Accountability in Student Programs

On February 28, The Stanford Daily published an editorial calling on the Green Living Council (GLC) to rethink one of its flagship events—the Conservation Cup. During the Cup, dorms and houses compete to save the most water and electricity. The editorial pointed out that the Cup, while well intentioned, was structured such that “random variance” in water and electricity consumption probably accounted for most of the “savings” reported by the winning houses.

  • The Daily’s* editorial board ended the piece by arguing that the GLC ought to “evaluate its work with a more critical eye to ensure that its efforts (and students’ money) are being directed towards successful projects.” We concur. In fact, we believe that most student-run events and services would benefit greatly from a healthy dose of critical evaluation.

As *Daily *columnist Robin Thomas noted last month, Stanford students are inclined to favor new groups and new projects over established organizations and tried-and-true events, in part because of a widespread perception that the creation of novel programs looks better on a résumé.

While this entrepreneurial spirit has contributed greatly to the development of Stanford’s best student-run programs, it also hurts institutional memory, leads to widespread duplication of missions and events, wastes student funds, and discourages critical retrospective evaluation. Why do the hard work of reforming a poorly performing group or event when you can just start a new one? And there is no incentive to simply cut programs either—the students who do join existing organizations are eager to take leadership positions and run things, so they are not inclined to trim programming.

This entrepreneurial urge, coupled with students’ desire to do something about the problems they perceive, also generates many programs that are not only poorly designed, but that also fail to address the issue in question even when they are perfectly executed. We can all agree that Wellness Week’s beanbags, puppies, and slogans about positive thinking are nice; however, they are *not *even borderline effective ways to deal with serious mental health issues.

And much of campus “activism” on national and global issues, while admirable, is actually ineffectual “slacktivisim” that can generate no results except a sense of self-satisfaction among participants. Students pour so much effort into designing and executing their programs, but they give little thought to efficacy and usefulness, often because they are too emotionally involved in their projects to assess them objectively. Burnout also plays a role—the people best suited to analyze things often resign in exhaustion.

Unfortunately, the result is a campus full of programs, like the Conservation Cup, that don’t actually do what they’re intended to do. Of course, the textbook example is the Wellness Room, which was originally supposed to encourage student de-stressing but now serves primarily as a punching bag in campus discourse on ASSU spending. The project is ripe for re-thinking or elimination (which would at least make the space useful again), yet no one in the ASSU has touched it. Various other ASSU projects, including the various highly laudable but questionably efficacious campaigns against sexual assault, also fall into this category.

If we want to enjoy well functioning, useful student-run programs, student groups need to start focusing on results. They must undertake rigorous post-hoc evaluation. Students should use every means at their disposal—exit surveys, financial audits, statistical tracking of involvement and awareness, anything that works—to critically assess the success of any given event. The involvement of emotionally disengaged students who can render an objective judgment will be crucial. And groups should avoid relying on anecdotal evidence or the judgment of small, insular officer corps, which are notoriously susceptible to groupthink and bias.

However, the good news is that creative, productive rethinking of student groups and events is possible. For example, in 2009-2010, The ASSU Airport Shuttle was a money-losing boondoggle. But after new student leaders revamped the service, the program actually made a small profit in fall 2009. Shaan Chugh ‘14 and Ernestine Fu ’13, widely credited with the Shuttle turnaround, did all the right things: they critically assessed the service’s previous failures, put in extra time to get the details right, researched alternatives, and stayed focused on further improvement even after they succeeded.

Reform of student-run programs is not easy, but with proper leadership, intense focus on details, and openness to radical change, it can be achieved. A more rigorous, results-based student activities culture, with a renewed focus on doing the right thing instead of just doing something, would be a wonderful and welcome development for the Farm.

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