The perpetual Game of Thrones

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

It’s a familiar sight for freshmen this week. About this time every semester, the first-year students realize they cannot do everything for which they signed up. This could mean that a few of the 12 email lists they joined will be disappearing. It could be that they drop a class out of their 18-credit hour schedule. Or it could be dropping another commitment, like volunteering or Sunday church services. For a lot of first year college students, this week clearly laid out for them the difference between high school and college.

However, this is not a piece about the sage advice a senior can give the cohorts of freshmen that now roam the sidewalks and hallways of Case Western Reserve University. Honestly, I am not sure I am the person most fit to give that advice anyway. In some ways, I never encountered the realization that I couldn’t do everything. To this day, I am an active member of at least six groups, more depending on your meaning of “active member.”

Instead, I want you to consider student groups in general. If you run one of these, consider your own. If you’re merely a part of one or more, use those.

The groups I am a part of all have one thing in common though. They are, or at least claim to be, student-run. This is an important distinction, and one that deserves a little bit of defining. Student-run organizations, not necessarily only those funded by the Undergraduate Student Government, are exactly what their name suggests, run by students. These organizations give future leaders of society a way to test their skills and methods before breaking them out down the road in a board room or conference hall.

Alternatively, there is the role of the advisor. It seems almost counterintuitive for a student-run organization to also have a non-student leader, even in an advisory role. But time and time again, advisors become the necessary evil of the organization. They prevent students from running amok with power and making decisions that will negatively and permanently affect their brand.

But these two systems are always in conflict. Some organizations on this campus refuse to take the advice or require the consent of an advisor. They are strictly and vehemently “student-run.” Others rely on an advisor too much. Instead of student ideas and practices ruling the day, the group is an extension of the advisor—hardly student-run at all.

I cannot make a value judgment on how all student organizations should be run based on these definitions though. Consider the consequences of either.

Let’s look at an organization every reader will know, The Observer itself. Ostensibly, the paper is student-run. The editorial board is comprised of students. The advisor only exists at the bottom of the masthead. And this is probably how it should be. The paper prides itself on being a voice for and about students, any heavier advisory role would be a dangerous encroachment on that mission.

On the other hand, consider, what if, next week the editorial board dictates to me how and about what I should be writing. Most people, especially most writers, would find this to be a wildly out-of-line demand. In that case, I would be happy that the paper has a faculty advisor, simply as a resource for me to engage with when the students are being unreasonable. Remember the “protect your brand” function.

Let’s take another example. Most of the student services offices now based in the Tinkham Veale center (the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning, the LGBT Center, the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, etc.) have some sort of student executive board. The students provide an integral perspective on what the office does or the issues and events it pursues. Since the offices are otherwise staffed by full-time non-students, this fresh perspective is necessary for them to stay relevant. However, this student perspective is rightfully tempered through the staff. If the student executive board of any of these organizations made a decision that was unpopular or wrong, the staff is there to step in and right the ship. In the end, the students are making decisions that affect far more than themselves. The staff is necessary to advise and correct things that might go wrong.

Unlike the other example, the non-student advisors here are absolutely needed and should be involved at every step of the decision making process. This is not a model that works for everything, though. Most organizations cannot survive on the orders and demands of an advisor.

I cannot in these pages bring myself to make a value judgment on which end of the spectrum an organization should fall. That statement though is precisely why. It’s not as if organizations can choose one option or the other. It’s a spectrum of involvement and governance. How an organization is run is entirely up to that organization, and maybe an overzealous advisor or two. It’s your own personal Game of Thrones.

This week, it’s important the organizations examine where exactly they fall, and what they want to change about that. Make the changes that will put you in a better position for the months and years to come. That could mean adapting an old rule or writing new ones, reinvigorating an old advisor, or recruiting from the outside. Organizations, you have your new members, now fix the old ones.

Andrew Breland is the Observer’s senior opinion columnist. Contact him at