Addressing Nepotism at Stuyvesant

By being more informed about nepotism and the superficial drawbacks it entails, we would be able to enhance the morale of the Stuyvesant community and culture of solidarity within our extracurriculars.

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By Emily Young-Squire

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” The well-known adage holds true in many professional environments. Too often is success determined by one’s connections as opposed to one’s competence. It makes sense—the psychological tendency to fear outsiders and trust the familiar is innate.

At Stuyvesant, it’s not uncommon for friends of incumbents to gain leadership positions in various clubs. Students in positions of power often cross the boundary separating friendship and professionalism to avoid confrontation or conflict with their peers. Nepotism is more than evident in our extracurriculars, and yet Stuyvesant students consistently turn a blind eye to it. In fact, students seldom care about favoritism unless it’s used against them. On the whole, nepotism isn’t completely terrible, but it is a malpractice nonetheless. By being more informed about nepotism and its drawbacks, the morale of the Stuyvesant community and the culture of solidarity within our extracurriculars could be enhanced.

Nepotism is formally defined as favoritism for friends or relatives from people in positions of power. Debates surrounding the subject were brought up earlier this year in light of the release of “The Letter,” an exposé of corruption within the Student Union (SU) and Junior Caucus. Though it involved private conflicts between the members of SU and Junior Caucus, with criticisms regarding both organizations, there were clear allegations related to nepotism. The class of 2023 Sophomore and Junior Caucuses were supposedly able to bypass the standard member application process, with leaders identifying particular favored members by asking people which extracurriculars they participated in. Accusers alleged that certain members were permitted into the cabinet without completing the application process. Junior Luca Adeishvilli—among the various co-authors of said letter—explained, “These decisions for leadership positions, including my own, were [made] months before the actual school year started—much less before applications for Junior Caucus had even come out. I was a product of the Junior Caucus’s nepotism, having only gotten a role as a member of the Social Media department because I made a caucus-related TikTok that was apparently ‘so funny’ that I was allowed to bypass the application process and instantly become a member.”

The allegations made in “The Letter” circulated throughout the student body, sparking concerns over certain practices within Stuyvesant’s student government. Some, including SU President Shivali Korgaonkar, defended the student government organizations: “Every single person I’ve worked with is deserving of their position and they have merit that gave them that position. To say that just because they are friends with the president or just because they are in some corrupt larger system undermines the work and dedication they put into the SU.” Others, such as junior Jerry Yang, believe that this situation calls for more awareness amongst the student body about news involving student government. “Remember this [incident] when you’re interacting with the caucus in general—be more cautious. Just remember that this happened and act accordingly,” he said. Despite attempts for a call to action and arguments against the claims put forth in “The Letter,” the student government bodies in question failed to acknowledge these clear claims of nepotism, with the Junior Caucus silently replacing co-president Daniel Jung with then-Chief of Staff Jady Chen. The buzz from this incident eventually faded as students found themselves thrust into an overload of work in the last few months of the school year.

The SU and caucuses received the majority of the attention for allowing a culture of nepotism to sustain itself at Stuyvesant. “A lot of the people in SU are seniors who are friends with each other. They might be qualified, but this year there were only three non-seniors accepted and I don’t think they were accepted just for their skills,” an anonymous student said. Yet, the issue extends far beyond just student government.

Ultimately, the incident reflected the pernicious nature of Stuyvesant’s culture of competition. Despite many clubs maintaining the front that there is no foul play behind the scenes, the student body has almost unanimously agreed that nepotism is present in many of the extracurricular activities at Stuyvesant. In a survey conducted by The Spectator, 62 percent of respondents reported ​​personally witnessing and/or benefitted from any form of favoritism or nepotism in a club setting. An even more significant 80 percent of respondents view nepotism as an issue within student organizations. “It’s really difficult to see people getting leadership positions without the influence and support of their friends. I get it, friends want to vote for each other and see each other succeed, but sometimes that prevents a leadership role from going to the person who is actually the most qualified or merit[orious],” an anonymous student who responded to the form said.

There seems to be a general consensus among the student body about the boundaries that become blurred when it comes to friendships and extracurricular activities. “In the beginning of the school year when we were electing leaders for the freshman caucus, I voted for many of my friends without even knowing what the freshman caucus was. I had tried not to vote on nepotism but peer pressure pushed me to, and if your friends knew that you didn’t vote for them, you might lose your friendship,” an anonymous freshman said.

It is difficult for The Stuyvesant Spectator, a club that likewise has to deal with cases of nepotism, to give ideas on how to prevent these sorts of situations within Stuyvesant organizations. However, there are many possible solutions that clubs can implement in order to keep nepotism at bay. For example, clubs can implement fair elections with a set of guidelines and rules. As one of the major clubs at Stuyvesant, the Big Sibs have taken measures in order to prevent nepotism. When asked about the selection process for the program, Big Sib Chair Efe Kilic stated, “For the interview process, we separate everybody that we knew personally so other [Big Sib] Chairs could interview them, and we take in people that we don’t know to make sure that there is no bias or no connections that go into our decisions.”

Since there are five Big Sib Chairs, separating applicants based on personal relationships was a smooth process. Similarly, because many organizations usually have a sizable number of people on the leadership board, during the interview process for an applicant, the candidates can be assigned to leaders who don’t have a personal connection with them. In the case where all the board members of a club are personally associated with a candidate, the leaders can instead opt to elect a board of impartial people to review candidates for leadership positions.

The Science Olympiad has maintained its integrity by assessing its members on their passion and commitment level toward the club. “[Science Olympiad] is basically the only thing I do and commit to every day after school. In my opinion a leader is someone who steps up to make sure everything and everyone is on the same page, and if you aren’t committed how can you care about that?” Treasurer and Tech Captain Matthew Weng said. Leaders and event captains are selected by incumbents while other prestigious roles are assigned based on a form and a subsequent interview. It’s very easy to find passionate candidates based on the amount of time and effort they spend toward pursuing the position as well as their commitment toward the club prior to applying.

However, this line of reasoning has failed to eliminate the issue entirely. “[Science Olympiad] specifically has a major problem with nepotism,” an anonymous student who filled out the form said. “They simply neglected my application completely. Other clubs follow similar nepotism and seniority. If you are somehow lucky [enough] to get on the board or a high position in junior or sophomore year, it is essentially a free train ride for the rest of your time in Stuyvesant. This is awful for new people wanting to join the clubs.”

On top of the aforementioned solutions, there are other considerations that board leaders should make depending on the circumstances of their club. Letting members vote for positions seems like a valid method for electing trusting candidates. In organizations such as Key Club and FRC Robotics, elections are conducted—even for members who aren’t truly a part of the club. In order to combat this situation, the board could filter out committed members by establishing a quota that members have to reach in order to vote. Some possible ideas include keeping track of total hours committed to the club and the amount of work that the members have contributed. While Stuyvesant extracurriculars have long been student-driven, another safeguard would be the involvement of the faculty, adults who can be entrusted with making objective decisions, in the selection process. Once candidates are elected for their respective leadership positions, routine check-ins could be done to ensure that they are doing their job correctly. Board members could have monthly meetings to make sure all projects are running smoothly, so even if the people nominated are favored by the board, any problems that arise may be a larger indicator of the qualifications of its leaders. Clubs could also implement feedback forms on leadership, which members would fill out anonymously once or twice a year. There should also be a system for removal from positions, particularly if the occasion arises where a board member of a club isn’t doing the job correctly.

Yet, these possibilities are unable to address the larger issue of rampant lobbying within clubs with electoral processes. The emphasis on competing to gain leadership positions and maintaining extracurricular activities for the college application process remains omnipresent within the Stuyvesant community. There is only so much that a club can do to maintain a fair set of guidelines and enforce a strict policy on no favoritism. “It's how the entire student body runs. It’s literally a way of life for most people, especially in SING!. I noticed it [feels] like someone's exclusive club to hang out with their friends. Even though I like to tell people it's just the way it is, I'm sick of it honestly. It's just such a shame that this is the only way most people know how to operate,” an anonymous student who filled out the form said.

Quite frankly, nepotism isn’t always bad. In some cases, it selects the candidate who is the most qualified or trustworthy. “I think that nepotism is only destructive when the person who is chosen for [a] leadership position is not the most qualified for the position, because oftentimes we’ve selected people who we [...] [know because of] their accolades, [essentially] their previous experience that demonstrated their competency, rather than favoring people for petty reasons,” an anonymous student who filled out the form said. Occasionally, such bias, which results from having confidence in the candidate, can even provide stability in the position.

Often, however, the emphasis on seniority and interpersonal connections creates a discouraging air of exclusivity and cliques. “The Freshman Caucus was elected entirely based on friendships. This is the same across the entire SU: friends vote for friends, not the best candidate. Also, I have seen many underclassmen [...] only receive club leadership roles because of an older sibling’s involvement in the club,” an anonymous student said.

As we all gear up for life beyond high school, it’s clear that nepotism is an issue that can’t be avoided. As much as Stuyvesant students may complain about this issue, it dominates our extracurriculars. It’s about time we start focusing on the solutions, too. “I feel like people can not complain about a problem without offering a solution,” said Junior Caucus Co-President Jady Chen. It’s important to take into account the selective nature of surface conversations regarding nepotism. For instance, though numerous students brought their experiences with nepotism in the Junior Caucus to light within “The Letter,” they only did so after being removed from their positions of power. This raises the concern that we remain complicit when we are the beneficiaries of nepotism and are seeking to address personal grievances rather than the systemic issues at large.

At the end of the day, it’s important to acknowledge that we are still high schoolers and still young. It is hard to draw the line between professionalism and friendship in a teenage setting where we are all still developing professional skills. In some sense, nepotism in high school is inevitable, but it’s still crucial to maintain as fair of a selection process as possible to preserve our integrity as a community.