After working at the University for 10 years, Director of Student Activities and Leadership Susan Wilson noticed that student organizations kept encountering the same problems. Unclear as to what resources were available to them, the logistics of the University’s insurance policy and their financial obligations, student organizations kept making the same mistakes.
When the problem did not go away with time, Wilson said she felt she had to do something.
“I felt I wasn’t doing my job as best as I could,” she said.
Wilson has been instrumental over the past 18 months in creating the Student Organization and Recognition Advisory Committee, a group of students, faculty and staff that comes up with ideas to enhance the relationship between student organizations and the University.
“SOAR is a planning tool; it exists only in policy that we one day hope to develop into practice. We want to create a place where students can go if they want to increase their relationship with the University,” Wilson said.
SOAR is currently drafting recommendations that might ultimately result in creating a centralized unit handling student group affairs.
If its recommendations are approved, SOAR will no longer exist because it deals only with the process of policy-making and not implementation, Varner said.
SOAR’s ideas have not been approved yet. First, Wilson and Varner with the collaboration of others have developed tentative recommendations. They will seek input from the campus over the next several weeks, and then they will turn in a report with recommendations to Dean of Students, Sue Eklund. She and Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper will then add their input, Varner said.
“By then we hope there will be a few surprises because of the breadth of input and publicity,” Eklund said.
No specific organizations on campus voiced complaints that resulted in the formation of SOAR. Instead, Wilson said, it was the accumulation of many difficulties student organizations were facing.
“Not one single event precipitated the idea behind SOAR — it was a critical mass,” Wilson said.
Varner said the two main goals of SOAR are that the University treat student organizations with equal respect and that students understand their legal and financial responsibilities so that they are accountable for their behavior as a student organization.
To realize this vision, various subcommittees have been meeting since October and will continue doing so until the end of the month, said Wilson. Each of the subcommittees revolves around an issue relevant to University student organizations, such as risk management, finances, scheduling and space allocation.
“I think that the point of the several subcommittees is just that there is so much work and the requirement of distinct areas of expertise such as financial management, risk management, legal requirements, etc. We wanted the risk, legal and economic issues divided up a certain way for discussion purposes. No doubt the early recommendations of certain subcommittees might be in conflict with others; yet, part of the process is to figure out how we can all work together to create a good whole.” Eklund said.
Students play an important role in subcommittees. MSA Vice President Anita Leung participates in the financial committee, where she discusses issues such as the role of nonprofit organizations, filing for taxes and how to follow IRS regulations.
“Nothing like this has been done before. It has never been formalized how student groups have been organized. I know people are worried that student voices are not being heard. They definitely are through SOAR,” she said.
Harper agreed on the importance of student involvement on campus. “Student organizations provide such a service to the community, and it is a very valuable part of the institution. We want to make sure that they’re well served. And that is what (SOAR) is all about — how we provide additional support so that we can strengthen student organizations,” she said.
Varner said student groups might not understand that even though the University is self-insured, it only covers specific items under specific terms, she said. Part of the mission of SOAR would be to eventually implement guidelines so student organizations can understand if they are breaching the contract, she said.
Eklund said an example of a potential problem would be whether the University’s insurance covers an accident when a student organization borrows a vehicle through the University. The risk management committees of SOAR would work on potential guidelines to this incident by asking questions such as how many students were in the car and whether they were following the speed limit, she said.
SOAR also seeks to create guidelines for student organizations that reflect the core values of the University, such as diversity and equality, Wilson said.
If SOAR’s recommendations are put into action, all student organizations will be eligible for advice, said Wilson. Even though the Greek system has the Office of Greek Life, various subcommittees have contemplated methods to deal with their specific problems, such as liability issues with hazing.
But Varner said the Greek system will not receive special treatment.
“We will treat the Greek system like we treat any other student organization. We will work some of their specific problems into our ideas for implementation. They will also be treated with the same expectations,” Varner said.
SOAR is seeking more students to provide feedback and ideas of how to improve relations between student organizations and the University.
Even though nothing has been implemented yet, Wilson said that the subcommittee meetings have already succeeded in widening the communication gap. “If I learned anything at Michigan it’s that people do not talk (between colleges and student organizations.) It will be interesting to see what other problems this will solve,” Wilson said.
Some student leaders have expressed worry about the potential implications of SOAR’s proposals. MSA Student General Counsel Jesse Levine said he is concerned about the possibility that SOAR could change the jurisdiction of student group oversight, potentially cutting MSA’s Central Student Judiciary out of the process.
“The jurisdiction is not clear yet for any student group for the future, and that’s why I’m concerned,” Levine said. “I think students need to be involved in the judicial process.”