This past weekend, WYBCx, an online radio stream run by Yale students, found itself in a bit of trouble. As Emma Keyes ’19 pointed out in an email to students in WYBCx, the station had been “operating illegally since 2008” because it lacked licensing agreements for the music played on air.
WYBCx isn’t the first club to have such problems. In the last few years, we have seen several large campus clubs embroiled in scandal after their leaders made legal or financial mistakes. For example, in 2014, the News reported that the Yale International Relations Association was investigating a former president for financial impropriety. And just last semester, the board of the Yale Political Union faced criticism over the management of a budgetary crisis. I’d like to think that each of these dilemmas was the result of well-intentioned mistakes — not any malice — but these types of situations are why the University administration needs to be more involved in advising clubs and providing legal assistance.
Stepping into a leadership position in Yale’s largest and most legally complex student organizations can be overwhelming. That said, I have little sympathy for club officers who don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task set before them. It’s clearly the responsibility of a club officer to seek out help for issues that he or she does not understand. But spotting major problems isn’t always obvious.
WYBCx’s licensing woes are a perfect example of this. It seems ludicrous to expect that the students running WYBCx should have understood the intricacies of U.S. licensing laws; they’re running an online radio stream that makes no money and is only meant for students on a college campus. Especially given how long WYBCx has existed without incident, students had no reason to believe that they were doing anything wrong. Besides, students joining a college club shouldn’t be worried about legal liability.
But perhaps that’s the problem: Clubs at Yale are sometimes more than just clubs. A few, including the YPU and YIRA are technically 501(c)(3) organizations, nonprofits that operate as separate legal entities from Yale. But students don’t think of these clubs as nonprofits, of course — they’re student organizations. Most student organizations, unlike most nonprofits, cycle through different board members each year. While such turnover may be great for the individual students who get the chance to add “Board member of a nonprofit” to their resumes, it makes it difficult to establish any useful institutional memory or take on structural problems for the organization. This is yet another reason why mistakes like the WYBCx licensing issue can go unnoticed or unaddressed for years. That’s not too big of a deal for a campus club, but mistakes have real consequences for the leaders of nonprofit entities. I worry that future club officers could be prosecuted for, as Keyes put it in her email, the “sins of [their] forefathers.”
Yale’s administration hasn’t been completely oblivious to these issues, of course. The mandatory officer trainings that the University imposes yearly and Student Organizations Consultants introduced last year are steps in the right direction. But the largest and most legally complex organizations need specialized attention and some semblance of continuity between years. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for faculty advisors to be required to take on a more active role in club administration for this very reason. Offering the services of Yale’s legal counsel at a free or discounted rate could also help clubs address the types of problems that the YPU, YIRA and WYBCx have faced more effectively. In a perfect world, Yale would assume legal responsibility for the actions of clubs bearing its name but that would probably come at a cost: Doing so would likely cripple the ability of these student-run organizations to be meaningfully student-run, and there’s value in letting college students learn by doing.
If all this sounds like too much work for the University, then we need to have a serious discussion about the role of clubs on this campus. As I’ve written about before, students often spend more time on their clubs than their classes, and this trend isn’t going to change anytime soon. This makes the issue of legal liability all the more pressing. We generally don’t know what we’re doing, but hopefully someone at the University can help us figure it out.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .