February 4, 2013

LURIE-SPICER: Reimagining the Student Organization

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Last week, I joined a team of more than 2,000 Cornell students clambering through the obstacle course that is the Student Assembly Finance Commission. Together we jumped through the hoops of budget forms, scratched our names across boxes for new officers and scrambled to upload supporting documents. By the end of the process, I was drained and exhausted from grappling with this bureaucracy. I had expected a simple process of confirming that we were dedicated Cornell students. Yet applying for SAFC funding was not the objective process I expected it to be. Each step of registering my student organization for the process felt more instructive than inquisitive. Clearly, the SAFC has an idea for how every student group should be organized and our funding will be held ransom until we submit to this conformity.

Yet for many of us, student groups are spaces where we can explore alternative ways of organizing. Last semester, before we reached out to the SAFC, my group tried a hierarchical leadership structure. However, we found that this made members feel ostracized from the group and they subsequently stopped coming to meetings. This semester, our goal was to try a different structure — one that would be horizontal with every decision being made by consensus when possible. But as we filled out the forms for the SAFC, we soon learned that this is not what they believe Cornell organizations should look like.

First, there was the issue of officers. All groups must have a president, treasurer, and two other officers. From this first step of registration, hierarchy is mandated. Continuing along the registration process, every organization has to submit a constitution as well as bylaws. It would be fine if this was a self-determined document created by each group, but the SAFC has very specific requirements here as well. They specify what each article of the constitution should contain, giving guidelines for everything from voting process to meeting structure. Essentially, the constitution and bylaws are pre-written without room for variant organizing practices.

As a group that strives to be anti-oppressive, the non-hierarchical and consensus-based structures of our organization represent our core values. I understand the importance of the SAFC in commissioning finances to student organizations responsibly, but it has stepped far beyond this role. The SAFC has become an instructive model for how student groups should organize their process and express their core values. For many of us on campus, our organizations are an escape from institutions in which we feel powerless. We create these communities to celebrate our common interests. In these spaces, we have the power to explore what is possible when passionate members come together. Yet the requirements of the SAFC constrict this exploration and limit the possibilities of what our student organizations can become.

This pre-professional culture of hierarchal organization has become a national sentiment. In his inaugural address last Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCroy (R) explained his plan for the public university system in North Carolina. His staff is drafting legislation “in which we change the basic formula and how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges, not based on how many butts [are] in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs.” Nationally, we are sacrificing the kinds of organizational thinking that has supported the love of learning in favor of training the next generation of corporate America.  Whether it’s a university in North Carolina or a student organization in Ithaca, N.Y., it is clear that administrations are cracking down on students’ attempts to explore alternatives to the structures that supports dominant employable practices, rather than community-based organization that thrive on the empowerment of the individuals involved.

These disempowering organizational models clearly prioritize product over production. Their Machiavellian nature is great for reaching end goals. Yet when an organization is rooted in a community and works toward supporting the desires and sentiments of those members, its daily operations and structure must grant each participant the strength and opportunity to be a leader. I wish my organization did not have to learn this lesson the hard way. Yet, if the SAFC does not change its registration procedures, I fear that many future Cornell organizations may unnecessarily find themselves in the same position.

Tyler-Lurie Spicer is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. Personal Politics appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Tyler Lurie-Spicer