David Meni: The University should expect more from the CSE

Updated: Sept. 29, 2014 at 5:36 p.m.

It was about 3 p.m. on a Thursday when I received a strange email from the Center for Student Engagement. I was told – in the detached and bureaucratic language I had come to expect – that since my student organization was a “no-show” at the fall Student Organization Fair, we were forbidden from participating in the spring fair.

Had my mind deceived me? Those conversations I had, the addition of new members to our listserv, the free (slightly melted) Jolly Ranchers, the sound of the Kogan fountain and the warmth of that August afternoon sun – was it all an illusion?

I looked on Facebook and sighed in relief: There was our photo, all smiling faces, standing at our table for the fair. After a full day trying to contact the CSE, including sending them the photo, the center finally admitted its mistake.

This story would be amusing if it were an isolated incident. In my two-and-a-half years as a leader of the GW Roosevelt Institute, the CSE has either been inaccessible or, worse, acted as a roadblock on multiple occasions.

At a school where we often pride ourselves on student involvement, the CSE could do a much better job serving as a boon to student organizations instead of a burden.

Last week, the CSE released a PDF called the “Student Organization Fall Update” that explains some of its services and new policies. It includes expectations for student organization staff advisers – a page of vague mission statements without any clear mandates. The most common phrase in these requirements is “make an effort to.”

I’m not alone in feeling the effects of this convoluted and bureaucratic system. I reached out to about 400 student group leaders asking them about their experiences with the CSE. At the time of this writing, 15 have gotten back to me, and more responses come in every day. Almost every leader had a story to share about a time he or she became caught in the CSE’s red tape.

Some responses I received were downright concerning, like this testimony from Steven Munnelly, a former student organization leader now in a GW graduate program: “I submitted two reimbursements on the same day, and the one for over $150 was lost while the one for about $13 was approved quite expeditiously…[the CSE] has not returned e-mails for over four months unless it was to pass the buck to someone else.”

Obviously, that’s just one student’s experience, but looming over all the complaints is a culture that seems to value procedure over community. While GW is certainly notable for its spending on student services, little attention has been given to how well this money actually translates to a personable experience.

Here’s an almost comically perfect example of the disconnect: The fall update encourages students to email orghelp@gwu.edu to provide feedback about the CSE or ask questions. I sent an email to that address just to see how long it would take to get a response. Minutes later, I received a message that my email was “undeliverable.” The problem? “No such user.”

Meanwhile, getting in touch with advisers can be incredibly difficult. In my experience, office hours are not well-known, and some advisers can take a long time to respond to email requests, if at all. The best way to schedule a meeting with someone in the CSE is through an appointment request portal, which only lists a handful of staff members. It’s also scarcely publicized: To find it, you have to look at the bottom of email signatures of CSE staff.

The inaccessibility of some CSE advisers makes sense when you do the math. GW has an incredibly active student body: there are over 450 student organizations. With about 30 staff advisers, any single adviser can have 15 or more groups to look after, assuming they’re divided evenly.

As great as an adviser may be (and some student leaders I heard from are very happy with theirs), there’s just not enough time in the day for an adviser to have a personal relationship with everyone.

To better assist student groups that are being left out to dry, there are steps the University and the CSE can take. Adviser information, especially office hours and meeting availability, should be more accessible in a central location.

The CSE should also expect more from advisers: The University of California at San Diego, for example, requires advisers to attend weekly meetings and know executive board members.

It often feels like students have no input in policy decisions, though they are left to deal with the consequences of those policies. For instance, a new student driver policy limits trips to 300 miles, which has considerably handicapped many groups that travel. Liz Hart, the president of receSs, told me the student improv group “now cannot easily get to the National College Comedy Festival at Skidmore that has been a part of our tradition for nearly 20 years.”

If GW cannot hire more advisers, it should open advising to faculty. At American University and the University of Chicago, for instance, organizations can have a professor in a field relevant to their interests act as both an adviser and institutional advocate. This is also the case at Boston University, where student leaders are polled on what they would like from their advisers so roles and responsibilities are clear and focused on engagement.

A good adviser can go a long way in bettering the experiences of student organizations and the day-to-day lives of their leaders. In spite of its title, the Center for Student Engagement could be much more engaging and much less bureaucratic. Maybe then running a student organization wouldn’t also make me question my sanity.

David Meni, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly spelled the name of the student improv group receSs. It is receSs, not reCess. We regret this error.

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