that the criteria for membership can be a bit more than you suggested (e.g., you can require more than signing up on an email list). Having to attend meetings to maintain membership is a simple means of removing dilettantes.

    A group of students could always start a non-Stanford group but then that group would not have the privileges of a Stanford group (Stanford name, University meeting space, University support in other ways). A group wanting those privileges should have the responsibility to be open to all their fellow students.

    It might be interesting for a current student to set up a counter petition and see how many sign that.

  • Varun

    Disagree. As a former member of Stanford Consulting, which is not a for-profit organization, having interviews to assess the “problem-solving” qualities of candidates interested in consulting makes little sense if the goal of Stanford Consulting is to expose Stanford students to consulting itself.

    Not being able to come up with estimates of the last five years in revenue of the Stanford football program or messing up a recommendation for a fake company doesn’t mean you’d be a bad consultant, especially if you’re a freshman or a sophomore at Stanford. It means that you have a lot to learn, and Stanford Consulting is the perfect organization to help students develop those skills by training them and exposing them to consulting via real-world projects.

    Perhaps the portions about training are a little wild, but exclusion based on subjective assessments is absurd when those assessments test whether students already have the skills that they would theoretically be learning in the organization of what one should be learning in the organization (e.g. needing to know how to think rigorously about management issues for the SC interview, which is arguably what you should be learning in SC through experience). Of course, students should have intuitions and shouldn’t straight-up wander into a student organization without any context of what that organization does.

    Also, please check your facts about what organizations do before you write your posts. Stanford in Government has organizational members who bring speakers to campus, design and implement community service events, and bulid relationships with offices around the world for internships. Being an organizational member in Stanford in Government, which is now non-exclusionary for its second year in a row, does not give you access to fellowships. Fellowships are offered to the entire student body and their rigorous application process involves the Haas Center for Public Service, tens of professors from various departments, and of course, certain Stanford in Government students. Thus, I would hardly argue that “open membership” is equal to “open fellowships.”

  • Varun

    Addendum: a valid counterpoint is that Stanford Consulting can only expose so-many students to real-world consulting because the number of interested companies is limited, and the number of project directors is limited. That is a fair point, but it is something can be overcome (with obviously a significant amount of growing pains, which Stanford in Government experienced last year, but from which it has learned).

    Perhaps SAL should provide VSOs with significant university assistance in order to meet the open membership criterion (e.g. utilize university clout, branding, and networks to connect SC board members with more companies to identify more projects). That would boost the social contract between VSOs and SAL (and the university). If SAL cannot accomplish that, then perhaps the open membership criterion may no longer be valid.

  • Still70s

    As an alum and a current parent, I disagree with your position. I actually raised the issue last year with President Hennessy, that student groups had made themselves too difficult to get into. When I was at Stanford I could try all sorts of activities to see what I liked. Now, you have to go through time consuming selection processes which then can end in huge disappointment, when it is too late to apply elsewhere. What is the point of that, in college? Plenty of time for that nonsense later, when job hunting or trying to get your kid into Stanford. I hate to tell you, but self-selecting groups that exclude those not like them are a problem in the world–so Stanford should be part of the solution. Maybe the policy needs clarification and guidelines, but the concept is valid. Your petition is misguided.