On Social Clubs

  • By Lilia Paz '16
  • lpaz16@amherst.edu

Volume Volume XXXVIII, Issue 2, November 21, 2014

I walk in alone, perhaps a mistake. 

The meeting is at the Powerhouse on a Thursday evening. I’m a minute late and it seems the only people there are former fraternity brothers and the committee, none of them looking particularly excited. People trickle in and the chairs are all soon filled. Someone plays with the lights as if prepping for a party. Finally, we delve into the social clubs. A shadowy committee of club leaders, athletes, and former fraternity leaders has created this initiative as an alternative to Greek life. The programs are somewhat modeled on eating clubs at Princeton and social housing at Bowdoin. Social clubs can be single-sex or coed, have a “transparent” application process, must hold one open event per semester and must engage in some community service. Members can only belong to one club and are required to have a minimum GPA and go to a set number of events. If you’re rejected the first time you apply, you’re guaranteed acceptance the second time you apply to a social club.

The committee held this “introductory” meeting to garner feedback and modify the program accordingly, but they want to unroll the program next semester. Considering that they began working on this last semester and throughout the summer, it seems very late to ask for student input on a social program that they hope to start in two months. It’s too soon. The committee itself is heavily—almost entirely—athletes and former fraternity members. If the goal really is to bridge divides, then why has the conversation skewed towards one set of voices from the very beginning? These voices are necessary but so are voices from the Green Amherst Project, Pride Alliance, and the BSU. Judging from the audience, many clubs have been absent from the process, probably unaware that it was even going on until now—unaware of the incredible impact social clubs could have on the Amherst social scene, especially if it is a white, athletic, male voice that dominates the decisions. The committee’s attempt to invite us into the conversation now is too little, too late. Any attempt to solicit student opinion by the committee will already be set on unequal footing, founded upon a hierarchy of those doing the asking, and those doing the answering. They are at the table, having already decided on a proposal; we are in the audience. They, then, will hear our opinions, consolidate them, and decide how, if at all, to incorporate them. But who chose the committee in the first place, to do the thinking, deciding, and hearing for the entire student body, for whom, supposedly, the social clubs are being created?

Before we continue with social clubs, I must ask: What’s wrong with the clubs we already have? Why not reinforce and improve the clubs that have already been long-established on campus? Provide them with more funding and allow them to plan larger events. What makes a social club distinctive from a club? What unites the members in a social club if not a common interest? Loyalty, a sense of brotherhood? Here, we err painfully close to what Greek life constitutes. Prototypes of social clubs are, at this point, totally unclear. The committee itself seems to only have a murky idea of what exactly a social club will be. It will be up to the first round of social clubs to decide what to center themselves around and what precedents to take. Clubs on campus are open, and they already host events that are always open. They are dedicated to serving the community, forums for discussing one’s identity, activities of complete leisure, and many other purposes. What material could the social clubs broach that is not already covered by our present club life? By introducing social clubs, we create another hierarchy between social activities, another competition for funds. It’s another space where the institution can dictate what is important and what a student should do in their free time. Why do we need the administration to further govern and administer even our social life?

The social clubs could easily go awry and merely re-create school-approved Greek life. Princeton’s eating clubs are notoriously white and privileged—a message that flies in the face of our "diversity.” If the proposal is not radically modified and its implementation not postponed, and unless those at the table forming the proposal actually represent the student body, the social clubs will simply formalize the cliques that exist on campus and perpetuate the social gaps that make the typical Amherst student even more lonely than the average college student.