This year, McMaster is home to 304 clubs under the McMaster Students Union branding.
That’s 304 clubs that receive the full benefits of MSU affiliation, which includes funding to support club initiatives, eligibility for the use of the lockers and/or offices in ClubSpace, and the ability to use the MSU name and various MSU advertising services free of charge. These and other benefits are outlined in the MSU section of McMaster’s Policy on the Recognition of Student Groups.
However, not outlined directly in this document are other, implicit benefits that a club receives as a part of the MSU. Most importantly, a sense of legitimacy is entitled to each and every MSU-affiliated club as a reflection of the unique contributions made to the university’s goals and values. This tacit endorsement on behalf of the school is arguably the most valuable of the benefits a club can receive.
But that sense of legitimacy fades when the meaning of being a club on campus is overwhelmed by an oversaturation of causes and agendas.
Currently, McMaster runs one of the largest clubs systems in the country, despite its undergraduate population of 25,900 falling well outside of Canada’s top ten largest schools. For comparison’s sake, the University of Ottawa has 10,000 more undergraduate students than McMaster, yet hosts just over 175 clubs. And while the University of Toronto runs 800 clubs for its 68,000 undergraduate population, this number is spread across its three campuses.
The only two campuses in the country that definitively have a larger clubs program than McMaster this year are Queen’s University, with an absurd 400 clubs for an undergraduate population of 20,500, and the University of British Columbia, with 370 clubs for a student body nearly twice as large as McMaster’s.
“We are confident that the size in terms of funding, number of clubs, and reach is one of the best in the province and also in Canada,” said MSU VP (Finance) Scott Mallon of Mac’s clubs.
This is a point of pride for McMaster students, and rightfully so. Students can attribute the passion and diversity at McMaster as contributing factors behind the extensive clubs system.
But of the 304 clubs this year, only 29 of them are classified as “cultural” clubs; “social issues” make up the largest cohort of clubs at 106. And whether it’s with an oversaturation at ClubsFest or a dilution of funds to clubs, there are real drawbacks to such a large clubs system.
“I remember [ClubsFest] was really crowded; I was a bit overwhelmed,” said first-year Life Sciences student, Nancy Recalde. “I didn’t really know where to look, so I ended up going through it three times.”
It’s a problem that compounds upon itself, too; a large volume of clubs comes with an increasing number of student executives, and the implicit pressure for students to be executives of their own clubs. This mentality is of particular relevance to students applying for professional schools or looking to expand their resume, with less of an emphasis on what the club can provide for the school, and more on what the club can provide for the individual.
This has led to a large turnover of clubs in the past year. During the 2013-14 academic year, 365 clubs had been approved for MSU affiliation; only 279 of them are returning clubs for the current 2014-15 academic year. And out of 86 clubs that were newly ratified one year ago, 25 of them are no longer in the MSU clubs directory this year.
While losing 29 percent of first-year clubs can be swallowed as a part of student-led initiatives, that’s 25 clubs dispersed only a few months after they had been deemed unique, beneficial, and, most importantly, sustainable.
Griffith Dias, MSU Clubs Administrator, explained that new clubs need to be able to prove their niche and contribution to the McMaster community.
“We read the application and see if they provide something to the community, provide an actual enhancement to the life on campus,” said Dias. “Another aspect [we look at] is a unique and inclusive environment that [addresses] the McMaster community’s needs right now.”
However, this raises an important issue regarding club sustainability. The current application process depends largely on the niche a club fills and its potential benefit to the McMaster community. But outside of anecdotal questions in an interview, there is currently no requirement for new club executives to address the sustainability of the driving idea behind their club, and its sustainability past an executive’s time at Mac.
Dias explained, “the majority of the time, the success of a club diminishes as years go by because the student leaders graduate and they cannot find the students to continue the club. But, at the same time, some clubs were not following McMaster or MSU policies and were given chances to improve throughout the year.”
With the current system in place, the MSU is able to reevaluate clubs on a year-to-year basis, but the system is currently more designed to solve problems rather than prevent them. Still, compared to last year, it seems there has been a conscious effort on the part of the MSU to better regulate the clubs that receive certification and funding.
“The clubs listing did reduce from 2013-14 to 2014-15; a lot of clubs did not choose to reapply again, and there were a lot of issues with some clubs regarding risk management and event approval,” Dias said. “Some of them, we couldn’t give them status again.”
What’s important to note is that clubs do not require MSU status in order to gather as a group on campus. Greg Chen, a third-year Health Sciences student, has run an unofficial recreational math club for the past two years, and with an attendance of 5 – 10 people each week. The group works on and discusses math problems and problem-solving challenges. While acknowledging the benefits of MSU-affiliation, Chen explained that he hasn’t seen the need for it yet.
“In terms of the funding, just by the nature of the meetings I haven’t had a need to [apply],” he said. “My biggest asset at this point in my life is my time, so applying for MSU club status might actually be of negative value for me, just because of the administrative overhead that could potentially be involved.
“Being unofficial of course has downsides with regards to promotions, but it’s kind of exciting at the same time,” he continued. “Everyone in the group feels some level of ownership over [the club], partially because it’s so small, and partially because we realize that the only reason why the group exists is because of the people who show up; we have nothing else driving it.”
Issues such as funding are inevitable when examining how a large clubs system has potential ramifications on clubs with a need for a larger budget. Currently, the MSU already provides $100,000 towards club funding. Mallon explained that this budget is more than adequate.
“There are a lot of clubs that do not spend their total allocation. However, the MSU has not decreased the clubs budget because of this. Each year, the clubs that prove their responsible spending are eligible for more funding.”
But clubs do lack a wider range from which to request funding; allocations begin at $150 for new clubs, to a cap of around $1,000, based on each club’s requests to the Clubs Administrator.
“MSU funding for clubs is just one aspect that is provided for clubs,” Dias explained. “But we do encourage them to go out and have fundraisers and seek other avenues for fundraising initiatives […] for their club in general.”
Clubs at McMaster span from small enthusiast groups with little to no operating cost, to clubs like The Meducator and Smiling Over Sickness, which run budgets well beyond the maximum allotment provided by the MSU. Responsible funding is undoubtedly a priority for both the MSU and students, and a club like SOS does earn a lot of its funding through fundraisers.
But the cap on funding is the product of an imbalanced and limited supply, a symptom of such a large pool of clubs. Of course, clubs, and new clubs, are still the lifeblood of student initiatives; but considerations beyond niche need to be evaluated, as the sustainability and benefit to other McMaster students are just as valuable, if not more.