October 16, 2019

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Club Selectivity Isn’t the Problem. Recruitment Culture Is.

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Albeit being just a four-day extended weekend, fall break comes as salvation for many students on the Hill. This is perhaps because of the unique stresses of fall at Cornell. On top of the usual academic responsibilities, students spend much of their time attending information sessions, filing applications and interviewing for positions. But not for jobs. For clubs.

In a process that bears a remarkable resemblance to a job search, students spend countless hours in ultra-competitive club recruitment, to demonstrate that they are a good “social and professional fit” for organizations. At least, this is the case for many freshmen and sophomores trying to find their niche on this vast campus. And given how much clubs shape our identity on campus, it’s hardly surprising to see students boasting club insignia ranging from T-shirts to laptop stickers and pins

But it turns out, getting that T-shirt or pin often involves an intricate, cut-throat game of thrones filled with forms, spreadsheets, transcripts, networking and interviewing — and sometimes even fancy “professional” attire and friends vouching for one another. But this recruiting culture, grounded in arbitrary and sometimes excessive selectivity, must be rooted out to realize the values we stand for as Cornellians.

Recently, I interviewed underclassmen with a spreadsheet open in front of me — titled “Recruitment 2019″ and containing personal details, applications, interviewer comments and ratings. As candidates answered our questions, we jotted down our thoughts on whether or not we believed they would be a good fit. In an uncomfortable moment of self-reflection, I asked myself: What makes me qualified to be interviewing these people who are barely a few months younger than me? And what would the spreadsheet with my name on it have said? Still, the interviews got done, and we ended up accepting under 10 percent of candidates.

Given the experience, I don’t find it surprising that many I’ve talked to aren’t eager to join clubs as upperclassmen, as not to get themselves into an awkward situation where they’re being rated and judged by friends. Somehow we’ve morphed an opportunity for exploring interests and a reprieve from rigorous schoolwork into just another stressor and an obligation. That is, at least until you finesse your way to the other side of the table.

Debating the value of selectivity becomes somewhat moot when we realize that ultimately, clubs won’t cease to be selective. Cornellians are ambitious, and we strive to be the best.  It makes sense that what brought us to a university like Cornell — and the extreme discipline we often exhibit — will once again entice us to selective clubs. An honest and productive discussion about how to improve club recruitment culture at Cornell will happen only when we acknowledge that the process is in part naturally competitive because so many students desire the benefits that accrue to their members. When we focus on criticizing selectivity, only a symptom, we miss the opportunity to uncover and fix the root cause of what has plagued our club recruitment system.

What is genuinely harmful — and requires urgent attention — are the subjective standards by which we enforce selectivity. Interview prompts unrelated to the role description or the club’s mission, those designed only to intimidate candidates or an evaluation process of someone’s attire should never be a basis for rejecting a student. These arbitrary practices are antithetical to the values we uphold as Cornellians, and they discourage students who come from less-advantaged backgrounds from partaking in activities that make Cornell uniquely Cornell. There is only a fine line between finding students who are a “social fit” for the organization and a procedure of bias and nepotism. Misapplied, or excessive, selectivity serves no legitimate social purpose: It fails as a motivator for students to challenge themselves socially or professionally.

Additionally, organizations subsidized through the University budget or the Student Activity Fee paid by every student on campus should bear a higher standard of social responsibility to the Cornell community. When these organizations reject applicants for the sake of selectivity, they are barring students from enjoying the very opportunities and experiences they’ve paid for. Leaders of these organizations need to think critically about what resources they guard closely for their members and how these benefits can also be extended to the numerous Cornellians who get rejected every year.

But most importantly, only a collective shift in our mentality towards selectivity will bring a meaningful advancement of club recruitment culture at Cornell. Let’s recognize that we are all equally students before the roles we assume for our organizations. The next time you interview candidates for admission into your selective club, take a moment to think back to the time when it was you sitting on the other side of the table. Instead of mechanically repeating the procedures by which you joined, ask critically: Are the standards you apply the ones that you would like to be judged by? That “back in your day” you got in through an overly selective process that handpicks only 2 percent of candidates should never be a reason for applying harsher standards to candidates now in front of you.

We can be the ones to break this cycle come next recruitment season. The responsibility is on us to create an uplifting community here on the Hill, and we will take the first steps together.

Jaewon Sim is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.