The following post is not intended to supplant constructive action on any of the issues raised. For instance, I've already spoken to the Dean about some of the specific problems I recently faced and suggested that the difficulties faced by student group leaders be addressed more systemically.
However, I still want to post because any student group leader may face in some form the same challenges I did, and hopefully in articulating them it will be easier to take the corrective action that will benefit all groups and their leaders.
Also, I have some frustrations I would still like to vent.
Some classmates of mine, as 1Ls, last year started the IP Law Society. It was no small task: there's a not insignificant learning curve to figuring out how to register and run a student group, and it all has to be figured out early in the year, when, especially as a 1L, you're trying to figure out everything else about law school. But they managed to get a few events together, and the organization was sufficiently in tact for new officers to take over this year. I ran for president, and like many other organizations I've been involved with, if you're willing to do the work you can get the job. I like running organizations and putting together events. I've done it before successfully, and I'm starting to think I might actually be good at it.
At the beginning to the year we planned the events we wanted to do. Last semester we did the IP Careers Panel. Then earlier this semester we did the IP Faculty Panel. From the outset, however, we knew we wanted to do another event as well, something addressing a particular issue of IP law. We decided to do this event in the spring, and late in the fall semester we met to decide the topic and speaker(s) we would pursue specifically. We decided that we wanted to invite someone from one of the advocacy NGO's who's been tracking these things to talk about the state of IP legislation in Congress.
Although we knew whom we wanted to ask to speak, we didn't make any specific invitations at that point. I personally didn't feel comfortable inviting someone before I knew if we'd have the budget to cover their travel expenses. I didn't think anyone would come if we didn't offer it, but I wasn't going to offer before I had the cash in hand in case we didn't get our budget approved. It was not an idle concern: not only had SBA reps voted against our budget request the previous semester, but after the money had been allocated we got an email from the then-SBA president saying that the SBA had over-extended itself and would welcome any money to be returned to its coffers. Getting the money we requested did not strike me as a sure thing at that point.
And it wasn't. Early in the spring semester we made our official budget request. We had budgeted for food at a general meeting and perhaps some other incidental expenses, which were approved easily, but the bulk of our budget request centered on $250 to cover transportation costs for a speaker. We came up with that figure, as we'd done the previous semester, because it would cover the plane or train ticket for someone traveling from New York or DC. We didn't ask for a higher amount that might cover a ticket from California because we didn't think we'd get it, even though it would have given us more flexibility on whom we could invite. We decided it was best to make a more modest request to increase the likelihood we'd get it.
But we nearly didn't. There were even more nay votes than the last semester and a lot of scrutiny about why we didn't use up all our money the previous semester. I can understand those questions to some degree: the SBA rightly does not want to allocate money to a group that won't use it, thereby depriving another group who might have been active of those resources. But I had answers to those questions. I brought with me to the meeting an email from the panelist who had to cancel on short notice, explaining that he had been called into court for a last-minute hearing. I brought with me the email I sent to another attorney to try to plug the hole. Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that we did have the panel, it was very successful, we spent our budget on the panelist who hadn't cancelled, and I had managed to plug the hole at the last minute after all. Only "unfortunately" the last minute panelist was someone local who had no expenses to reimburse. We asked if we could carry over the remaining budget allocation to the spring so that we wouldn't have to ask for more, but unfortunately the budget process doesn't allow for it. Use it, or lose it, and so we had to ask again for the money to have this semester's event.
So while I understood the questions, I still don't understand the nay votes. It seems to me that everyone is focusing on whether or not we manage to spend our money, not whether we run successful events that provide value to our fellow students. At least that was the impression that our group took away from the budget meeting (and the comments here would tend to support.)
The problem we then faced occurred when our best-laid plans started to fall apart. For this, blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the US Supreme Court. When it agreed to hear the appeal of Morpheus v. Grokster, all the interesting people we had wanted to invite to talk about copyright legislation got their schedules turned upside down in order to deal with this major piece of copyright litigation. As I sent out invitations I received responses one after another saying, "I'd love to be there, but I can't," because all their cycles had been spent dealing with the case. It was very flattering for the most part that they didn't say no right away – they took time to seriously consider it. But unfortunately their thoughtfulness ended up taking up time we didn't really have to spare.
Meanwhile, we'd already done one event during the semester. Technically, we'd now done all the events we really needed to do this year to be considered an active group. We wanted to do the other, but what drove us to continue to was that we felt we NEEDED to do it. We felt that if we didn't, we'd never get funding from the SBA again. And it couldn't just be any event; it had to be one that allowed us to spend the $250. Earlier in the semester I'd had in hand a perfectly good offer from a local speaker I couldn't accept because it wouldn't spend the money.
But then, huzzah! We got a speaker, who came up last week. I was very excited: he was an excellent speaker, eminently qualified to speak on our chosen topic, a topic we thought was extremely important to inform students about. But it was now April. Students' attentions are turning to finals. Some classes (like my trial advocacy one) are actually holding finals. We fully expected that it wouldn't be quite as well-attended as our other events.
But I expected more than 15 people! There's no reason that at this school we couldn't have pulled in 30-60 on this kind of topic - at least! The sparse crowd was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to the group; it was embarrassing to the school; and it was personally embarrassing to me. To get this speaker I had to use the connections I've fostered to help develop my career, and I can't help but feeling that I've compromised them. The implied deal for someone giving up their time to come up and speak is that I would deliver them an audience. And I couldn't hold up my end of the bargain.
There are a few issues for why that was, even beyond the generally bad timing of being so late in the semester. One has to do with communication – did people even know about the event? The answer is yes and no. There are certain communications channels that worked well for us: we used our mailing lists, we flyered, I asked the IP professors to announce it in their classes, and we got listed in newsflashes (a webpage the school uses to post reminders and announcements). Still, on hindsight I wonder if we should have flyered again, should I have sent a reminder email, should I have done this, should I have done that...? Clearly there were some small things I could have done. And there are certain structural problems with communications in the school that also explain any of the communications breakdowns. But the truth is that none of these things really caused the problem. Doing the same exact things for previous events had always resulted in the good-sized crowds we were looking for.
A larger problem was that my audience got double-booked. The Careers office planned an event that overlapped with ours, and one of the 1L professors extended his class so that it overlapped with it as well. This is what really frustrates me, because I went to great lengths to make sure there would be no conflicts. Earlier in the semester I looked up the master schedule for all the 1L sections and all the IP classes and figured out what times would work out for as many people as possible. Tuesdays at 3:30 was one of those times. We had a choice between the last Tuesday of the semester or the one before it, but the group's consensus was that earlier would be better. That choice nearly got scuttled when I went to book the room and found that the Dean had booked another large room, so I had to check with her to make sure we weren't competing for the same people. She gave me the thumbs up, so I went ahead and inked in mine.
And after all that proactive effort still got only 15 people. (And we only got that many because we held the start until 4, in order to get the people held in that 1L class.) Perhaps there is little that can be done about the class extension – after all, classes should get the top priority – but perhaps the school can encourage professors not to wait until the last minute to schedule their make-ups. Our snow days happened months ago – there'd been plenty of time to make up the lost class hours well before April. The school also desperately needs (and, from what I understand, will soon get) a master calendar, so that we don't have these kinds of conflicts where the CDO and the student groups schedule their events on top of each other. No one wants that. (The CDO would have gladly scheduled their event at another time if it had known about the conflict.) I probably should have dropped the CDO a line anyway, just as a matter of course, but hindsight is 20/20, and I guess that detail got lost in the thousands of others I was dealing with trying to make this event happen.
The thing is, what we really should have done was pushed the whole thing off to next semester, so that we could do it right. It's such an important issue, and it really deserved proper attention. And my speaker deserved an audience! But doing so never seemed like an option because of this requirement to spend the money.
Under the circumstances, the requirement seems absurd. I could understand the SBA's objection to allocating money for events that aren't firmly settled if it was either a really large amount of money, or if the group had never managed to get its events together. But we did events last year, and we did events this year. We did good events that people liked. We weren't asking for money and then being flakes – the things that came up that disrupted our plans were things beyond our control.
So we did what they wanted and spend the money, but possibly at great cost to our collective (and my personal) reputation, which may affect our ability to get future speakers. We also provided little to no value, in spite of the hundreds of dollars that were spent, because no one was there. It's failing to see the forest for the trees if precise budgeting is more of a priority than supporting our student body constructively, and unfortunately that seems to be the situation right now.
Meanwhile, as a separate concern, I also wish the university at large would organize its bureaucracy in a way to be, if not more supportive of, at least less of a burden on student groups. For example, two weeks ago I got a nasty form letter from IT threatening to turn off our group email account IN A WEEK unless I got a letter from our sponsor to justify keeping it. First I had to figure out who was the sponsor. It turns out to be the Student Activities Office who administers all university student groups. The SAO gladly wrote me the letter, which I then had to HAND DELIVER to the IT office down the street. Email wasn't sufficient, apparently. Of course, it was an exercise in futility, since the letter attested that we were an active group for 2004-5 academic year, which ends in a matter of weeks. It would make much more sense to sync up the SAO and IT so that when the SAO makes us reregister in the fall it could automatically communicate to IT so that student group leaders can focus on running their groups and not being emergency carrier pigeons.
In any case, my general zeal and enthusiasm for running groups is at an ebb. I normally have vast quantities of energy to throw at it, but at the moment I'm burnt out. And not just because I'm generally tired from the semester. Running successful events is a lot of work but can be tremendously rewarding. If the events are doomed to fail, though, then it becomes just a soul-sucking endeavor. It can be a huge commitment, running a student group, and if it's going to be so needlessly taxing it's just going to burn out a lot of good people and cause their groups to wither. And that's hardly good for the school or its students. To whatever extent possible, running groups should be made as easy as possible. They are a huge bonus for the school, a tremendously valuable asset created entirely by interested volunteers. It should not be so hard to make that kind of contribution.