OSA: The Path to Reform

The Office of Student Activities, the administration’s agency for regulating parties, student groups and their events, suffered a drastic decrease in legitimacy and student approval this year, as it was marred by a series of unpopular decisions. The OSA has remarkable control over student life at Stanford. All sizable parties and large-scale events must be approved, and all new student groups must undergo an often-rigorous review process. With great power comes great responsibility, as the adage goes, and the OSA hasn’t been perfect in this regard.

Not all students are affected equally by the OSA, however. Student discontent seems to have been focused on the Row, where most large-scale parties are held. Sigma Nu planned an event with the hip-hop band “Afroman”, which was quickly shut down due to an accidental public advertisement. The OSA’s stringent party regulations seem to have been followed ever-more closely this year; fraternities and sororities found themselves on a merry-go-round of probation and restrictions. Other incidents include the “Three Ex-Terrorists Event”, which was originally mandated to have no outside news media. Only after critical news coverage and an outcry from Bay Area journalists was the policy changed. A myriad of other students and groups have complained about inefficiency, inconsistency, a can’t-do attitude, and favoritism. Though the OSA office is over-worked and under-staffed, this alone fails to account for all of students’ concerns.

Student discontent with the OSA was registered at the ASSU elections, which featured more substantive issues-based campaigns than in recent years. Shortly after the election results were announced, Blog for Stanford (blog.stanford.edu) asked the provocative question of whether the ASSU elections were a referendum on the OSA. To a very large degree, they were: all of the Executive slates made “OSA reform” a prominent part of their platforms. Several winning Senate candidates ran almost exclusively on the issue, and almost all Senate candidates addressed the issue in some way. The fact that students ran on the issue, and won, and that candidates who addressed the issue less explicitly did less well, indicates that students voted consciously on the OSA issue.

Despite the opprobrium that currently surrounds the office, the University does have the opportunity to transform the OSA into a very useful instrument. While the OSA has taken on the mantle of a regulator and enforcer of rules, it will never be the only roadblock students face in trying to get things done. Indeed, securing funding, reserving space, recruiting new members and the actual activities of the group, from activism, to journalism, to performance art, should all be far more formidable challenges than dealing with the Student Affairs’ office. In an ideal world, the OSA would play a strong role in helping students navigate these challenges. Student group presidents would develop close personal relationships with OSA advisors. The OSA would be available for one-on-one advising on whatever concerns an organization might have. When students encounter roadblocks from other departments of the university, the OSA should actively advocate on the students’ behalf, and help them get access to top administrators. In short, what students most need is an OSA that returns to its central mission of making things happen for student groups. This is hardly a radical vision – it is what hundreds of Deans of Students and OSAs around the country do. Though the OSA certainly claims to have all these goals in mind, re-orienting will take a cultural change. Currently, the office spends much of its time on its regulatory role.

A serious increase in the number of staff working at the OSA, which is anyways necessary to give the office a stronger role in helping students, would also alleviate the concerns administrators are likely to raise about the regulatory role the OSA does play. For the most part, giving personal and close attention to helping student groups should help ensure their compliance with university rules. Ideally, this should in turn allow problems that do need adjudication to be solved more consistently, thoroughly and fairly.

Giving more staff to the OSA must, however, come on conditions of greater transparency and consistency. There is currently no appeals process for students upset by the rules dispensed by the office. There needs to be a clearer and better-defined path to the University ombudsman or a high-level administrator who will field such concerns. Additionally, the OSA needs to more fully document its procedures and regulations. This will not only help avoid confusion, it will allow it to allay concerns of bias or playing favorites.
Below follows a list of specific concerns and suggestions for improvement:

Areas of Concern

  • Too many tasks are assigned to the OSA
  • Severe understaffing – could easily double in size
  • Poor website navigation, website not updated
  • Poor communication of policies and areas of responsibility
  • OSA reps do not respond to email in a timely fashion
  • Policies not outlined in any charter or document
  • Lack of accountability
  • No explicit way to challenge policies or appeal decisions
  • Social restrictions are often particularly unnecessary for Grad students
  • A focus on ensuring plausible deniability and protecting Stanford from liability, not effective and safe planning
  • Students are not treated as adults
  • Inconsistent decisions in similar circumstances make it more difficult for student groups to plan ahead
  • Liability rules are selectively enforced, often in bad faith
  • Restrictions on party names and themes impinge upon free speech
  • The OSA instills a sense of intimidation, students fear publicly criticizing the office for fear of retribution
  • The OSA’s institutional memory bears grudges far longer than students are at Stanford
  • OSA only open to drop-in visits two hours per week

Specific Suggestions for Reform

  • Highlight good students groups’ good practices, and serve as a clearinghouse for ideas
  • Put together a database of event-planning resources
  • Create several further additional staff positions
  • Increase the staff’s degree of specialization
  • Use more students to do OSA work, either employed directly or through the ASSU
  • Produce a useful newsletter detailing policy changes and giving counsel to students
  • Refocus on helping students manage other parts of the Stanford bureaucracy
  • Establish a procedure for accountability and complaints, perhaps through the Ombudsman
  • Have a separate advisor with expertise and experience with Greek organizations
  • Allow student groups to have more fundraising events
  • Help groups attain financial sustainability
  • Get students involved in the entire event and party review process
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