Many readers of this paper probably did not notice when the masthead changed about four weeks ago. The News continues to be published largely as it always has, and the transition has been relatively seamless.
I, too, probably wouldn’t have noticed anything — if not for the visible fatigue of my friends on the News’ staff the day after elections. They were bleary-eyed and cranky. It looked like they hadn’t slept much in the previous few days. As it turns out, this was precisely the case.
I am not a member of this paper’s staff, and I am not privy to the inner workings of the organization, but I do know that the News’ elections dragged on for more than 30 hours this past cycle. These elections, which determine the editorial positions of the incoming board, can, apparently, go on as long as necessary. According to one friend, this was the longest election “night” in recent history.
I have no objection to students spending time and energy on causes and organizations about which they are passionate. But 30 straight hours on elections? These students were not spending this colossal amount of time investigating a particularly egregious university policy or compelling New Haven story. Instead of engaging in productive and meaningful activities, 70-odd of our most talented students were camped out in a room — no doubt dozing off — as they endlessly processed decisions that could be made in far less time. I understand that the democratic process takes time … but 30 hours? That just seems indefensible.
Nor is the News the only offender; other undergraduate organizations engage in similar shenanigans on a regular basis. How many nights of productivity — musical or academic — are lost as a cappella groups lead freshmen through an endless rush process and then sit around for immense blocks of time reaching consensus as they determine their taps and select their leadership?
The Political Union is nearly as bad. (Full disclosure: I am the Union’s Speaker this semester.) In addition to semesterly Union elections — which last for hours and are followed by three more hours of public “ballot reading” — there is the traditional Political Union “Inquisition.”
This fun little activity — which precedes every election cycle — lasts more than seven hours, as candidates for Union office crisscross campus as they submit to questioning from the Union’s constituent parties. All of this follows extensive all-night meetings that select each party’s own leadership. Union members can spend nearly two thirds of a three-day period engaged in Union election business.
As I watch — and experience — these endless election processes, I cannot help but wonder whether this kind of expense is either worthwhile or necessary. I have seen my share of uncontested races drag on, and more where the results were near certain before we had even begun. Even forgetting the opportunity costs, the amount of time Yalies spend on these leadership selection processes seems staggeringly unnecessary.
But of course, there are opportunity costs. How many of us have failed to study for exams, missed reading or been so drained that our service to those very institutions which we were elected to lead has suffered? I have no doubt that there are some tough calls to make, but by the end of 30 hours we are well into the land of diminished returns.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Thirty years ago, the News’ editors sat around the dinner table, made a couple of speeches, voted and then went out for drinks. Done. The Union’s Inquisition isn’t even mentioned in its constitution (although it was described in a 2007 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine).
So why do we do it? One defense I hear frequently — and which is, I think, somewhat valid — is that these kinds of extensive experiences build communities and foster attachment to institutions. One News friend assured me this election was an experience she would remember the rest of her life. I certainly appreciate this motivation. College can be an incredibly lonely experience, and nothing is more important than forming cohesive communities and developing a real sense of belonging. Such involvement is critical to our emotional well-being.
But here, too, these hyper-extended leadership selection procedures seem counter-productive. How many losing candidates are left embittered and angry by a process that drained tremendous energy and time — and that magnified the importance of the desired post to epic proportions — and then fall off the bandwagon? We focus on the procedural trappings of these organizations at the expense of the substance of what they do. In doing so, we misdirect our energy and loyalty to hollow shells and hierarchal structures rather than the incredible activities with which we are involved.
In our ever-increasing emphasis on time-draining organizational elections, we submit to — and feed — a national culture that values “leadership” over actual achievement. In our focus on the superficial, we are no better than a media which turns the American electoral process into a perpetual horse race. It is time to refocus on substance. At least at Yale, we should scale down the elections and spend a little more time writing our articles, perfecting our harmonies, debating our friends and doing our class work.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.