Student Organizations: A Path to Responsibility and Community?

By Kimberly Hopewell ’13, November 2010

Is your hair red? If so, I bet you didn’t know Princeton has dedicated a special group to your specific needs, called Princeton Redheads; an organization devoted to the Ginger experience. If you’re not a carrot top, don’t fret. You can start up a new group for, say, permed hair, pink hair, dreds, hard to detangle hair, whatever you like — chances are you could get recognition (and possibly funding) too. Last year, Princeton Redheads was recognized by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. And rumor has it that the ODUS-recognized Ivy Sports Symposium (ISS) was allotted thousands of additional dollars for an annual event that went over budget. ISS Founder and Executive Director Chris Chaney ’07 declined to interview on the subject, and former co-chairman of the planning committee Richard Zhang ’10 claimed not to know about the group’s expenses. ODUS repeatedly refused to release financial records or answer questions about the symposium.

ODUS aspires “to [help] students develop as adults and independent learners who can make the best use of the University’s resources to achieve their educational goals … and to promote in students an understanding of different backgrounds and experiences as well as an appreciation for complexity and ambiguity.” But recent funding choices and a lack of discretion in student group recognition raise the question of whether or not ODUS is fulfilling its mission, and whether or not reform is needed. A quick glance at the list of student organizations, ranging from Princeton Texans and the Crossword Puzzle Club to the Lion Dance Group and the Redheads Society, reveals an eclectic set of diverse groups catering to all sorts of tastes and interests. But does this diversity succeed in creating community? Are resources being provided in a way that is most likely to achieve the University’s goals?

The Undergraduate Student Government’s Projects Board works with ODUS to serve as ‘last resort’ funding, presumably after groups have sought out other sources. The Projects Board consists of twelve voting members: the USG president, USG vice president, USG treasurer, the co-chair(s), the student groups giaison, and two representatives from each class. Applications for funding are discussed during closed meetings, in which each of these twelve has one vote, and a majority must be reached before funds are approved. For large grants in excess of $1000, funds must also be approved by a majority USG Senate vote, and members affiliated with the group in question must recuse themselves from voting. To get money from this source, which is derived primarily from students’ tuition fees, groups must be open and advertised to all students. The USG also recommends that when requesting budget money student groups “keep it simple,” and warn that lavish requests without a compelling purpose will be dismissed. But how the board determines which requests are valid, and whether or not more established groups should receive some sort of preference, is not clear.

The Projects Board cites size and diversity of attendance, evidence of outstanding fundraising effort, current West College account balance, cost effectiveness of project budget, anticipated costs for the remainder of the semester, and the quality of the group’s presentation to the board as the criteria used to evaluate requests. However, there are no indications of how these criteria rank relative to one another, or whether some factors carry more weight than others. Moreover, they are very difficult to quantify. It would be interesting to know, for instance, what the USG feels constitutes “being open and advertised to all students.” How many of us have heard of the Redheads group before? While all gatherings for which ODUS provides funding are required to be posted on the Princeton Events Calendar, these public events only cover one segment of the groups’ activities. Given the mixture of secrecy and ambiguity that characterizes the Projects Board’s operations, there is little opportunity to understand the motives behind funding decisions and the extent to which events are evaluated before money is allotted. It seems that the Projects Board has no compelling reason to be so secretive about its decision process, save to avoid scrutiny.

It is not only the financing process that lacks transparency, but also the group approval process. Applications for new groups are reviewed by the student members of the USG student groups liaison, and are evaluated on the future viability of the proposed group with respect to possible conflict with University regulations, potential overlap with similar groups that could draw from the same portion of the student body, as well as the quality of the group’s objectives and proposed goals. An examination of the groups currently in existence, however, reveals that these guidelines are often blatantly violated. There are groups that have almost identical missions, such as the Healthcare Reform Club and the Healthcare Club. In addition, many groups seem to lack a compelling reason for their creation and subsequent need for funding. The aforementioned Redheads Society, a student group aiming “to bring together red-haired students in meetings and parties centered around the theme of ‘the redhead experience,’” embodies the lack of judgment and fiscal irresponsibility that characterize the group approval process. Student groups should have to contribute to the community in a substantial way to be recognized and receive funding. A failure to do this takes capital away from more deserving groups and  wastes University resources.

If ODUS truly aspires to teach responsibility, it seems incumbent upon them to review the processes used to establish and fund student organizations. Higher standards need to be set regarding group formation and more transparent methods of evaluation need to be implemented to allow for greater accountability of students and staff involved with the allotment of funds and creation of new groups. Fortunately, an effort has already begun to close existing loopholes. The USG recently released new clarifications stipulating that organizations return surplus funds when they over-budget for an event. If this restriction is consistently enforced, it will represent a major step toward increased accountability for student groups, but more work remains to be done. There are certain common-sense restrictions that could be put into place, such as requiring all groups to have a presence at the Freshman Activities Fair and actively maintain a website in order to receive funding. Additionally, greater oversight of the reimbursement process is needed to eliminate the possibility that embellished or outright fraudulent claims might be accepted as legitimate expenditures.

As to ODUS’ s goal of creating a student community, it is not at all obvious that the University’s collection of assorted groups actually do this. It seems possible that this need to separate students into diverse groups may actually divide us further, as it encourages students to interact solely with like-minded peers. An appropriate way to address this issue would be to have more established umbrella groups, which would elicit greater participation and a more interconnected community. For example, The Black Student Union currently serves as this type of umbrella organization, encompassing nine other black student groups on campus. Restructuring the student groups under certain umbrellas would allow groups to pool resources, and would allow niche groups to preserve their independence while also benefitting from connections with similar groups.

Kimberly Hopewell is a junior from Ridgefield, CT. She can be reached at hopewell@princeton.edu.

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