Social Clubs Funding in Doubt

(Marc Daalder) — We haven’t heard much from the Social Project Work Group – the committee in charge of designing and implementing social clubs – since their public relations boom leading up to the October 5 poll on the implementation of a trial period. The Student covered their search for funding in brief, and a submission form for ideas for social clubs opened on November 22 and will remain available for almost two weeks. However, the questions raised in the days before the October 5 poll – on funding, inclusivity, and the lack of a concrete definition of social clubs’ purpose – have yet to be answered.

In the weeks after the poll, I spoke with a number of current and former committee members, administration officials, and AAS members to get a better idea of what’s happening with social clubs, and the likelihood of their implementation next semester.

The primary issue facing the Social Project Work Group, according to those I talked with, is funding. Estimates of required funds range from $20,000 to $30,000. The amount needed seems uncertain, and also depends on the number of clubs created next semester. For each club, they want $4,000 to $5,000 for a campus-wide social event and $1,000 for intra-club events. This adds up to $15,000 to $30,000 for 3 to 5 clubs, though it is the latter number that was most often cited by those I spoke with.

Alex Vasquez, the Dean of Students and head of Student Affairs, has been one of the prime administrators working with the Social Project Work Group. He said to me that, “We [Student Affairs] don’t have $30,000 per semester for social clubs,” reiterating a point made in an interview with The Student in late October, during which he said that “[t]he administration isn’t going to fund a $30,000 project. We don’t have it.”

Despite this, the same Student article cited committee members Tom Sommers ’16 and Virginia Hassell ’16 saying they hoped to get funding from the administration. Student Affairs has, however, offered to pay wages for a student from the computer science department to create an algorithm for sorting students into different social clubs. This algorithm, according to Vasquez, is integral to the social clubs project. “Without the algorithm, you’ve got nothing,” he explained.

Unfortunately for the Social Project Work Group, without the funding, they’ve got nothing either. After the administration’s rebuff, they turned to the AAS for money. I spoke with AAS Treasurer Paul Gramieri, who has previously commented on the impossibility of funding social clubs, and who maintains this is still the case.

Gramieri and the members of the Budgetary Committee (BC) met with the Social Project Work Group on October 26, where they were asked, as Gramieri recounts, “‘[h]ow much funding can you give out of the discretionary fund that would not disrupt the day-to-day activities of the AAS?’ We said, ‘Well, technically, zero.’ Technically,” he said, “We don’t have funding. We just don’t. They think that we do – everyone thinks that we do – but we don’t.”

There was, however, a single possible outcome in which the Social Project Work Group could receive funding. “If – big if – if they are able to negotiate down the price of the Olio, and if we are able to work down the price of some of our 5-College fees, then – and only then – could we contribute an absolute maximum of $10,000 to social clubs.” For context: The Olio is currently in the process of renegotiating their $35,000 contract, and the AAS has to pay thousands of dollars for various 5-College programs, including the free PVTA transportation.

Even if these requirements are met, the money the AAS can pay falls far short of the $20,000 to $30,000 needed to implement the social clubs trial period. And even this comparatively paltry amount came with a critical caveat. The AAS has numerous strict policies for funding groups, one of which is that the group is entirely inclusive. Gramieri isn’t confident that the social clubs, as they are set up, fulfill this requirement. “They are exclusive, therefore, they cannot get funding. Tomi [Williams] doesn’t want to think that they are, the Social Project Work Group doesn’t want to think that they are, but social clubs are exclusive.”

The only way to fix this, Gramieri says, would be to radically alter the social clubs model in order to make them fit the AAS definition of inclusivity. However, according to an article published by The Student following the October 5 poll, “Tom Sommers ’16, a member of the work group, said that at this time, the major components of the social club proposal are unlikely to change.”

Thus, without funding from the administration or the AAS, the Social Project Work Group is left with few options. Former work group member Samuel Rosenblum ’16 noted that he could “[t]heoretically imagine some rich alum give money particularly for this cause.”

Of course, if they had to turn to outside funding sources, this would represent a massive failure on the part of the Social Project Work Group, and would raise questions as to their accountability, oversight, and whether they are actually wanted on campus. It’s also worth noting here that 989 students didn’t vote in favor of the trial period – some voted against, while some didn’t vote at all. Nonetheless, this represents some 56% of the campus.

Gramieri contacted me on November 25 to say, given the fact that “the price of the Olio, so far, has not gone down for next semester, and neither has the price of our 5 College Fees, the AAS cannot and will not contribute to the cost of the social clubs.”

Funding is also not the only issue facing the Social Project Work Group. One of the major criticisms of the project since its start as the brainchild of former fraternity members following the May 6, 2014 Board of Trustees decision has focused on the work group’s inability to provide a concrete and comprehensive definition of social clubs.

Primarily, critics have said that the social clubs themselves represent a contradiction. They are supposed to be interest-neutral, and thus presumably indistinguishable, and yet prospective social club members would be surveying different clubs and ranking their favorites. When I talked with the work group chair Tom Sommers ’16, he discussed how students his view on this issue.

“For the trial period, people would rank the clubs. The way they could distinguish them was based just on the events that the club planned on having, names, maybe an emblem or mascot, colors,” he explained, before providing an example. “Maybe even if people like the mascot of one better than the other. So it would be kind of arbitrary in a way, but that’s kind of the point of it, because we want to get a bunch of people from all different parts of campus sorted into these groups based on arbitrary distinctions – but not entirely arbitrary distinctions, because we want these to be clubs that they want to join.”

The term that comes to mind when thinking of social groups formed along arbitrary – and thus, ultimately meaningless – lines is Kurt Vonnegut’s “granfalloon.” The author – who lectured for some time at the nearby Smith College – defined this as a “group of two or more people who imagine or are manipulated to believe they share a connection based on some circumstance of little or no real significance,” or “a large yet meaningless association of human beings.”

Amherst College is already filled with too many divisions: athletes and non-athletes, legacy and diversity, prep school and public school, Lord Jeffs and Moose and Frost, and dozens more that won’t be addressed through the addition of purple-hedgehog-themed social clubs. In fact, social clubs would only represent yet another division (“What social club are you in? Are you even in a social club?”), a totally meaningless social formation that is not just unhelpful, but actually harmful to campus life.

There’s only three weeks left in the semester, following Thanksgiving Break, and the Social Project Work Group still has much to accomplish. Though they have created a submission form for (apparently arbitrary) social club ideas, they still have no source of funding and have failed to concretely define the purpose or use of social clubs on campus. As the semester nears its close, it looks as if the Social Project Work Group is extremely unprepared for the implementation of a trial period in the Spring, to the point where one must wonder if there is time for such an effective trial period to be executed at all.