December 1, 2022

MEHLER | Let’s Revive Cornell’s Student Clubs Part 1

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At last weekend’s Frozen Apple hockey game (where Cornell dominated the University of Connecticut Huskies 6-0) I had the chance to catch up with recent alumni and meet older alumni who were curious about life on the hill these past four years. While some things have not changed in over fifty years, the disappearance of clubs and lower club participation at Cornell has shifted dramatically.

Clubs coming and going is not something new nor unique to Cornell. Any organization that has its executive board and general bodies fully turnover every four years is bound to lose club memory of past events, institutional knowledge of how to work through the Cornell bureaucracy and a sense of community as its membership changes. However, the most recent changes to clubs and student organizations go beyond 157 years of community-building: a deeper thorn continues to embed itself in Cornell culture.

Blaming the COVID-19 pandemic does not fully satisfy the main issue: club participation is going down. Yes, hundreds of clubs did not have proper leadership transitions from Spring 2020 to the first in-person semester of Fall 2021, but most clubs survived enough to make it to the next SAFC funding cycle. As of Fall 2022, CampusGroups still boasts over 1,000 student organizations, a significant number for almost 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Clubs survived the pandemic. What has been lost is why and how different clubs coexisted and collaborated together.

All student organizations have different origins, missions and goals, but all clubs share one starting point: students coming together. Whether they came together to support a social cause, play a sport, celebrate cultures, host conferences, raise money for charities, etc., it was achieved through students mobilizing themselves. Clubs exist, regardless of charge, as a way for students to come together.

However, many students’ reasons for joining clubs have changed. The “professionalization” of clubs and the increasing job-preparedness approach to the Cornell experience have negatively altered the purpose of clubs and is slowly corroding one of Cornell’s most impactful experiences. Isaac Chasen ’23 recently argued in his own column that the most engaging Cornell experiences lie in the activities you do for the fun of it, and that the hyper-fixation on professional organizations unnecessarily isolates students. While this argument is certainly true, the decline of club participation goes beyond the rapid, recent growth of pre-professional organizations.

Many structural factors are contributing to clubs losing their core purpose of organizing students. While my columns typically attempt to uplift hidden gems at Cornell and speak positively of typically overpassed aspects of the Cornell experience, this series of articles aims to illuminate why clubs are losing their historical identities and what I believe can be done to bring all students back to our roots. I believe that all clubs need to remember why we were organized in the first place.

The reason why clubs have forgotten their origin is not the fault of the clubs or students, but due to multiple external and institutional changes to Cornell and its structure for supporting clubs. For this first article, I want to remind everyone of how space on campus used to be significantly more available for clubs and how the slow removal of on-campus meeting spaces has significantly corroded student participation in clubs.

For example, the oldest club on campus, the Glee Club, is suffering from this phenomenon directly. Glee Club and Chorus have both been removed from the basement of Sage Chapel by an administrative decision despite it being their home of almost fifty years. Decades of accumulated sheet music, programs and merchandise filled a tiny room that hundreds of singers passed through during their Cornell journey. Yet, they were recently kicked out and are now searching for a new home.

Karina Melgar ’23, President of the Chorus, recently explained to me how important having a space on campus was, saying how Glee Club and Chorus had such a “strong tie to Sage Chapel,” saying that they “planned international tours and big conferences with other universities in offices there. Decades worth of history stored in music and artifacts there.” When asked about how losing Sage Chapel impacted the clubs’ history, she said that “several generations of history and leadership that has gone into both organizations are being taken away by lack of space.” Even for an organization with the oldest alumni on campus, she said that “alums [are] emotional about this because it feels like a part of their college experience is being taken away.” Most critically, Melgar said that the ability to organize in their own space was why “[alumni] knew how to build organizations and do the good things they do.”

Even seniors can remember how much livelier Willard Straight Hall used to be for student organizations to meet in and use. Beyond the free popcorn was a culture of community that brewed interaction. Daniel Bernstein ’23’s recent column about bringing back popcorn only shows the beginning of a culture that used to be even larger. There was a reason that the return of popcorn warranted an entire Sun news article; it used to physically embody students coming together. When a new flavor came out, it warranted a further story to add upon previous stories about all the available flavors. The history of popcorn culture only begins to show how important space was to clubs.

In speaking with unofficial university historian Corey Earle ’07, Willard Straight was not only a space for popcorn, but student leaders used the dozens of offices throughout the building to organize club meetings, collaborate across clubs and bond in person. The conversion of this space to administrative offices has removed clubs’ ability to all coalesce in one student union. Cornell had been one of the first universities in the world to create a space for students to organize together. But now, we fight online to reserve random classrooms across campus.

No physical space for club collaboration on campus is only one institutional reason for clubs’ continued lack of collaboration. But as I will cover in the next part of this series of opinion pieces, I believe that students can only regain our former ability to truly unite and make change by identifying these barriers. Graduating students and alumni will have to come together to assist in the identification, and this article hopes to start that. However, it will be incumbent upon the newest generation of Cornellians to revive student organizations and bring back true club collaboration.

Patrick J. Mehler (he/him) is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Mehl-Man Delivers runs alternate Mondays this semester.