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Candid candidates

Student government nominees should remember uncommon principles

When I read in the October 7, 2011 edition of the Maroon that with 20 contenders the class of 2015 had tied the record for first-year College Council bids, I was conflicted. On one hand, this enthusiasm for student government among my classmates is admirable. Surely, such widespread and strong commitment to the campus equivalent of civil service can only be positive for the student body. Yet on the other hand, there is a thought that I cannot ignore: The act of running for elected office and making cutesy posters does not equate to a genuine passion for and interest in governing.

And then the flashbacks began. I was back in my high school auditorium. The candidate for senior class representative stepped up to the microphone and said something like, “I can’t promise you soda in the water fountain, but I can promise you hard work and dedication.” All I heard, meanwhile, was, “My Common App is looking pretty skimpy right now. Little help guys?” The elephant in the room is, of course, that any student government position, from “Ninth Grade Class Treasurer” to “College Council Representative,” looks pretty spiffy on a résumé no matter how seriously the position is taken in actuality.

At that point—looking feverishly at both of my empty hands, trembling from the horrifying flashbacks, and pointing to an elephant that was nowhere to be found—one could have been forgiven for thinking I was crazy. But am I really? Is it really so wrong of me to be so cynical as to question the motives and values of the 20 first-years willing to put themselves out there supposedly for the good of us all?

I submit that it is not. Twenty candidates all bearing similarly frivolous slogans and posters that reek of high school résumé desperation do not a real election make. And in saying that, I only have at heart the best interests of my class, the class of 2015, with regard to how we are perceived by the outside world, and how we can ensure that we make the upperclassmen proud.

The University of Chicago, owing to a variety of coincidences and circumstances, finds itself facing something resembling a turning point. The last of those among us who filled out the Uncommon Application in its original form will, for the most part, be leaving our community at the end of this academic year. Pretty soon, we will all be products of the Common App. The University finds itself ranked higher—fifth in the U.S. News rankings, for those keeping score—and held in higher regard than it ever has before. We are no longer anyone’s best kept secret.

It is for that reason that it is now more important than ever for our community to embrace the uncommon ideals that have brought us to this point. The alternative would involve a shift toward the current paradigm of elite universities, a world of inflated résumés and those who will do anything to make them so.

I would say that the junkie-like fervor with which the modern elite student pursues his or her next accolade seems at odds with the traditional values of our school. We have always been renowned for possessing true intellectual vitality and, most notably, purity of intent in academic endeavors; to use a cliché, we like learning for learning’s sake. The scourge-like trend of résumé-boosting, corrupted by ulterior motives as it is, therefore has no place here. Should we allow it to become commonplace—as it has, I think it’s safe to say, at most, if not all, other elite institutions—we would surrender a large part of what makes our school so unique and valuable and do a massive disservice to those who came before us, including current upperclassmen.

The mark that the University of Chicago has left on the world of higher education thus far is both indelible and uncommon, but we who have only just arrived here—we who will make up the soon-to-be entirely “Common” student body of the U of C—still have our own mark to make. And it would be such a shame for that mark not to live up to the standard set by our predecessors.

Please do not interpret my words here as personal slights made against the 20 candidates. If anything, I hope that they hear what I have said and that, once four of them have taken office, they do their duty to the best of their abilities, act solely in the best interests of those who have elected them, and always keep in mind that they have won nothing simply by being elected. Whether or not they are pleased that their future résumés will contain proud mentions of their tenures in Student Government, their constituents will always know the true nature of the legacy they left. I only ask that you who are elected keep that legacy and our collective legacy in mind as you consider why you have been elected, and that you prove my assumptions wrong.

Ajay Batra is a first-year in the College.

  • WN

    This is terrific, insightful writing. We need fewer student government candidates and more first-years who can write like Ajay!

  • AL

    I do not at all understand how lower selectivity and a keener interest in our university from the world’s best students corresponds to a supposed break from the traditional intellectual culture of our school. Batra mocks “elite institutions,” no doubt a reference to the Ivy League, but I think he misses the point. Schools like Yale and Harvard have exactly the high admissions standards that we hope to emulate as we try to compete with them for the same intellectually gifted high-school seniors. I get the sense that Batra believes switching to the common app was a bad decision or maybe he is ambivalent, but others will tell you the truth: that the decision has contributed to a better-qualified student body.

    Batra can call his classmates “résumé-boosters” or corporate sellouts or whatever, but they are probably more mature and realistic than he. Does he really think that intellectual integrity is incompatible with high career ambitions? If so, he insults many thousands of U of C grads. Does he also forget that a private university like Chicago relies on successful alumni to support its academic and financial aid programs? If students all major in something esoteric and read library books their whole lives then this university has no future and cannot provide the benefits of a college education to the underprivileged.

    Also: “Best kept secret”… Um, really? Is he serious? What could be more pretentious and elitist than an institution that intends to keep its academic offerings secret from those deemed “too mainstream,” especially considering that the “in-the-know,” hip types tend to come from affluent backgrounds. Recently, the university has been determined to share this “secret” with the rest of the world, and I’m sorry that Batra does not like the results but I can promise him that we have a more ethnically and socio-economically diverse and a more intelligent student body than ever before. The “standard of our predecessors” for which Batra nostalgically yearns is ultimately far BELOW the standard being set by the most recently admitted students. (12% selectivity is the lowest in the school’s history.) I’m sorry Batra thinks his classmates are “too normal” but guess what? You don’t have to be weird to be smart.