The fact that there are over 1,000 student organizations on campus is continuously reiterated to potential Wolverines. It’s a part of campus admissions lore. A quick check of the Maize Pages reveals the latest count of registered groups. Any student can join any of the hundreds of groups they want or even start a brand-new one. But this could be one of the reasons for some of the disappointing features of student life, like competition for resources, fragmentation and self-segregation.
As the number of student organizations grows, one key resource doesn’t grow very much — people. The amount of undergraduates at the University has continued to hover near 26,000 as more student organizations have emerged. Consequently, a growing number of groups compete to recruit for a relatively fixed amount of people. Because the resources at the University are constant — and unless admissions skyrocket or additional funds are allocated to student life initiatives — there is a certain capacity of student organizations that can be supported at Michigan. I hope we haven’t exceeded it.
Another result is that the pumped-up student organization landscape contributes to a sense of fragmentation at our campus. In a system where students choose the type and amount of activities in which they want to involve themselves, there’s not much reason for organizations to work together. Because resources are limited and the features of the student organization system don’t encourage broad collaboration, there’s little reason to work together aside from increasing funding or attendance. The need to be relevant drives groups away from each other in the organizational landscape. If an organization isn’t serving a particular need, it’s easier to create a new one rather than combine efforts.
This is fine, of course, because many causes ranging from human rights to professional development are represented. But when campus-wide movements would be helpful or necessary — like efforts to lower rising tuition costs, increase access to student healthcare, for example — those movements struggle. The more groups there are, the harder it is to organize because there are varying opinions and everyone is too busy to participate in something larger.
Perhaps the fact that campus communities often stay insulated from other established communities is also due to the vast student organization landscape. After all, there’s not much reason to join a group that stretches an individual’s boundaries if a more comfortable student group already exists or can be created easily.
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if an Actuarial Mathematics Club and the March of Dimes chapter don’t interact. But when segregation occurs on lines of race, class, sexual orientation or other social identities, our campus only contributes to the misunderstanding between communities and the conflict that brews at the societal level between interest groups on opposing sides of those boundaries.
Of course, there is a legitimate reason to have hundreds of student organizations: that way, everyone can find a community. Having a social network keeps people from falling through the cracks at school and provides an invaluable opportunity for students to undergo social, professional or spiritual development. In addition, some students probably need or prefer smaller, more intimate communities.
Maybe I’m misguided. Maybe the churn of student organizations is such a minor concern that it’s not even worth talking about because a large menu of choices is worthwhile in spite of the costs. Maybe the ability to organize across student organizations is irrelevant because existing mechanisms for institutional change at the University are sufficient.
Perhaps, however, by acknowledging the problems that come with so many groups, we can do better. We might teach ourselves to manage more complex projects that target broader issues, even though incentives to do so are lacking. After some thoughtful deliberation, it might make sense to consolidate organizations or initiatives. In any case, if the need for a campus-wide or nationwide movement ever arises, I hope student organizations will overcome the structural limitations posed by the student organization system and transform to overcome these challenges.
Neil Tambe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org