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Guest Columnist Chapin Lenthall-Cleary highlights the bureaucratic hurdles that face student organizations and clubs at Penn.

Credit: Roger Ge

It's no secret that many of the University's student clubs are brutally exclusive — often demanding prospective members submit applications and participate in interviews — only to bar most of them from participating anyway. It's no secret that this system of club exclusivity inflicts a variety of harms on students: It deprives them of opportunities to participate in academic, service, recreational, and other activities. It shuts them out of a significant avenue of making friends. It pits students against each other. It furthers a culture obsessed with credentials over learning (or whatever a club's mission might be). And, as if all of that weren't damaging enough, it wastes non-trivial amounts of students' limited time at the University. 

It's far less well known, however, that the University's administration — especially the Office of Student Affairs — imposes numerous stringent, farcical, and sometimes nearly insurmountable hurdles upon new, often open-membership clubs. 

In October 2022, I founded Penn Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ), a (then-unofficial) club that held live-action zombie apocalypse games with Nerf blasters in David Rittenhouse Laboratory. The games were open to everyone and attracted a range of undergraduates across various schools, plus graduate students, alumni, a few students from nearby schools, and occasionally a professor. We required no applications or interviews, even for club leadership positions, which were filled by those willing to do the extra work to help run the games. Against even the advice of some club officers, I refused to charge admission. 

I don't want to oversell this: Lance or not, I wasn't killing any windmills. One silly game with an earnest mission, of course, wasn't fixing a broken system, nor was HvZ the only open-membership club at Penn. But HvZ was at least one example of something the University desperately needs and badly, though not completely, lacks places for Penn students to find community and friends with shared interests, free from demands to run a marathon in a rat race just for a chance at being let in the gate. In fact, my uncompromisingly open-membership policies are exactly what even OSA claims to want.

About a year passed before I realized that our zombies weren’t the most soulless people HvZ would have to face. Last fall, after hearing about HvZ, the building manager contacted me, demanded that I stop the games, and revoked my 24/7 access to DRL. I reluctantly agreed to stop holding the games in DRL, but I reached out to the director of OSA to appeal the decision, where I was met with a tsunami of bureaucracy and an instruction to stop the games until they gave approval. The process involved meetings between multiple members of OSA, public safety, risk management, and others. When I asked to be involved in these discussions, I received the canned reply, "[OSA has] not traditionally included students at this stage of conversation." 

It took over a month to get permission from OSA to continue the games and about as long to sort out the actual process of getting a space. There was just one problem: OSA's Kafka-and-friends committee decided that HvZ had to occur in an athletic space. When I tried to rent such a space, I discovered that doing so would cost $75 an hour, or around $4,500 per semester for a four-hour game once a week, an impossible cost for our club. When I told the OSA director that having to pay this fee to continue our game would be as good as a death sentence for HvZ and asked for the fee to be waived or paid, I was told to go find funding. I'll say that again: We spent months waiting, only to be told that we needed to find a way to get the University to pay us thousands of dollars — that we'd use to pay Penn the fee they decided to charge us — to play a game that costs them nothing.

I did everything the OSA director suggested and more to try to get funding. As it currently stands, we have only a small fraction of what we actually need. And, I'm not hopeful, because this isn't the first time I've tried to get funding for a club. 

Last winter, I founded Drone Club, another open-membership club. This one was dedicated to building drones, and I was willing to teach less experienced students the electronics, soldering, physics, and skills involved in doing so. Initially, I paid largely out-of-pocket for parts, but this wasn't ideal or particularly sustainable, so I sought club funding. With significant effort and about a month's delay, we got $220, about half of what we requested, from the Common Funding Application, the very funding source the OSA director suggested we use to find thousands of dollars for HvZ. In fall 2023, in order to secure larger, more regular funding, I applied for SAC recognition, the primary avenue for regular club funding, for Drone Club. 

Drone Club was rejected for the sole reason of not having been on the PennClubs website since Oct. 31, 2022 (yes, that’s over a year before we applied, and it’s different from the deadline listed on the SAC website). The stated reason for the requirement that inspired that rejection is that "student groups must be sustainable," which requiring students to check a box a year in advance obviously does little to confirm. Indeed, as I noted in Drone Club's application, where I asked SAC "not to reject us upon a technicality, and instead judge us upon our merits," Drone Club's mostly underclassman membership is an infinitely better metric for sustainability. 

Even clubs that are accepted still aren't written into the SAC budget until the school year after applying. Combined together, these requirements mean that, even if nothing goes wrong, a new club takes years to receive SAC budget funding. Under the current system, a sophomore who started a club now would graduate before having a chance at seeing any SAC budget funding. 

The above is only a small fraction of the examples of Penn institutions' hostility towards new clubs: being denied tables at the activity fair, having Drone Club removed from the PennClubs website for not getting Engineering Student Activities Council recognition (which, according to the PennClubs website, isn't a requirement), and more. If you're shocked by the severity and regularity of this problem, keep in mind that these are only examples of the University's administration’s hostility towards new, open-membership clubs that I run (and therefore know about), which are doubtlessly a tiny subset of the full problem. 

Despite this relentless onslaught, I still don't know how this story ends. There's still a scenario where a powerful administrator decides to put the welfare of students above rules and diktats, and says, "Enough of this nonsense," and HvZ gets to return triumphantly to DRL, or at least to another good location, free from extortionate fees. There's still a scenario where Drone Club secures its funding for parts, and the many other clubs doubtlessly facing similar farcical obstacles are instead met with a well-lit road, not numerous Harnwell-and-a-half-high hurdles. Heck, there's still a scenario where OSA lives up to its stated ideals and starts staunchly supporting open-membership clubs and exerting real force to get closed-membership clubs to open up. 

This hasn't been a happy story, and I'm frankly not betting on that changing. Nor, sadly, would a single exception for HvZ solve this massive harm to students, thrilled though I’d be to get such an exception. But this story isn’t over yet. If enough people, or even one person with enough power, decide to end this farce today and decide that doing right by students must always come first, there could yet be not only a happy ending to HvZ's struggle but also a bright future for all open-membership clubs at the University. To the administrators who’ve caused this damage and to those who have the power to fix it, shape up.

CHAPIN LENTHALL-CLEARY is a College senior studying physics and philosophy from Radnor, Pa. His email is