Category Archives: Opinion

Secret Societies, “Private Organizations,” and Why We Should Care

The following opinion piece is written as a guest contribution to the Claremont Independent.

Last month marked two years since my admittance to Claremont McKenna College. I remember the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and anticipation I felt as I signed and returned my acceptance letter. I had joined the ranks of an elite group of extremely talented students and gained access to an incredible alumni network. I had every opportunity in front of me, all thanks to CMC.

Part of my excitement was that all of my future class would begin with a clean slate. The barriers and cliques of high school had been leveled. It didn’t matter whether we were from a private school or public school, AP or IB program, American or international students. We were all CMCers now; individual work ethic and character would define us from that day on.

Of course, I soon found that these feelings, though well-founded in principle, were naïve and incomplete. There are other factors beyond merit that affect achievement. At such a small campus, it soon became clear that “who you know” and reputation is a large advantage when competing within the CMC bubble. I soon learned that a minor degree of cronyism is a fact of life and social outreach is a means to success. While it is not true meritocracy, I like to believe that these opportunities are available to all and correlate with effort.

But my concern is not networking; my concern is its exploitation. Before Spring Break, the ASCMC Elections Committee was forced to ask former ASCMC President and Vice President to remove themselves from deliberation on the new Executive Board appointments and restart the appointment process. While we do not have all the facts, it has come to light that membership in a “private organization” significantly skewed the former officers’ decision-making. Since then, we have had underwhelming journalistic coverage (aside from satire) on the issue. In order for us to avoid a more calamitous ethical issue, I find it necessary to put forth a number of issues raised by this recently uncovered secret society.

My objective in this article is to first reaffirm the foundation of CMC culture and then argue that secret organizations are antithetical to it. Yes, secret societies are self-important and laughable, but they are equally threatening to CMC’s culture and should not be dismissed.

The “Princes” pose a serious problem for the delicate balance of our inclusive philosophy and selective on-campus organizations. It rails against our inclusive culture and delegitimizes campus leadership positions. If students suspect, or have substantial proof that, a group has underhandedly manipulated distributions of power on campus, student media has a responsibility to fully investigate and report on these unacceptable actions. In response, I believe the student body must perpetuate a culture that actively discourages further creation or reconvening of any such secret groups.

While we can reasonably anticipate a certain degree of cronyism in on-campus selection processes, secretive and calculated motives are much different from the advantages of equal opportunity networking. Networking is fair because it is open to everyone—secret societies are neither.

Students apply for the Executive Board because they believe they will be judged on the merits of their applications, their ability to work with fellow students, and possibly by who they know. But, in this case, they cannot reasonably suspect that those reading their applications will have blind allegiances to their competitors based upon subjective membership in a “private organization.” When the Elections Committee calls potential candidates, including myself and other current “members of the corporation”, to tell them what they should and should not run for in order to better maintain footholds for a sputtering old boys’ club, they violate the premises of CMC. When they manufacture an Executive Board based not on merit, or even connectedness, but in accordance with secret frat membership, they pose a greater threat to our social scene than any Friday class or TNC fence.  Moreover, they remove the collaborative attitude of CMC’s culture, breaking down relationships between students and replacing them with undue barriers like those found at other colleges to which I refused to apply. And the threat is not limited to the social scene: the Princes systematically threaten the career opportunities of non-members, putting themselves before others in a predetermined selection process.

Two great ironies of the past few weeks have been that (1) these actions happened at the hands of the ASCMC administration that promised transparency and reform and (2) just days after writing an open letter intended to resurrect the social scene through inclusiveness, the same individuals attempted to preserve the influence of a “private organization” through pervasive measures that are just as much of a threat to CMC culture. We need a critical eye to look past the messaging and into the inconsistencies of CMC politics.

At best, we know that a more extreme form of cronyism took place in the original Executive Board appointment process —a form that violates CMC’s networking-as-usual. At worst, we have found a group that challenges the fabric of CMC, a systematic virus that extends to other prominent groups on campus. In either case, these actions are intolerable. We need publications to start a discussion regarding campus culture and how to reconcile ambition and ethics. The virus must be further investigated by the student press and strongly discouraged by future CMCers.

To begin this discussion, the student body needs the complete story. Through investigation, we must find the extent of the damage and set a standard so that future campus leaders act in accordance with the opportunities guaranteed by our acceptance letters. While we move on from the transgressions of the past, we must not forget CMC’s inclusive foundation and protect against the actions and groups that threaten it.

Perks of not studying abroad

Discovering a new culture, meeting new friends and having the experience of a lifetime. With these selling points, you might wonder why some students say “no” to the chance to study abroad. Although studying abroad is quite popular at the 5C’s, every year there are many sophomores who choose to stay in Claremont during their junior year. To get a better idea of why one might choose not to study abroad, I interviewed several students who chose to spend their time in Claremont instead of Europe, Asia or another exotic destination.

Why would you choose not to study abroad?

In a word: education. Most of the students I talked to mentioned that they preferred taking classes that were meaningful and would advance their education over going abroad (where classes might not be at the same calibre as they are in the 5C’s).

Some of the students found that they wanted to take some specific classes before graduating and, unfortunately, would not have time to take them if they went abroad. There are also those who cannot study abroad if they want to complete their major. For example, Marc Blumberg (CMC ’15), an Economics-Engineering (3-2) major, is staying on campus to complete all his required courses before he applies after three years at CMC to Harvey Mudd College for his last two years of school. With regards to choosing the 5C education over studying abroad, I think Katya Abazajian (CM ‘14) put it best when she told me that, “To those who want to take substantive classes and are loving their education here at CMC, I’d recommend not going abroad—because if you’re taking substantive classes abroad, you’re just not doing it right.”

What are the benefits of staying in Claremont?

One of the benefits of staying is being able to take classes that you would not be able to abroad. Hannah Burak (CMC ‘13) explained that, by staying in Claremont, she “got the opportunity to continue taking econ classes and eventually added it as a major—something [she] could not have done otherwise.”

In addition to taking classes at the 5C’s, choosing not to study abroad allows juniors to work on projects that they would not have time to work on otherwise. For example, Burak took advantage of this extra time on campus by taking “on leadership of the Claremont Independent for a full year—one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of [her] life.” Abazajian also said that she had “been able to start projects that will allow [her] to travel for academic reasons, so that has been a huge perk.”

Would you recommend staying in Claremont to freshmen and sophomores considering studying abroad?

The responses that I got point to the fact that the decision really depends on each individual student’s preference. For some students, a 5C education trumps partying abroad. Other students believe that traveling once one has graduated is more valuable when taking into account opportunity costs from not spending four years at the 5C’s, such as Abazajian, who told me, “Traveling is not unique to college—having accomplished professors willing to freely share their knowledge with you and help you develop into an educated person is.”

Crescit cum commercio civitas: Seize the day

In 2007, the Robert Day School (RDS) of Economics and Finance was established in recognition of a $200 million gift from Robert Day ’65, former Chair of Claremont McKenna College’s Board of Trustees. It has been described as the single largest donation to an American liberal arts college. It has also been described as a threat to the goal of a liberal arts education.

Background

The RDS offers undergraduate majors in Economics and Economics-Accounting as well as a Master’s Program in Finance. It also offers the Robert Day Scholars Program, which is divided into two categories: the BA Program and the BA/ MA Program. At this time, only CMC students have the option to select between BA and BA/MA options, while students from other campuses may apply for the BA/MA Program. The BA Program provides students of all disciplines with an introduction to and a curriculum tailored around courses in finance, accounting and organizational behavior/leadership. The BA/MA Program focuses more on finance and allows students to take graduate courses to achieve a Master’s degree by the time of graduation. The application deadline was Friday, February 15.

One more thing: all BA and BA/MA Scholars receive a $15,000 scholarship during senior year.

Controversy

That last point is what has generated some concern amongst professors on the Kravis side of campus (geographically speaking; not to be confused with “Kravis-like” professors).

Some worry that the RDS and the Robert Day Scholars Program in particular may change CMC from being a genuine liberal arts college to being more of a specialized, pre-professional school. If I am a student majoring in philosophy, literature, or religious studies, for example, I have an incentive to pursue the Robert Day BA Scholar Program so that I can receive $15,000 to help me pay for my education. That means, however, that I now have to take courses in finance and accounting – subjects I would not have otherwise pursued – instead of taking upper level courses in my respective major. The concern of professors is obvious: CMC may no longer be focused on developing minds, but on developing careers instead.

Such concern is indicative of a pressing controversy in higher education. On January 29, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory chided liberal arts courses offered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, saying “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine… But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

But this is not only a recent problem. Author and recent Athenaeum speaker William Deresiewicz noted in 2008 that this trend of focusing on careers is not limited solely to public officials, but to the atmosphere of educational institutions as well. “The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.” Universities and colleges seem to be forgetting, according to Deresiewicz, that the “true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.”

It thus comes as no surprise that some CMC professors may be concerned that the Robert Day Scholars Program – which emphasizes pre-professional skills and career development – may detract from the goal of a liberal arts college. They worry that the Program may change CMC permanently and not necessarily for the better.

Seize the Day

I believe these concerns are justified. After all, the RDS Program may detract from the well-roundedness of CMC’s education by shifting focus and students towards the path of technical education.

But I believe these concerns can easily be ameliorated as long as we do not act rashly.

Firstly, the Robert Day Scholars Program curriculum in- cludes philosophy classes such as “Moral and Political Issues” and “Ethical Theory.” At the very least, there is some effort to ensure that there is not solely a focus on technical education. Furthermore, the Program is still being developed, and can potentially be reformed to address grievances.

Secondly, we have a President-Elect who understands the value and power of a liberal arts education, and who has already taken time to meet with department heads to understand potential concerns. Even if the current landscape is worrisome for the liberal arts at CMC, it definitely helps to have a president who has spearheaded the development of interdisciplin- ary courses, has won a Distinguished Teacher Award, and has extensive experience in academia. I would say the future looks rather bright.

Thirdly, we focus on learning, and we focus on doing – but more importantly than either is that we focus on “learning for the sake of doing.” I used to think of this motto as just an empty slogan to distinguish CMC from other liberal arts colleges for attracting applications. I now understand that CMC combines the best of both worlds. We develop minds and creative ways of thinking by ensuring that students take courses in philosophy, literature, government, history, etc. But we do so with an eye toward the future, so that we can apply the skill of critical thinking to any and all of our future endeavors, whether it be in the realm of academia, politics, gender studies, economics, or finance.

The RDS and the RDS Program offers another avenue for students to achieve that end. RDS Dean Brock Blomberg notes this on the school’s website, saying that the RDS provides the opportunity for technical learning “in a liberal arts setting.” Does this mean that a student may not take as many upper-division courses in their respective major as they otherwise would? Yes. But this also means that students can still learn about literature, gender studies, and philosophy – the liberal arts – while simultaneously gaining pre-professional skills that allow them to strike a balance between developing their mind and career that will serve them in the future.

CMC has reached a middle-ground, a sweet spot, between the overzealous public official concerned with jobs and the academic concerned with minds. We have become the practical liberal arts college. We have ambition counteracting ambition. We have an opportunity to seize the Day.