October 17, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Why We Need to Ban Project Teams

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As project team acceptances roll out, I’d like to offer a critique of the institution that I was a part of for three years. I enjoyed my time on my team, both as a rank-and-file member and later in a leadership role. I met dozens of very bright, motivated and pleasant engineers, some of whom I count among my closest friends. I picked up a lot of useful skills and gained a high-level understanding of different engineering fields.

But I believe that Cornell would be better off without them. For those who don’t know, project teams are teams of up to 40 or 50 (mostly) engineering students that are organized around specific engineering projects such as building robots or rockets. Skim through the webpage dedicated to them and you’ll pick out descriptors like “innovative,” “talented” and “excellence” (“self-congratulatory” is nowhere to be found). And, in fact, this is the image project teams project, not just to the naive freshmen they prey on but also to the naive high schoolers applying to Cornell and the naive alumni donating to Cornell. Project teams are the darling of the College of Engineering because they lend it an additional sheen of selectivity and prestige.

What the College would rather not talk about, though, is the ridiculous, farcical and biased interview process that causes hundreds of freshman engineering students unnecessary stress every fall. The premise of the interviews itself is a joke. What qualifies one student to interview another? Is it the extra two semesters of classes that does it? It is only with a huge helping of arrogance that it is possible to convince oneself of one’s qualification to judge a peer. And how ridiculous it is to even judge a freshman with no GPA. There are very few criteria to (meaningfully) evaluate freshmen on, other than what little they might remember from AP computer science or which end to hold a screwdriver by. The end result is an extremely noisy process which I believe does no better at filling a team than random selection.

But besides that, the ethical issues of untrained, unqualified student interviewers deciding the fate of fellow students are vast. For one, what mechanisms are in place to prevent bias? I’ve heard of student interviewers wanting to advance candidates just because of their attractiveness. It’s not hard to imagine the mostly-male project team population discriminating in similar terms based on sex. And when certain testosterone-fueled project teams recruit partially based on “culture” it is not hard to recognize a coded bias against applicants of a certain background in these project teams that more closely resemble frat houses. This is based on my own experience.

And like frat houses, many project teams do not hesitate to haze their recruits. This can take more than one form. On one hand, some project teams “encourage” their recruits to shave their heads in order to “build camaraderie.” Sound familiar? And on the other hand, there are project teams that reserve menial labor for their new members. To those who fall for the romantic notion of project teams as pure intellectual spaces: think again. As we rush to stamp out the backwards hazing cultures of frats and a capella groups alike, we seem to have forgotten about a large class of student groups.

There is no doubt that there is a mental health crisis on this campus. And project teams do nothing but exacerbate it. The glorification of stress culture has a home like no other in the project team. Working yourself to the bone, fueled by Mattin’s and Mountain Dew, is the norm. A badge of pride is having spent the night in the lab — and leaving early is a mark of weakness. Caught up in this competitive machismo, real intellectualism is lost and intellectual-signaling is what’s left.

The stated purpose of project teams is to enhance extra-curricular learning through hands-on project experiences. But as yet another Cornell cult, project teams fail at their educational goals because of their intense exclusionism. I don’t know of any project teams that publish their acceptance rates but, to my knowledge, the software teams of many large project teams routinely accept applicants in the single digit percentages. How can we seriously cast project teams as some golden, educational force when they admit only a vanishingly small number of those interested? And, moreover, how can we justify institutional funding for these enclaves of the self-proclaimed elite when they serve so few? The recent Upson remodel is a perfect metaphor for these flawed priorities: the rapid prototyping lab (that temple of buzzwords like “3D-printing”) is front and center behind huge walls of glass at the cost of hundreds of square feet of floor space. The message, which is the same as that of project teams, is that glamour is more important than utility.

Project teams as they exist today are a deeply flawed institution. At the confluence of farcical and biased interview processes, toxic work cultures and exclusion, they are everything that’s wrong with the College of Engineering today. I urge the administration to take a closer look at these virtually unregulated, unsupervised student groups and reexamine their place in campus life. I certainly think there’s something wrong with the way they operate today and call for a ban on project teams in their current instantiation.
Varun Belur is a senior in the College of Engineering. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected].