The Life and Death of the RSO: A glimpse into the nature of student organizations

RSOs, by Ellis Calvin

College was supposed to be a land of both social and academic opportunity. To a large extent it is, even at a work-intensive school like the University of Chicago. But how exactly these opportunities present themselves, and how ardently we protect them and involve ourselves, is a more complicated tale.

As a forlorn first-year, one sometimes feels like a worthless fish, adrift in a gigantic, somewhat hazy sea. For the first week or so of college, the opportunities that arise are forced, nonspecific group outings, rather than anything truly exciting or necessarily compelling. Anything extracurricular is also intensely communal. This is not to say that a little bit of forced bonding is an awful endeavor, but it is one that can make a new student feel as if among a herd of cows munching on free cud (in addition to feeling like a worthless fish). And while I like Michigan Avenue, community service, and John Hughes movies just as much as the next person, the first week of college can certainly leave one feeling stripped of anything resembling individuality. Even once we all get our placement test results and end up enrolled in some liberating and/or numbing combination of courses, that first autumn at the UofC is an experience of lumping, not separating.

But when the RSO (Recognized Student Organization) fair comes around, a small bit of freedom is offered. The cows and fishes all scatter to various tables, lured by eager, smiling faces. Students brandish a pen to sign up for dozens of mailing lists, pick an identity, join a club.

Of course, at this point, classes start, and after the free pizza offered at the initial meetings of many RSOs runs out, attendance tends to dwindle. It could be any number of things; nobody can actually be expected to show up at a dozen weekly meetings, or sit through rehearsal for a handful of different shows. At some level, RSOs tend to offer students a grasp at identity as they meet their first casual or close friends outside their dorm, students who share their interests. Yet for some reason, RSOs at the UofC often have a lifespan only slightly longer than those fake clubs that groups of friends would make up in high school, just so that they could have a picture in the yearbook together. Even RSOs that are generally successful can fade as leadership shifts, or attendance or submission lags. By one’s third or fourth year, even minimal RSO involvement is often left to a few hundred hardcore individuals, who run meetings and bring dozens of reimbursement receipts to the basement of the Reynolds Club.

The mystery of student organizations is a difficult one to unpack. There are six RSOs that receive funding separately–WHPK (radio), University Theater (drama), Major Activities Board (huge concerts), Council on University Programming (large parties), Doc Films (cinema), and Fire Escape Films (making movies), and they tend to involve a lot of students and get a lot of money from the college. These RSOs are also some of the oldest on campus. WHPK has been broadcasting from the Reynolds Club for over fifty years, and Doc Films is the oldest continuously screening student film society in the country. Yet contributing in a leadership role to either of these organizations can be a huge time commitment, and on top of a stressful class schedule, having to commit a serious amount of extra effort to a large organization can be both rewarding and draining. But for the most part, the continued existence of these RSOs is rarely in jeopardy.

Not so for the smaller schools of fish. The most visible casualty of this tends to be publications. If a magazine or review can’t produce enough content to fill an issue, or if they don’t have an editorial board (or even a single person) willing to trudge through submissions, they often fall apart. Some, such as Sliced Bread (formerly Aubade), have re-branded and re-energized. Others’ publishing simply dwindles, or ceases entirely. Their registered organization status is switched to ‘inactive,’ until an eager or entrepreneurial student attempts to revive or resuscitate the cause. RSOs don’t really die, you see. They simply retire quietly and wait until someone new finds them.

When one searches for a list of all RSOs, active and inactive, on the Student Activities website, 456 organizations are returned. The first is the undergraduate chapter of the American Medical Student Association, and the last is the Zombie Readiness Task Force. The Zombie Readiness Task Force was only established as a registered organization within the past year, whereas pre-med students have existed since the dawn of the university. Between these groups, both intellectually and alphabetically, exists hundreds of other options for students.

But the question of what fails and what succeeds has to do as much with zeitgeist as anything. Despite the fact that the Zombie Readiness Task Force received thousands of dollars of funding from Student Government’s Uncommon Fund, they still need to keep an active membership to survive. Maybe when the apocalypse does come calling, there will be no one to protect campus from a gaggle of flesh-eating beasts because students have joined the Anti-Cyborg Coalition, or the Alien Invasion Support Group. All facetiousness aside, the possibility of a continuous student life is often undercut by us students ourselves. After all, we graduate.