James Madison defined tyranny as the “accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands.”
Clearly, he was thinking of the Office of Student Life. It alone writes, enforces, and interprets rules for student clubs. And it uses these powers to bully clubs into visiting the Student Organization Center at Hilles. True, the SOCH has a noble purpose: to bring student organizations “into one space that can support their individual goals while sparking new channels of conversation and collaboration.” But this ideal is unattainable. You can’t force collaboration.
Yet bureaucrats try. Three years ago, David R. Friedrich, then the SOCH’s manager, vowed that Hilles would “become the place to be.” The SOCH boasted 40,000 square feet of space, including a cinema, a recording studio, and a coffee bar. Unfortunately, this fanfare was located 16 million square feet from Harvard Yard—a 15-minute walk. Despite Friedrich’s hopes, few students frequented Hilles.
So the SOCH tried to attract patrons. Sometimes, it dangled carrots. It broadcast shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and screened films like “The Dark Knight.” In 2007, it offered an iPod to the student who created the best logo for the center. Unamused, one student suggested that the logo read: “SOCH: Miles away from anywhere.” Undeterred, the SOCH started a page on Facebook to incite enthusiasm. Today, it has 29 fans.
Other times, it wielded sticks. The SOCH tracks how often students swipe into their clubs’ offices and considers this data when reviewing applications for space each year. Two years ago, the SOCH, the jealous lover, felt vindictive. It refused to renew several clubs’ leases for lack of use, even though the spaces had no alternative occupants. “We’re not trying to fill up space if it’s going to be unused,” a student advisor to the SOCH told this newspaper.
Still, many students continue to ignore the SOCH, so the OSL now mandates that they trek to Hilles. To register on campus, clubs must attend “community meetings” and “workshops,” both of which take place in the SOCH. Maybe some students have formed friendships while watching slideshows in the penthouse, but many think these activities are a waste of time.
Consider the workshops. The intention is to build community, but the method is questionable. Club officers must attend two workshops among the several offered to register their organization. In one workshop, a moderator gave students Play-Doh because he didn’t expect them to pay attention for longer than 20 minutes—in a 90-minute class. During the program, students had to express three things about themselves without speaking or writing to imitate the barriers they face in forming a community. Really.
And that’s when you have options. Increasingly, the SOCH has restricted clubs’ flexibility. For instance, clubs used to list information about their meetings in the Calendar of Opening Days to attract freshmen. But this year, to be in the calendar, groups had to hold their events in the SOCH. It couldn’t accommodate all organizations at once, however, so clubs had to apply for rooms in groups of three. Many were turned down. The insistence that clubs use the SOCH inconveniences the students it is supposed to help.
Some requirements that the OSL places on clubs are reasonable. For example, groups must distribute to members information about laws against hazing. But, lately, the office’s grip on clubs has been too tight. The SOCH checks offices for decorations to ensure clubs are not using their offices solely for storage. And if a club disturbs the building’s feng shui—say, by putting a sticker on a wall—it pays a fine worth up to $70.
This campaign in behalf of the SOCH shows bureaucrats’ folly: Central planning would work if people didn’t muck things up. The OSL means well; it wants students to take advantage of the resources it spent much money preparing. But you can’t dictate that students create a community or teach leadership with Play-Doh. You can’t force people to live according to your plan, however well devised. Community forms organically.
The OSL should make community meetings and workshops voluntary for all clubs. And it should not require that groups hold events in the SOCH if they want their information in the Calendar of Opening Days. These requirements are obnoxious, and our bureaucrats should realize that, occasionally, the proactive approach is the wrong one. Sometimes, the right approach is minding your own business.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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