The Most Important Election to Watch

As you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s that time of year. Catchy slogans again, campaign promises (hopefully ones that can be kept), and dozens of Stanford students vying for elected positions, dedicated to positive change.  No, I don’t mean the ASSU Elections.

Every spring, the majority of Volunteer Student Organizations (VSOs) choose their leadership for next year: President (sometimes two), Vice President, Financial Officer, Calendar Officer, Funding Officer, and sometimes even an eCommerce Officer.

You’ll frequently find people debating whether the ASSU is an effective organization; when I hear these arguments, I simply say: it doesn’t matter. The vibrant atmosphere that Stanford is known for does not come from the ASSU; rather, the ASSU is simply a means to enable student groups to operate, and bring excited students together to accomplish amazing things.

The biggest threat to VSOs is not the ASSU; it is poor student group leadership.

Student Activities and Leadership (formerly OSA) officials often chuckle at the “resume-focused” attitude Stanford students bring to groups; for instance, the creation of the dual presidency was at the behest of students not wanting the full responsibility of a president, but still desirous of the title. Students are often leaders in not one, not two, but *three *student groups on campus; such leaders are often overstretched, unable to dedicate the adequate time to motivate group members and chart the course for great accomplishments.

This syndrome can take many forms – having reviewed many of the special fee applications for next year, some groups decide to replicate the previous year’s activities to the tee. While this sequence of events might have been a formula that worked, it is a shame that some groups eschew innovation (and the extra work that comes with it), deciding to tread the beaten path instead of taking ownership of a fresh idea and deviating.

Also consider the highly publicized spat that ASSU Senator Anton Zietsman  and Stanford Project on Hunger founder Tommy Tobin; as the former Director of Capital Group, which disburses funds to all of the over 300 student groups on campus, one of Senator Zietsman’s comments stood out to me:

You want to know what the biggest problem with the funding process is? FO’s don’t know what the hell they are doing. Applications are botched and incomplete. Policies are not read or considered … let me tell you where “reform is needed”: groups need to train their FOs, groups need to select FO’s who will be on campus during their tenure, groups need to make sure their FOs go to the banking workshops, FOs need to read and follow the policies. That’s where reform in needed!

Though there may have been a more politically correct way to say it, this is a sentiment I could not agree with more. The duties of a financial officer are relatively limited, straightforward, and well documented. While the route and routine they must follow can at times be cumbersome, it is a process that can be mastered if proper attention is paid; all too often, students are too over committed to do so.

Senator Zietsman also brings forward another interesting point regarding group officer training. There are many quick to point fingers at the ASSU for its lack of “institutional memory”, but I have seen student groups fall prey to the same trap. Every set of student leaders has been through their own set of hurdles this year. As a graduating senior, I know how powerful the temptation is to “check out”, and let next year’s leaders sort things out. However, ultimately one’s success as a leader is judged not only by their school year accomplishments, but the (hopefully strong) position they leave their organization upon leaving.

It is easy to lose sight of student group elections amidst the hullabaloo that is the ASSU elections season. But as student groups across campus sit down to consider their future leadership, consider this: your organizations have more impact on student lives than the vaunted student government; adequate attention *must *be paid to ensure that student groups are lead by dedicated, focused, and competent individuals. Pick the right people, and make sure you leave them with the tools they need to succeed.

Matthew Sprague ran for ASSU Executive last Spring, and served as Director of Capital Group, which manages student group banking and financial services, during the ‘08-‘09 academic year. His opinions do not in any way reflect those of the ASSU or Stanford Student Enterprises.

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