February 17, 2022

BEARD | Any Person, Any Study … Any Club?

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When I tell people back home that I go to Cornell, I tend to get a lot of groans. They are groans that encapsulate an outsider’s perspective of expensive private schools like ours. “Cornell” and “Ivy League” are terms that, in the public eye, are entrenched in privilege, wealth and selectivity. As much as I’d like to say the public’s presumptions about our school are wrong, the University has a lot of issues working against it which we need to address. More specifically, to fight this perception of rampant elitism on campus, we have to start with the toxic culture of Cornell’s clubs. 

The low acceptance rates and peer-to-peer competition of a selective admissions process don’t stop at Cornell’s gates. Whether it be for business clubs like Cornell Hedge Fund, political groups like Pi Lambda Sigma, club sports teams or any of the 1600+ student organizations registered with the University, the atmosphere of acceptance and rejection will follow you here until the day you graduate.

Such a diversity of interests are waiting at students’ fingertips, but coveted memberships are guarded by tiers of applications and interviews. Our University is one of the few colleges I’ve heard of where the phrase “getting into” applies to clubs. Joining a typical student organization can look like this: one to three coffee chats, a resume drop, a professional or technical interview, a social round interview and a final round interview. All these stages, just for the privilege of membership. Not to mention, in many cases, this process is followed by weeks of “new member education” — which, if we’re being honest, is nothing more than sanctioned hazing. 

In response to the elitist clubs of Cornell, I’d like to pose a question: how do these rigorous selection processes fit with our founding ideal of “Any person, Any study?” Cornell is a university supposedly made for everyone, but its extracurricular community prides itself on exclusion. At what point are we sacrificing mutual opportunity for selectivity?  

To answer, I’d say that point is reached when a club cuts a majority of applicants.  It’s when an organization such as Kappa Alpha Pi markets itself as “Cornell’s only selective pre-law fraternity.” It’s when clubs like the Cornell Political Union, as part of the application process, necessitate in-person competition against other applicants. All these signs point to the fact that many of Cornell’s clubs place a premium on rejection rather than on gifting opportunities. 

The executive boards of these organizations might protest that they implement these strictures to attain the best and the brightest for their membership rolls. They may argue that it’s good practice for the corporate futures that await many of us. Yet, as much as they want to believe it, their clubs are not Apple, Tesla, Raytheon or any other profit-minded corporation hiring unknown people from an endless pool of candidates. They represent student-run organizations at an inclusivity-minded institution of higher learning. Call me crazy, but I think our clubs can afford to take a chance and accept more of their peers in the interest of sharing opportunities.

Give me one good reason why a business society can only offer a handful of new member spots regardless of how talented the pool of applicants is. Will the organization cease to function if it takes on more members? Most certainly not — if anything, they’d be better funded with more due-paying members. But these clubs aren’t afraid of that; they’re afraid of cheapening the experience of membership. That’s the crux of the issue.

Somewhere between Ezra Cornell setting his famous “Any person, Any study” standard for Cornell and this year’s ClubFest, we’ve lost our way. We’re a school where all students are supposed to have the opportunity to pursue their interests and ambitions, yet we’re letting ambition get the best of us. Student organizations — communities for students to develop their interests — function like simulated Fortune 500 companies. They arbitrarily reject students and drag out the application process in order to inflate the value of club membership. As long as our clubs operate in this manner, by neglecting opportunity in favor of selectivity, our school is much worthier of groans than it is of praise. 

The good news is that we can change. If you sit on the executive board of a student organization, maybe it’s time to take a look in the mirror and review your club’s application process. It’s as simple as dropping down from four interview rounds to one, or even just accepting more people. Like the organizations themselves, the power to prioritize acceptance and buck the elitist stereotype is in the hands of students. In other words, the choice is ours. 

Brenner Beard ‘24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Friday this semester.