Concrete Reasons to Vote “No” on the Current Social Clubs Proposal

I’m not here to bullshit you. I don’t want to discuss my personal theories of community or the philosophical implications of using the word “club.” I’m here to talk in straightforward terms about why passing the social clubs proposal as written would be a mistake.

Let me be clear: I’m really grateful that students on the committee have taken such a strong interest in improving social life on campus. I don’t think the problems with the proposal are born from any kind of malice on their part, and the last thing I want to do is incite an anonymous comments war below. We should all try to assume best intentions here. That being said, the proposal as written has too many issues to be a workable solution for next semester. Whether you support the idea of social clubs or not,  it’s clear that, at the very least, we need a final round of significant revisions before we can even consider approving it as a community.

Here are the final proposal’s unanswered questions that remain major red flags:

1. Do social clubs really represent a dramatic reimagining of campus social life, or are they simply fraternities 2.0?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. From the beginning, we’ve all been wondering if social clubs are just a smokescreen for re-establishing frats. When we saw the list of initial committee members and the language of their early proposal, it was hard not to feel worried—as written, the proposal would have allowed a group of former frat members to create a single-gender group that could initially reject people they didn’t want with limited administrative oversight and very little language about diversity and inclusion. Suffice it to say that this didn’t look good on paper, and it crumbled under criticism in the fall.

Now, we have an updated draft from an expanded committee. Again, however, the proposal is noticeably silent about where former frats fit into this new model. On one hand, the proposal emphasizes that social clubs are about diversifying social life and creating an altogether new mechanism for bringing together disparate groups of people. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the proposal opens the door for the quiet re-establishment of fraternities and similar organizations.

As an example, what happens when former members of a fraternity or fraternity-like organization decide they want to revive their group as social club? In principle, this goes against everything the committee purports to stand for—our social clubs are supposed to be made up of people who don’t share a “single unifying skill or characteristic” and want to meet new people in a unique context, but the proposal clearly allows for a group of former fraternity members (who already share a social unifier and shared culture) to band together and form a club nonetheless.

I know that some of you will point to the mandatory membership of women as evidence that this is an unnecessary concern, but I should remind you that Amherst frats already tried the “mandatory co-ed” thing before. As you know, simply adding women did not fix the problems inherent in frats and frat-like groups, and now our generation is back to square one.

I bring this up because I feel strongly that, in order to achieve the stated goal of the committee, we need to try social clubs first as random membership groups. I mean, Isn’t that ultimately their goal anyway? Let’s do away with the “demonstrated interest” dummy variable (which is vulnerable to non-transparent manipulation by club leadership anyway) and revise the final proposal to make it a trial run with random distribution instead.

People are supposed to pick social clubs to apply to based on the clubs’ established traditions/goals/activities/cultures, right? But none of those things will exist when they are first founded anyway, so randomizing the initial selection process seems like the perfect way to achieve the committee’s goal of truly unprecedented social interactions that generate unique group cultures that can then be used in a more deliberate selection process later.

In fact, I think that as a show of good faith, the students who involved themselves in this proposal process should live up to its stated goal of creating brand new social groups by agreeing to join totally different social clubs. If the clubs aren’t about recreating fraternities or fraternity-like underground societies, this should be a no-brainer.

Ultimately, revising the proposal to make the membership assignment of social clubs random, even if it’s only for the trial run, will dispel students’ enduring concerns that the lofty goal of the proposal will be derailed by a more personal social agenda.

2. What do social clubs actually do?

The question seems so simple, and yet neither the the proposal nor the video can give you a clear answer. Social clubs, according to the final proposal (and the accompanying YouTube video), do stuff. They plan stuff and meet about stuff. At some point they do some recruitment stuff too.

Months after the initial idea for social clubs was made public, most of us still don’t have any idea what that “stuff” is. The only examples we’ve gotten have been very generic campus events that established clubs already put on in large numbers. Music events and food events are a dime a dozen, so why would you join a group whose only elaborated function is generic event planning?

This should be a major red flag to anyone considering voting to approve the proposal. For all the discussion of how social clubs are going to innovate social interaction on campus, the proposal does not tell us anything meaningful about how they are going to do it. The assumption seems to be that putting a bunch of people into a room with an animal mascot will create a groundbreaking social opportunity.

When I look at the proposal as written, all I see is another time commitment: more pay orders, more doodle polls for “30 to 50 members,” and more of the same events that you already get from established campus groups.

I think this ambiguity is a big part of the reason why people think this whole social clubs thing is just frats-in-disguise: the proposal leaves all the important social stuff unmentioned. We don’t hear about drinking, partying, or what social spaces groups will use for non-meeting events. These issues will undoubtedly constitute the true function of social clubs (and the most likely mechanism for quiet discrimination and exclusion), so the proposal’s silence requires significant revision before we move forward.

The proposal’s failure to explain what social clubs do beyond the most basic functions of any campus organization means that at best, social clubs will break down because they lack uniqueness. At worst, it means that we’re allocating a lot of time, money, and human resources to build an entire system without acknowledging the much more probable social functions of the clubs—and all the risks they entail. We need a revised proposal that talks honestly and openly about drinking, partying, physical spaces, and how all of these things can combine to create a exclusionary, unequal, and potentially unsafe social environment.

3. How are social clubs going to meaningfully include different identities?

It’s a well-established fact that the athlete/non-athlete divide is perhaps the most significant social boundary on campus, and the final proposal does not tell us anything meaningful about how we’re going to solve that problem with social clubs—it just assumes that they will.

As we all know, every Amherst student has a busy schedule. Student-athletes in particular, however, have schedules with a high number of fixed, non-negotiable obligations: practices, lifts, games, and other required events cannot easily be re-scheduled. The committee proposes that the creation of another mandatory time event where attendance determines your ability to remain a member is the solution. It should be obvious why this is misguided. There isn’t discussion of how we’re actually going to get athletes and non-athletes together in these clubs, nor is there any discussion of making sure there is a good balance between the two groups in the first place. Again, there is no meaningful difference in the proposal between the social clubs as outlined and normal campus clubs, so how can we believe the claim that the social clubs will succeed where other clubs fail? A revised proposal needs to speak frankly about how athletes will actually be accommodated in the clubs.

This problem of effective inclusion is about much more than athletes, though. Looking at the final proposal, it’s clear that the assumption remains that all identities will naturally find the social clubs to be a safe and welcoming space. If I can be completely honest, this is the most personally disappointing failure of the final proposal. As a former leader of Pride Alliance, a QRC staff member, and a Peer Advocate of Sexual Respect, I felt really frustrated to see inclusion reduced to a laundry list of resources at the tail end of the proposal. This was a huge oversight on the part of the committee and another massive red flag to passing the proposal as written.

I also have to point out that, despite my explaining to a committee member that using the gender binary as an organizing quota structurally excludes all of my friends with queer gender identities from the start, there is zero language about it in the final proposal. When we’re talking about meaningful discussion of the actual structure of the clubs, this is a perfect example of how the committee’s brief treatment of identity closes the door on some students before the clubs have even been created. Voting “yes” so that we can “just try it out” doesn’t work when the proposal has obvious exclusionary principles from the get-go. I should also point out that the proposal’s list of reasons for why a club might be “disbanded” makes no mention of clubs that become unwelcoming or unsafe for students with specific identities.

Saying that the social clubs will just have to make sure they use the QRCWGCMRCPASHEs to ensure they are inclusive is very disappointing, and it made me, as a gay guy involved with several of these groups, feel like I’ve been totally reduced to my utility in some kind of identity appeasement plan. Those resources are certainly invaluable, and the education they provide is a critical part of creating a safe and welcoming campus culture, but they are only a small piece of the puzzle.

The committee should take the education available from these resources and transform it into a revised, explicitly structural proposal for meaningful diversity and inclusion. There is no clear mechanism for monitoring the culture and membership trends of clubs—we have an ambiguous oversight committee whose primary function seems to be event calendar management. We need to do a lot more: when these issues go explicitly unaddressed, quiet exclusion and bias are not far behind.

The final proposal says nothing meaningful about how to encourage inflexibly scheduled student-athletes to participate in social clubs with other students who are not athletes. In fact, the mandatory time commitment for multiple regular events seems completely counterproductive to bridging the divide—as written, it will only widen the gap.

Additionally, the final proposal totally misses the mark on inclusion of marginalized identities, and its laundry listing of educational resources contains no structural descriptions geared towards preventing the re-emergence of conventional power dynamics in social clubs—simply having women present does not count as diversity and inclusion. The entire inclusivity “section” of the proposal needs a complete re-write.

Conclusion:

Whether you support the idea of social clubs or not, you should think twice before voting “yes” on the coming referendum. If you support social clubs, you should recognize that the current draft of the proposal falls short in too many ways, and we need a final, significant revision before we can move forward. If you are against social clubs, you can see how the problems inherent in the initial proposal have largely carried over into the latest draft.

I’m sincerely glad that some people found meaningful social identity through their exclusive fraternity and fraternity-like groups on campus. That being said, there are more than 1,000 students on this campus who never felt the impulse to join or found these sorts of groups in the first place. Like many of you, I feel strongly that simply exporting the logic of the fraternity/fraternity-like organization to the entire campus as a solution to campus social culture is a mistake. With the creation of “neighborhoods” already incorporated into the official strategic plan, adding another arbitrary label to our social lives is going to fracture our campus even further. If social clubs are going to be a thing, we need to do them right. The current proposal is not there yet, and simply “trying it out” without addressing these issues would be a waste of time, money, and effort.


I sent an earlier version of these concerns to the social club committee’s email address, and I’m happy to report that they got back to me very quickly. As a result of our communications, I plan on attending their informational session this Friday at 6PM to hear them publicly explain how they will address these red flags. Unfortunately, the final written proposal is still seriously lacking, and if, as I hope, their comments admit the need for some of the changes suggested here, then we definitely need a final revision before implementation. This is a process, and we’re not done just yet.

Again, I want to stress that no one should think of the committee as some team of self-serving super-villains bent on draining resources and ruining Amherst social life—they are students like you and me, and they are just trying to make a positive impact on campus life. I appreciate their work dearly, but as it stands, the current proposal turns back the clock instead of moving us forward. I know that we can all work to make it better.

With this mind, I urge you to show up to the meeting on Friday or to send your questions with someone who is planning on going. Instead of getting into another anonymous chain of personal attacks in the comments section, we should work publicly with our peers to make this right. I hope to see you there!


[Editor’s note: an incomplete draft of this piece was unintentionally published earlier today, but this is the final version.]