COVID-19 has drastically changed social life on campus. But rather than relishing a return to our pre-pandemic normal, we should strive for something different and better.
After two months on campus, one thing is clear: nearly every aspect of life at Furman has changed. This drastic and rapid departure from our comfort zone has left students anxious for a return to normalcy.
This desire is understandable and well-intentioned. After all, the current college experience at Furman is unsatisfactory to say the least, and certainly not worth the nearly $50,000 tuition price tag. As students, we should be demanding better, more creative, and more flexible policies from the administration today. We should also have empathy for our campus leaders and a sincere appreciation for the challenges they are facing.
In the meantime, it might also be worthwhile to reflect on our own desire for a return to normalcy. Most of us would admit that the typical student experience at Furman pre-COVID-19 was not perfect. Student life at Furman has been stagnant, and out of touch with the majority of Furman students, for far too long.
If we flashback to last spring, before COVID-19 changed everything, I would have painted the Furman social landscape like this:
There were more or less four main groups: athletes, Greek life, social climbers, and everyone else. These groups were not mutually exclusive, though there was not a ton of crossover, and your group largely defined your Furman experience. Let’s zoom in on each group.
Athletes were the most clearly defined group on campus. First of all, they are all physically fit and rock that awesome Furman gear. In other words, you can often identify an athlete by their appearance. If that fails, however, an athlete’s schedule is a dead give away. No one else wakes up earlier than 6:00AM to go work out. As a consequence, socially, athletes spend most of their time with their teammates. Of course, they have friends who are not on their teams (and that is great), but they spend most of their time practicing, training, or studying with their teams or other athletes.
Greek life is also fairly well defined and has been perhaps the most prominent or influential institution on campus for years. Roughly 50% of the student body is in a Greek organization, and that means there is massive social pressure to rush. Though Furman often brags about how our delayed, spring rush allows students to find their place before committing to a Greek organization, what it really does is give you the opportunity to realize that if you do not join a fraternity or sorority, you are going to have a tough time making friends, attending parties, or having a “traditional college experience” at Furman. After all, fraternities and sororities have always had an element of exclusivity. That is part of what makes them attractive to people. It is cool to be at a party that not everyone can get into. It is even cooler when that party is at your off-campus frat house or third-party venue and the alcohol is flowing pretty freely for anyone who has a fake ID or knows a brother.
The next group, social climbers, have gained a lot of influence in the past four years. When I say social climbers, I am referring to the “Furman famous.” You know, that group of smart, smiley, articulate overachievers that join the ranks of Furman’s prestigious student organizations and leadership institutes every year. Yes, yes, you know who I am talking about. We all do. In fact, in many ways, I have been in this group during my time at Furman, and I do not mean to be overly critical. But the dirty little secret of these organizations is that they are just as exclusive, if not more so, than the fraternities and sororities. Their application processes weed people out early on, and although they host events that are “open to everyone,” more often than not, they and their close friends are the only ones in attendance.
Finally, there is, well, everyone else. It is hard to describe this group because their distinctive feature is basically that they are not in any of the other groups. However, these students are often the ones driving change at Furman. Whether it be starting new groups, creating thought-provoking cultural life programs, hosting dinner parties, or organizing intramural sports teams, these students help make social life here special. That is not to say that athletes, students in Greek life, and the social climbers do not do these things too, but it is to point out that far too often “everyone else” at Furman is overlooked.
Over the past four years, Furman’s social topography has seen one serious change. As the influence of Greek life has waned (in large part due to University policies such as banning fraternity houses) the prominence of the social climbers has risen. This is no accident. Furman overtly sponsors the social climbers and their organizations.
I know this is no small claim, but it is easy to support; just look at this year’s SGA budget. Despite leaders’ best efforts to adjust the budget in light of COVID-19 induced changes, structural barriers still prevented any sort of radical reshuffling of student priorities.
For example, Furman University Student Activities Board (FUSAB)—arguably the most exclusive student organization on campus and consequently the most attractive to social climbers—has one explicit purpose: to host events for the student body. Yet, this semester, even though COVID-19 makes it extremely difficult to host events, FUSAB still received $140,000 in student funds. At some point, one has to ask, what are they using all that money for? Is there a way to use it better?
At the end of the day I would like to see Furman place more emphasis on the “everyone else” group that I am essentially a member of. That’s why I was initially encouraged to see Furman crafting policy to diminish the social influence of Greek life on campus. In my opinion, Greek life can be good and bad, but it certainly has had too dominant of a position on social life at Furman. Unfortunately, in Greek life’s place, the administration is now promoting a new, exclusive social group that is even more out of touch with the rest of the student body: the social climbers.
Fundamentally, the structure of student life on campus is not changing, Furman is simply replacing who is on top. Smiling sycophants are replacing keg-guzzling frat boys as the rulers of campus.
This raises the question: what makes student life at Furman so rigid, unresponsive, and ultimately loyal to a small group of students that are out of touch with the rest of the student body?
The answer lies largely in the concept of "at-large organizations." Contrary to common knowledge, several student organizations, including FUSAB, are not required to submit a budget proposal because of their special status as “at-large” organizations. Instead, these groups, which are designated by SGA, are automatically allocated a certain percentage of the overall budget. Moreover, though they are unelected, they receive voting memberships on SGA committees. Together, these policies insulate “at-large” organizations, incentivize them to waste rather than save or (can you even imagine) make money, and underscore the image of a corrupt student elite at Furman that acts as more of a social club than a true leadership class on campus.
This is not to criticize every “at-large” organization—the Student Diversity Council has one of the most important missions on campus. But this is a criticism of the way Furman has structured student life over the years and the concept of “at-large” organizations more broadly. Rather than awarding creativity and impact, Furman has policies in place which lead to a powerful institutional inertia that prevents dynamism and has fostered a milquetoast, anodyne, and kitschy campus culture that leaves most students unsatisfied with their social experience.
Thus, it may not be good enough to simply get Furman’s student life back to normal. Our normal sort of sucked. Campus was divided into different camps of students who rarely interacted with one another in meaningful ways, our most prominent student organizations were out of touch with the majority of the student body, and we were stuck in a downward spiral of animosity and alienation in which many students felt like they were on the outside looking in on their own campus.
COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to change that. In the wake of this pandemic, we can reimagine the student experience at Furman, starting with the class of 2024. I hope that our community will make the most of that chance. To start the discussion, let me propose an idea:
Instead of charging each student a $190 SGA fee that is then allocated to “at-large” organizations and other student groups behind closed doors, let’s make a policy that requires students to donate some portion of their $190 dollars (or whatever they are financially able) to student organizations of their choosing.
This policy would be more challenging to execute, but it would have several positive benefits:
- It would force students to take an interest in student organizations on campus. After all, you are not going to give $190 to just anyone.
- It would force organizations to be impact-driven. If you want funding, you should convince students to give it to you by doing good work.
- It would get students in the habit of donating money to the school. I am pretty sure the alumni office would love that.