2 Groups, 1 Campus
We're encountering a new situation here at the Secular Student Alliance: the situation of more than one SSA affiliate group on one campus. Over the past few years, we've seen a slowly growing contingent of campuses that sport two SSA-affiliated groups. And while there are certainly challenges inherent in having one campus with more than one group, there are also benefits to be had, and some special considerations to keep in mind.
How Does This Happen?
There are several ways in which a campus could spawn two separate SSA-affiliated groups. Most of these are more-or-less legitimate reasons to have two groups, and most are tenable situations.
The original reason that we began to see two groups on one campus is that enthusiastic students would start a secular student group unaware that there was already a similar group on campus. That particular situation is becoming less common as the SSA and the internet in general make it easier to find out about existing secular groups. Sometimes these groups end up merging when they find out about one another; in other cases, they continue as independent-but-cooperating groups.
Another reason we might see two groups on one campus is a difference in ideology or desired activities. A campus might have one "aggressive" atheist group focusing on activism and speaking out against the ills of religion, while another group provides a community for humanists looking to cooperate with religious groups on community service projects. Both ideologies and activity areas are legitimate, but they appeal to separate types of students.
A third reason to have more than one group on a campus is for demographic reasons. Some universities have separate groups for grad students and undergrads to meet the varying needs of these two communities.
The last reason we see two groups on one campus, and a reason that does draw some concern, is when a campus group splits because of internal conflict. These splits can be harmful to both the original group and the new group, as they commonly involve hard feelings or "bad blood" between the old and new group. We have never seen a situation like this result in anything other than the failure of at least one of the groups. Because this kind of split can be so harmful to everyone involved, we highly recommend that our affiliates seek more diplomatic solutions to these kinds of problems.
There are many benefits to having two secular groups on one campus. We encourage campuses that already have two groups to make sure they are reaping the benefits of their unusual situation.
One of the biggest benefits of having two groups on one campus is that they both have access to student activity funding. This effectively means that your campus is giving twice the amount of funding to secular programming on campus as another campus. More funding = more events, a wider reach, and a better balance of activities to meet the needs of the nonreligious student population.
Another benefit is the increased visibility. Two groups holding meetings and events means that secular students are twice as visible on campus. Your groups' messages will collectively reach more students, both attracting more members and also raising awareness of the presence of nontheistic students on campus.
Having two groups with similar missions on one campus means that each group automatically has a group to cooperate with for large events and other activities. Need more people for a community service project? Want a bigger audience at your next big speaker event? You don't need to look far when there's another group on your campus.
A final benefit to having two groups is that it makes it easier for secular students on your campus to participate. If a campus only has one group that meets on Tuesday nights, and you have a Tuesday night class, you're out of luck. But if your campus has two groups, chances are you can find something that fits in your schedule.
If not handled carefully, the challenges of two groups on one campus can lead to the failure of one or both groups. However, most of these problems can be overcome with some careful planning, communication and consideration.
The first and largest challenge of having two groups is that you have only one campus to draw members from. It's very easy to end up forcing students to chose one group over another, basically limiting the membership of each group due to the fixed number of nontheistic students on any given campus.
To help combat this, each group should be careful to communicate with the other about things like meeting dates and times, large events, special projects, and any other endeavors that might exclude participation in the other group. The groups should hold meetings on different days of the week and space out larger events. These groups should also be cautious when deciding on membership requirements, since members may find themselves drifting toward the group with less demanding membership requirements.
Two groups on one campus should also be aware of the potential for ideological conflict. Each group is its own entity with its own mission and goals, but sometimes groups can come into conflict over what one group does (or does not do) or thinks the other should (or should not) do. In these circumstances, it is important for each group to remember that they are separate entities and maintain respect for each other's independence.
Maintaining respect for one another also includes making it clear which group is responsible for projects and activities. Clearly labeling flyers, meetings, activities, tables and other projects can help the sponsoring group retain credit for its awesome activities. It also helps reduce confusion and conflict if one group embarks on an edgy program or a project that the other group might not necessarily support or want to be associated with - projects such as Draw Mohammad Day or a " Smut for Smut " campaign.
Other SSA-Specific Considerations
The SSA is usually happy to support multiple groups on the same campus. While we recognize that most campuses need to maintain a "big tent" attitude to attract all possible nonreligious students, we also realize that nontheists do have our differences. The presence of two groups demonstrates an awareness of these differences, as well as a strong enough secular presence on your campus to support them.
We do have two areas in which we have to give special consideration. The first is our web and email forwarding program. Normally these email addresses and websites are based on your campus (BigU@secularstudents.org), but with two groups, we may need to reassign more specific addresses to help prevent confusion (BigUAtheists@ and BigUHumanists@, for example).
Another area in which we've had to give special consideration to multiple groups is our Branded Affiliates Program. Since it would be unfair to allow one group to claim the "Secular Student Alliance at Big University" name and leave the other group out, we've instituted special policies about how branded affiliate requests are handled for campuses with multiple groups. Basically, either one group gives a written concession of the branded name to the other group, or else both groups can become branded via the subtitle option. We're also open to creative naming solutions as long as they are reached in a communal process and agreed to by all parties involved.
The last situation that we have seen is affiliates coming to us for help resolving conflicts between the groups. We are more than happy to help our affiliates work out problems of all kinds, and we can provide guidance, advice and limited mediation to help resolve conflicts and other problems. However, we cannot and will not rebuff one group on a campus based solely on anecdotal reports from one side of the conflict. If there are serious concerns with the conduct of an SSA affiliate, we must have more evidence than word of mouth - otherwise we get caught in a destructive "he said, she said" situation that ultimately harms both groups.
We're excited to see the secular student movement grow to the point where we have multiple affiliates on a single campus. Through respect, communication and cooperation, our affiliates will continue to grow and reach an ever-growing population of nonreligious students.