February 27, 2019

GUEST ROOM | The Problem With Selective Organizations

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The first time I heard about how selections for exclusive organizations occurred in my freshman year, I laughed. The concept of organizations founded on the concept of selectivity was foreign to me. A close friend from high school described to me, with a straight and serious face, how slides are created with headshots and resumes, how groups of 30-40 peers judge “potential” and “professionalism” in a matter of minutes, how many hours go into this process of judging peers, how the number of applicants becomes a measure of pride, how low acceptance rates represent elite organizations and how hundreds of people subject themselves to this process every semester. She described how some of these organizations wore cloaks! What I was hearing was straight out of a Bravo TV show. Could it be true that Cornell students were directly feeding into a structure of elitism and ego? That so many of my peers enjoyed the power trip of “selecting” students just a few months younger?

Soon enough, I fell into the same trap. I rushed so many organizations from business clubs to public service groups that my Google Drive ran out of room from all the cover letters and resumes I was editing. My first few semesters at Cornell always started with running from one group’s info session to another group’s recruitment rounds. Seeing people in these organizations felt like I was talking to someone superior. The pressure to impress or look “competent” and get the attention of these members controlled interactions. Nights were spent scrolling through the membership pages, looking at LinkedIn profiles, checking mutual friends for conversation starters and hoping that I would someday be a part of these organizations.

When one’s Cornell experience becomes fundamentally an audition, inauthentic relationships prosper. That a Student Assembly member could feel as though they can’t “vote a certain way” because they don’t want to rub someone a certain way is unethical and sad. The fact that letters or an organizational affiliation bring a sense of power and confidence seems contrary to both human and student development. The fascination and awe exhibited by those seeking membership is just flat out misguided — these are your peers. No matter how many leadership positions someone holds, they also go to class and sleep and eat and scroll through memes. We are all students. Let’s not perpetuate a power dynamic that shouldn’t and doesn’t exist.

Let me address the usual rebuttal that “this happens in the real world”: When I applied to graduate school, top scholars in my field read my application. It was supplemented by a writing sample, a personal statement and reviewed in a process protected by FERPA. This is not how any organization on campus runs recruitment. Deliberations are never confidential, no matter how much secrecy is mandated and how many punishments are threatened. Humans are social beings. Word travels quickly with a snap or a text. Nepotism plays a larger role in these organizations than any legacy policy you can compare it to, personal vendettas are brought to the table with dirty laundry to air and, most disturbingly, college students believe that they have the right and the ability to judge their peers in this way.

My greatest disappointment is that it took me seven semesters to realize the extent of the problem. I now clearly see in hindsight how I fed into and benefited from the process. I began exploiting the social capital gained by joining these organizations, serving as a major force in recruitment and, sadly, successfully convincing underclassman that they too needed to be a part of these organizations to feel validated and find success. The amount of qualified candidates who get rejected is disturbing. If you were rejected by one of these organizations, a deep, sincere apology for how you were adversely affected by this culture on our campus.

Just the mere notion that peers have the expertise to judge potential, character, leadership or sociability boggles my mind. The notion that some acts of leadership are more important than others indicates that there is a metric by which leadership can be measured. Contributions to the Cornell community should all be valued. There are certainly enough kudos to go around.

The notion that some potential members “deserve” or “would add value” over others is preposterous. Everyone can gain value from these organizations — who wouldn’t enjoy building community, exploring careers and having a social schedule? The decision is made with subjective measures colored by personal experiences with peers, there is no certain way to eliminate bias from selections. I have never felt more like I returned to middle school than when I sat through my first club deliberations. It felt like a modern day burn book, with members of the organization openly bashing potential applicants they were chatting with just hours earlier. The duplicitous nature of these actions adds to the inauthentic interactions that drain our humanity. And we wonder why so many of us feel lonely at Cornell?

What complicates this even more is that we are living shoulder to shoulder. We live on a campus that breeds this selectivity, with those who publicly condemn structures serving as those most active members of parallel spaces that reflect similar values. An organization formed by the brash exclusion of peers will never be inclusive. The model by which we create community on campus is cruel and outright mean.

If you are in these exclusive organizations, I ask you to think about how your individual choice to tie your name and social capital to these groups causes discomfort and exclusion for so many on campus. Is it worth it? Aren’t we playing complacent to a system that is inherently broken? In an already divided world, how does this contribute to further pockets of power?

And the ultimate question: Do I have a solution to this problem? No. But I do know that what we are currently doing is wrong and in direct conflict to our values as an institution. Let’s do better and start sharing these precious resources that we guard so tightly. There are enough study guides, keystones, blindfolds, case study workshops, pins, rings, good conversations and meaningful moments to go around for everyone. Let’s try to democratize the things we guard most closely at Cornell.

Dustin Liu is the undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dliu@cornellsun.com.