Are SGA and SLI supporting student groups?

By RUDY MALCOM | October 10, 2019

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COURTESY OF CALVIN SMITH, JR.

CSO Chair Chase McAdams announced three weeks ago that SGA would not be accepting applications for new student groups. SLI has also been working with CSO to conduct audits on student groups.

Three weeks ago, the Student Government Association (SGA) informed students that it would not be accepting new student organization applications this semester. The announcement also mentioned that SGA’s Committee on Student Organizations (CSO) would be working with the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement (SLI) to examine student groups’ practices, missions, funding and other criteria. 

SLI Director Calvin Smith, Jr., explained that SLI had already begun conducting audits on student groups, irrespective of CSO’s decision to enact the moratorium.

The News-Letter spoke with students from SGA, Barnstormers, College Democrats, Spring Fair, Adoremus, Vocal Chords, Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium and unrecognized groups about the impact of the audits and moratorium. Further, Smith shared his office’s plans to better support student groups.

SGA ban on new student groups

In an email to the student body on Sept. 16, CSO Chair Chase McAdams, a senior class senator, disclosed that SGA would not be accepting applications for new student groups. Applications are typically reviewed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 every year, though McAdams hopes to expand this window in the future.

Sophomore Caroline Cerilli highlighted the need for an American Sign Language (ASL) club, arguing that Hopkins is lagging behind peer institutions in this area. Because of the moratorium, her group was unable to form.

“I talked to an academic adviser here, and they were just like, ‘Well, that’s just not what Hopkins is about,’” Cerilli said.

Ritika Kommareddi, president of the Barnstormers, underscored the importance of extracurricular activities in an environment as intense and stressful as Hopkins.

“The ban has garnered some frustration from students who seek an outlet at Hopkins that does not yet exist,” she said.

College Democrats Co-President Sylvana Schaffer voiced her ambivalence toward SGA’s moratorium in an email to The News-Letter.

“I get why people are upset. At the same time though... it seems kinda weird to let new groups form if they are in the process of auditing all the (many) registered ones,” she wrote.

Adoremus President Madelynn Wellons echoed Schaffer’s sentiments, noting that new groups can still register with academic departments, administrative offices or the Center for Social Concern (CSC).

“It’ll be more complicated because they can’t apply for SGA and SLI funding, which is annoying and frustrating because they are the main source, but I get why it has to happen,” Wellons said. “It makes total sense.”

McAdams’ email specified that CSO would not accept new student organizations unless they began the recognition process before Commencement this May. 

This spring, Cerilli met senior Min Jung Kim at an Advocates for Disability Awareness (ADA) workshop, where Kim first pitched the idea for the ASL club.

Kim stated that the CSO chair at the time told her that she would have to wait until this fall to register. 

She met with McAdams in September after receiving his email. He pointed out that she had never communicated formally with SLI staff about her proposed group. 

In an email to The News-Letter, McAdams explained why CSO voted not to approve the club, though Kim spoke with the then-chair of CSO this spring.

“There were only about 10 total messages. It was basically like texting a friend and saying let’s start this club,” McAdams wrote. “It wasn’t enough to show that actual steps were taken to try to start the organization.” 

Kim has observed a lack of ASL course offerings on campus. This deficit compelled her to try out a weekly ASL course at the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown. 

“I couldn’t find anything at Hopkins, so... I pretended to be a University of Maryland student,” she said.

Kim stressed that knowing the basics of ASL can benefit individuals in the community who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Cerilli agreed, reasoning that many students would be interested in participating in an ASL club. 

“Everyone I talk to about it wants to try it because it’s getting to use your hands and communicate in a new way,” she said.

Freshman Robab Vaziri sought to form a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) at Hopkins, characterizing The Sit-In at Garland Hall and Students for Justice in Palestine as the sole leftist groups on campus. 

She aimed to launch YDSA because she perceived few opportunities for anti-poverty and pro-climate activism on campus. 

“Instead of merely hosting political debates and barbecues, I wanted to focus on real community involvement,” Vaziri said. 

Because of SGA’s moratorium, Vaziri initially contemplated filing YDSA under the CSC. SLI prohibited students from forming new local community groups at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, but the CSC restructured in spring 2018, enabling the registration of new student initiatives.

However, Vaziri later discovered that the CSC only accepts new proposals between March 1 and March 15

She described a lack of clarity surrounding the recognition process.

Freshman Class President Breanna Soldatelli shared her plans to support new student groups as soon as SLI’s audits are complete.

“Once we figure out the situation on the preexisting groups, we’ll be able to better help the freshmen groups that want to start. That way they are not coming into a system that is disorganized,” she said. “If anyone does want to start, I encourage them to reach out to SGA so we can figure out the situation in the meantime.”

McAdams said that CSO will decide on whether to open the registration process in the spring.

Barnstormers President Ritika Kommareddi reflected on SGA’s moratorium in light of SLI’s ban on new performing arts groups during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years due to insufficient time and space for rehearsals and performances. 

These constraints arose in part from delayed construction on Shriver Hall, a performance venue that reopened in February after three semesters of renovations.

Kommareddi related the prohibition on the new performing arts groups to her concerns for the demolition of the Mattin Center, where construction on the future student center is expected to begin in the spring of 2022.

She called on administrators to better communicate with existing arts groups.

“Will we have a space to rehearse, build and perform when Mattin’s taken down? Do we have confirmation that there will be arts spaces in the new student center? We don’t have definitive answers to either of these questions,” she said. “The fact that arts groups were banned from forming in the past few years only contributes to the already stifled expression of arts that this administration seems to be supporting.”

How have SLI audits affected student groups? 

Spring Fair Music Committee Chair Harrison Elliott reported that the audits have prevented the group from starting to prepare for its annual festival. 

“They’ve essentially put a stop to our being able to do anything,” he said.

Spring Fair cannot begin making arrangements with food and music vendors, Elliott said, until at least Oct. 14, when he expects the audits to end.

However, he remains optimistic about Spring Fair 2020 and trusts that the audits will ultimately improve the student experience.

“The audits are helpful because they allow us to go back and reevaluate some of our processes, which may need to be redone,” he said. “It also shows that SLI is willing to say, ‘Hey, we also haven’t been perfect; we’re looking at our processes as well.’”

In an email to The News-Letter, Smith stated that he and the Office of the Dean of Student Life (DoSL) decided to conduct the audits after collecting students’ feedback over the past two years.

“We have engaged in this review process to understand where we have gaps and where we can improve,” he wrote.

Smith clarified that the purpose of the review is to evaluate whether DoSL and SLI offer adequate support for student groups. He added that SLI and CSO are auditing groups to ensure that they act in accordance with DoSL and SGA protocol.

“We want to determine how organizations are engaging new members and if their process is in alignment with University policy,” he wrote. 

For example, Elliott noted that DoSL was concerned that freshmen in Spring Fair were assigned to unfavorable duties and shifts. Although he disagreed with this finding, Elliott said that he would keep it in mind. 

Elliott, a senior, explained Spring Fair’s application process.

“We interview everybody and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on whether the person fits in with the culture that we’re trying to set,” he said. “We’ve been operating like that for at least as long as I’ve been here — probably longer — and there’s been no issue with that until now.”

Elliott intends to revise Spring Fair’s recruitment practices in accordance with SLI’s Expectations of Student Organizations, which require groups to be open to all students regardless of gender, disability, race and other legally protected characteristics. 

“Applications, interviews, and resume reviews should not be utilized when evaluating students for general membership,” the document reads.

The document specifies certain exceptions for fraternities and sororities, along with performing arts and sports groups. In addition, groups are allowed academic requirements when relevant.

Nevertheless, McAdams said that over 200 groups use some kind of unlawful exclusionary practices. 

On the other hand, Schaffer believes that her group has never violated this condition of the Parents Fund.

“Our club has never had an issue with that,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “So far, our club hasn’t been directly affected by the audits, at least to my knowledge. That said, as a board we... are actively working to make sure that we stay in compliance with SLI rules in our constitution.”

McAdams explained that exclusionary practices are not the audits’ primary focus. Instead, he hopes that the audits will bring more groups under SGA. Whereas SLI manages over 400 groups, SGA currently serves as the recognition entity for approximately 160 organizations, according to Smith.

Smith added that a preliminary audit revealed that at least 30 groups lack the proper documentation of their mission and purpose required to maintain recognition. 

Groups who conflict with a number of SGA rules, McAdams said, will face varying consequences.

“Level 3 probation is actually account freezing, so halting their ability to purchase things or hold events until they become compliant again,” he said. “We’ll see if we think that they can correct themselves... or if they need to be deactivated.”

Wellons hopes that the audits will provide more clarity around funding guidelines for particular budgetary categories.

“A lot of groups don’t know what they shouldn’t be spending their budget money on,” she said.

This September, many performing arts groups reported budgetary cuts from the Student Activities Commission (SAC), SGA’s funding board, such as the Barnstormers, a theater group, and the Vocal Chords (VC), an a cappella group.

Nick Xitco, publicity manager for the former and music director for the latter, reflected on how the cuts will impact the groups’ ability to perform in an email to The News-Letter.

“In the past, our budget has just been something that we’re able to rely on in order to book sound engineers for concerts (in the case of Vocal Chords) or professional directors and supplies for our mainstage plays and musicals (in the case of Barnstormers),” he wrote. “For the first time in recent history, VC is fundraising and searching for grants since we are unable to pay for our concerts with the money we received.”

In September, Smith told The News-Letter that groups often request funding beyond the scope of SAC guidelines. He also explained that the decision to conduct the audits was unrelated to the budgets that arts groups received this semester. 

Nevertheless, he discussed how SLI will review groups’ funding.

“We may not have the correct budget numbers, we may not know the appropriate budget manager, funding process... and we want to make sure we can best support organizations,” he wrote.

Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium Finance Chair Siena DeMatteo said that she didn’t encounter any issues working with SLI over the summer. 

By contrast, last year’s MSE co-chair told The News-Letter this spring about repeated difficulties communicating with SLI.

DeMatteo explored the potential of the audits.

“We’re always looking for ways to innovate, so the audit could be a good opportunity... for an outside perspective that could bring about some helpful changes,” she said. “Not changes that are necessarily needed, but are just different ways of looking at things.”

The future of SLI

Last fall, SLI told dozens of student groups that they had deficits in their accounts going back several years, sometimes upward of a decade. Elliott recounted difficulties figuring out how much Spring Fair owed, citing fluctuating and inaccurate numbers from SLI. 

McAdams, a finance intern at SLI, believes that a recent decline in administrative turnover will improve the student experience. 

To that end, SLI will host a Student Organization Summit on Oct. 16, he said. 

“We’ll be making an announcement about an upcoming module we’ll be releasing to better help students track their finances,” he said.

Smita Ruzicka, who in August 2018 became the University’s third dean of student life since 2013, mentioned this spring that her office (DoSL) hoped to provide student clubs and organizations with monthly budget updates. 

Calvin Smith, Jr., who was promoted from director of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership to director of SLI in February, stated that groups funded by SAC and DoSL have begun receiving these updates on the Hopkins Groups website, which DeMatteo confirmed.

Smith elaborated on plans for a module that would streamline purchase and budget requests and allow students to keep track of their groups’ past budget proposals and other records in one secure place. 

“Our goal is to transition to the financial module in Hopkins Groups this semester,” he wrote. “SLI has been testing the module since August. So far the results are positive.”

He added that Homewood Student Affairs has hired a new financial analyst and that for the first time in over a decade, SAC received a six percent increase in the amount of money available for allocation to student groups. 

In addition, Ruzicka told The News-Letter in September that the overall deficit for student groups decreased by 28 percent last year.

Smith emphasized SLI’s goals both in general and specifically for the audits. 

“We need to understand our organizational structure and how it is or is not supporting our ultimate mission to work collaboratively with students to develop programs, organizations and spaces that promote individual growth and cultivate inclusive communities,” Smith wrote.

Chris Park contributed reporting.

Note: After this article was printed, another Spring Fair member clarified that what Elliott described was not part of SLI’s audits, but rather an unrelated review.

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