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Updated 2:00 PM February 11, 2005




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SOAR seeks input from student groups

The U-M Student Organization and Recognition (SOAR) Advisory Committee will hold several public meetings before releasing final recommendations in March for delineating policies involving relationships between student groups and the University.

SOAR—composed of students, faculty and staff—began meeting last fall to identify issues and define the possible relationships between student groups and the University. Members also discussed ways to inform groups about their rights, responsibilities and opportunities to access University resources. Issues included things such as whether a group can use the U-M trademark and have access to meetings rooms and University vans. In turn, U-M wants to ensure that groups are complying with University rules involving issues such as discrimination, fundraising, student safety and other legal matters.

"By enhancing our relationship with student organizations, we will be able to improve the services we offer students, which is a necessary element in fulfilling the University's mission," says E. Royster Harper, vice president for student affairs. "This is important work within the campus community and I am appreciative of the students, faculty and staff who have been leading this effort."

Initial recommendations include a three-tier model that would allow groups to choose their relationship with U-M—ranging from complete autonomy without access to University resources to greater oversight with many benefits and compliance with all relevant institutional practices and policies.

About 95 percent of student groups would fall into a middle category that provides some benefits and University oversight.

"We hope this will lead to less red tape, and that faculty and staff will be more comfortable in helping groups meet their goals," says Susan Eklund, dean of students. "This would allow us to provide better services for student groups. Additionally, a comprehensive student group policy would help the University comply with fiscal, legal and ethical matters with regard to student groups and organizations."

There will be two public meetings, at which SOAR members will present their initial recommendations, respond to questions and solicit community feedback. The meetings will be 6:30 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Vandenberg Room at the Michigan League and 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Regents Room at the Fleming Administration Building.

During a Feb. 1 meeting with members of the Michigan Student Assembly, Donica Varner, assistant general counsel, said she believes the proposed new policies will be good for student groups.

"We want to make these resources transparent and accessible to all students," Varner, co-chairwoman of the SOAR Core Team, told the group of about 50 students in the Michigan Union. "This policy ought to serve your interests and our interests. We don't want to shove a policy down your throat that will impair the way you operate."

Some of the benefits of being a group closely affiliated with U-M would include being listed in University publications and having office space on campus and being covered under the University's insurance plan. It also would include the opportunity to hire contractors through U-M, an option to fundraise in the University's name and having a link from the U-M Web site.

Student groups that desire the closest relationships with the University would be required to have a faculty or staff advisor, under the current draft model. Other student groups, however, would not be required to have an one. SOAR is considering a recommendation that would provide support for student groups that want an advisor but are having difficulty securing one.

Some students at the Feb. 1 event expressed concern that rules would institutionalize a system in a way that allows some groups more access to resources than others. Others worried that the policies would allow the University to censor groups that speak out against the institution.

"For groups that are not favored by the University, this would make it more difficult for them to exist," said Nicole Campbell, an applied physics graduate student and MSA member.

In response, Varner assured participants the University legally is prohibited from denying a group access to resources based on their opinions or speech.

"The University is not interested in regulating the beliefs or speech of students groups," Varner says. "The University, however, does have an interest in holding student groups accountable for their behaviors and conduct in the same way individual members of the community are held accountable."

SOAR has seven subcommittees exploring the areas of financial management, risk management, scheduling/space allocation, general benefits and resources, special interest student organizations, student organization jurisdiction, and rollout/informing the public.

Among the areas that needed clarification were issues related to special interest student organizations, such as those with a religious or political focus or those having exclusive membership practices.

"Most groups won't see a drastic change in their relationship to the University. If anything, the ties will be clearer, and groups will have a better idea of what rights and access they have within the community," says Susan Wilson, director of Student Activities & Leadership and co-chairwoman of the SOAR Core Team. "We've already got a good group of students and staff involved, and we've tried to be as inclusive as possible. But we're always looking for more input."

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