Administration hands Coding Club decision back to Student Council

Nora Benmamoun and Annette Lee

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It is now up to Student Council (StudCo) to explore the next step regarding Girls Who Code and Coding Club, as well as the larger issue of club approval.

At the Sept. 28 StudCo meeting, the controversy surrounding Uni’s two coding clubs was addressed. The two clubs are Coding Club, proposed and approved a few weeks ago, and Girls Who Code, a club which has been in place for three years.

The main conflict is due to some believing that Coding Club should not have been approved at all because it infringes on Girls Who Code.

Many students who were not part of StudCo came to observe, making the room crowded with no seats available. After a brief reminder from Richard Murphy, faculty advisor of StudCo, about the importance of respect, Girls Who Code leader Elizabeth Singer gave a speech about the necessity of having Girls Who Code.

While she noted that she doesn’t believe Coding Club was proposed under bad intentions, she concluded that having another coding club would help reinforce the negative attitude towards women in STEM.

Then Assistant Director Karl Radnitzer gave a presentation discussing the administration’s response. He said that this was a healthy discussion for StudCo to have. Radnitzer researched coding clubs at the University of Illinois and found that there were clubs directed towards women that had members and leadership of mixed genders.

In order to get several perspectives on the issue, Radnitzer held meetings with the sponsor of Girls Who Code, DoMonique Arnold; the sponsor of Coding Club, Joel Beesley; English teacher Kathleen Rodems, and Murphy. Furthermore, from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois (U of I), he consulted Cynthia Coleman and Lenny Pitt, the Associate Director for External Relations and the Head of Undergraduate Programs, respectively.

Radnitzer recognized the issues that women encounter in education in the United States and in Uni, saying, “There is a deeper sense in this school that girls are not taken as seriously as boys.” He added, “If allowing another club reinforces the mindset, I am concerned by that. […] I will support women in this school [to ensure] that this is recognized and addressed.”

Radnitzer concluded that, due to the administration having no official guidelines regarding the situation, they decided that StudCo would be responsible for resolving this conflict.

In response to Radnitzer’s presentation, Yichen Yao, a leader of Girls Who Code since her sophomore year, said that she attended one of the U of I coding clubs that Radnitzer mentioned in his presentation, and said that she was one of five girls in a group of about 50 people. She then claimed that when clubs and organizations in STEM aren’t directed towards women, women won’t come because they don’t feel comfortable.

Up until recently, club approval has been relatively uncontroversial. The process is simple: the student(s) proposing the club obtains an adult sponsor, explains their objectives and when the club will meet, and StudCo approves. During the Sept.  7 StudCo meeting, the usual process played out when subfreshman Andy Tang proposed ‘Coding Club’ and StudCo approved it.

Before the StudCo meeting, Tang created a syllabus and planned to have the members of the club decide on a language in which to code. Then he would teach them object-oriented programming.

“Coding Club was to be a place where people could collaborate on coding projects, and also people who were interested in coding could foster their interests and learn coding,” said Tang.

However, Tang’s club is currently halted until further notice (although Tang says that they are still permitted to meet informally), due to several students believing that Coding Club clashes with Girls Who Code.

Yao strongly believes that Coding Club could interfere with Girls Who Code’s mission to empower women in pursuing computer science, a field that remains male-dominated to this day.

“Computer science is at 20% female, so there’s a giant gap and there are a lot of stereotypes surrounding how coding is a boy thing,” Yao said. “I’m worried that if there’s this Coding Club at Uni and there’s also Girls Who Code, Coding Club is going to end up mostly male and the few females that might go might not be taken as seriously, because that’s just the way women in STEM are treated.”

Tang has said he realizes that there is a gender gap in computer science.

“I understand the concerns that they [leaders of GWC] have voiced and I am going to do my best to make sure that they do not come up,” he said.

Senior Vice President Van Gundersen explained StudCo’s original rationale.

“We thought that Girls Who Code was going to end after this year because the three sponsors as of now are seniors, and we didn’t know if they had any other people coming up. And we thought since he’s a subbie, there will only be one year overlap,” Gundersen said.

Gundersen now believes that StudCo made the wrong decision in passing Coding Club.

“We [StudCo] say that we passed Coding Club because we thought there weren’t gonna be any new sponsors, but it’s probably because the general sentiment is that we’re not taking Girls Who Code legitimately. […] It’s obviously sexist, the whole thing.” Gundersen added, “I think Coding Club shouldn’t be a club anymore.”

However, there are also several people who think Coding Club should be permitted to stay.

Sophomore Jenna Lee believes that “[Tang] making Coding Club wasn’t a move against Girls Who Code.” Lee acknowledged that when Girls Who Code sends emails about their club meetings, they make sure to say that boys are welcome as well. Still, she said, “the name matters. It’ll put people off, even if it’s not intentional.”

Freshman Isabela Lleras agreed that there is a problem with Girls Who Code’s name. “Logically speaking, the idea of a club that has a gender in the title is against everything feminism has fought for. Feminists have fought for the equality of women, and to better women to become equals with men, not to dissociate from them and become non-inclusive.”

Leading up to Radnitzer’s announcement, one point of contention was whether the two clubs should coexist, merge, or one should be disbanded. Some, like Gundersen and Yao, believe Coding Club should disband.

Tang said that some members of Girls Who Code talked to him about the possibility of merging the two clubs, and that he’d “probably be willing to do that.” However, Tang felt that the clubs could coexist, “because I feel like coding is a really big field, and having more than one club will allow for more collaboration opportunities, and to have different things.”

Lee also thinks both clubs could coexist.

“I think [Girls Who Code] could be a little more open to the fact that there can be more than one coding club,” she said. “Girls Who Code is a really great organization encouraging girls to go into STEM and to pursue coding. And introducing that to girls is really important to me. But also, I don’t think it’s fair to shoot someone down just because they want to start another club. […] I think it could be a really good partnership, but they have to be on good terms first for that to happen.”

The coding club controversy has also introduced a new issue. While a few students have criticized StudCo’s decision to approve Coding Club, many have also criticized StudCo’s procedure for approving clubs.

During the Sept. 28 meeting, Radnitzer brought up StudCo’s need to develop new rules. He stated that he would ‘kick back’ the decision-making process to StudCo, and to do that, they needed to make new guidelines to deal with this issue.

In recent meetings, StudCo has discussed new guidelines, which may require the club leaders to prepare an agenda and fulfill an attendance quota.

Lee doesn’t agree with this direction. “I really like the environment that Uni has already, kind of the laxity of clubs,” she said. She cited Fiddle Club as one of the clubs she’s part of that have low attendance. “I think that what matters is that there are people who are interested and are having fun, and I think that putting guidelines on that will put a stress on that very carefree and very open environment.”

StudCo plans to further discuss this topic at their next meeting on Oc. 5, which will be an open forum. The location of the meeting, as of this article’s publication, is not yet announced.

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Administration hands Coding Club decision back to Student Council