Many students perceive an overlap in campus leadership positions, but the explanation is more complicated than favoritism, and programs are working to bring equality to hiring processes.
When sophomore Lauren Russ began the Summer Welcome leader application process last December, she heard rumors regarding MU’s “leadership elite.”
This privileged group is composed of leaders of well-known programs such as Summer Welcome, Tour Team, the Alumni Association Student Board and the Missouri Students Association.
“They say once you get in to Summer Welcome or Tour Team, then basically you can get into anything,” Russ said.
All four organizations have different but significant purposes: Summer Welcome orients incoming freshmen to the university, Tour Team promotes MU to visiting students and families, AASB connects students with alumni and MSA is the student voice in charge of a $1.6 million budget.
In Russ’s opinion, there is an unspoken understanding at MU that power on campus is attained by what many regard as a foolproof method of strategy and connection within these organizations.
“The reputation of MU falls on the performance of these programs and jobs,” sophomore Christopher Dade, a member of both AASB and Tour Team, said.
Out of the 305 students involved in MSA, AASB or Summer Welcome since 2012, 45 students were involved in two or more groups – roughly 15 percent. Full information for Tour Team was not available.
According to both prospective and current student leaders — with one former member comparing the group to “the Illuminati” — the first step toward influence at MU is attaining a position in any of the aforementioned programs.
MSA Vice President Brenda Smith-Lezama disagrees with these claims.
“I think that we’ve really gotten into this idea that in order to do x-y-z, you have to have been a part of Summer Welcome, Tour Team, AASB and you know, all of those big organizations that are here on campus,” Smith-Lezama said. “And I really don’t believe that whatsoever. Clearly, I am not a part of any of (the other) organizations and I really don’t think that’s a make-it-or-break-it for me, personally.”
Although Smith-Lezama denies the existence of an evident problem, she does acknowledge the overlap of leaders within these popular programs. Smith-Lezama, who was responsible for appointing the MSA cabinet after she and MSA President Payton Head won last year’s election, believes the logical explanation behind the MU leadership overlap begins at the hiring process.
"If you are a member of other really incredible organizations on campus, that's great. But, that doesn't mean you're the right fit for a position."
- Brenda Smith-Lezama, Missouri Students Association Vice President
She and Head do not hire students based off of their resume or involvements, Smith-Lezama said. While applicants like Russ said experience with Summer Welcome is a sure way into MSA, Smith-Lezama said she personally did not give any applicants more consideration if Summer Welcome, Tour Team or AASB was listed on their applications.
“If you are a member of other really incredible organizations on campus, that’s great,” Smith-Lezama said. “But, that doesn’t mean you’re the right fit for a position. I look at it on an individual basis.”
Junior Ryan Greenway was in charge of recruiting, hiring and training Summer Welcome leaders last semester. Greenway said the process was “intensive” and “competitive,” seeing as roughly 200 people applied for only 36 open positions.
“There’s a big misconception with Summer Welcome that you need to be super involved to be a Summer Welcome leader, which is false and overexaggerated,” Greenway said. “Yes, the people who apply for Summer Welcome tend to be very involved, but by no means is that a requirement. We’re not looking for what you’ve done, but for what you’re going to do over the summer — a lot of that is based around personality and communication skills.”
All employers, from Summer Welcome, Tour Team, AASB and MSA, said that though they look for diversity in the applicant pool, including factors such as major, age, race and socioeconomic status, applicants who are passionate and dedicated to improving MU are the most sought out to hire.
Dade credits his passion and dedication to MU as his reasons for joining AASB and Tour Team. Because of these qualities, the overlap in leadership at MU is not only real, it’s inevitable, he said.
“When you look at these organizations (such as) AASB, Summer Welcome and Tour Team, they all focus on people who are strong leaders and who are willing to be hard working to promote the university,” Dade said. “It just makes sense that these organizations are looking for the same types of people.”
A Changing Process
However, there remains a dominating perception that students are being offered positions in these programs because of connections and networking.
Last year, Tour Team implemented blind applications in order to do away with any perceptions of biased hiring. The new process prevented students from including names or specific Greek affiliations on the paper portion of the application. Once a round of cuts were made, students were invited for an interview.
Poonam Sheevam, who graduated in May, is the former student coordinator for the Office of Visitor Relations and was the driving force behind the idea of blind applications for Tour Team.
“Ever since my freshman year, the pool of leaders on campus has gotten smaller and smaller as fewer people are taking on more roles,” Sheevam said in an email. “As my friends and I were discussing this, we felt as if this culture became more and more prominent as the hiring groups would select people they already knew to fill those leadership roles.”
Sheevam said that during hiring processes, she heard interviewers discuss candidates they already knew were doing a good job in other leadership roles, suggesting they were therefore qualified for open positions.
She disliked the influence that established relationships had on employers because equally qualified individuals without connections were being overlooked, she said.
"Making it a blind process reinforces for the general student who might be applying, or consider applying, that it really is a fair process."
- LeAnn Stroupe, Manager of Visitor Relations
Manager of Visitor Relations LeAnn Stroupe oversaw the entire Tour Team hiring process last year and was pleased by the benefits of blind applications for not only her staff, but the applicants as well.
“Making it a blind process reinforces for the general student who might be applying, or considering applying, that it really is a fair process,” Stroupe said. “I think it opens up the opportunity for more students, and potentially even more students who were ‘off the radar,’ to get involved and engaged with MU.”
Stroupe said she had heard that people thought getting hired depended on who they knew and not necessarily their qualifications. Although she said she doesn’t believe that is the case, she decided to implement blind applications to dispel that perception and eliminate any “potential bias” from the process.
“I think taking their name out of the process made us look more specifically at the individual characteristics and the skill sets they were bringing and not necessarily carrying over potential knowledge of them from some other activity,” Stroupe said.
Maiya Putman, director of MSA’s Department of Student Activities, said that implementing blind applications could be in DSA’s future.
“Tour Team is very selective, and I know that there have been times before where people were chosen based on their friendships, so (the blind application) is a really cool thing,” Putman said.
Dade also said blind applications were helpful in finding the hiring process to be more credible, knowing any potential biases were eliminated for applicants.
“There’s no nepotism here,” Dade said. “And if you want to build the reputation of any of these organizations, avoiding nepotism is extremely important.”
While blind applications might seem like the perfect solution to eliminating the campus-wide perception of an existing leadership elite, student organizations are also exploring other options to increase fairness in hiring.
Sophomore Jim Farley, who became a member of both Tour Team and Summer Welcome the spring of his freshman year, believes employers look more at the qualities rather than involvements of an applicant when making hiring decisions.
This year, Farley experienced both the blind application with Tour Team and the traditional application with Summer Welcome. Because all Summer Welcome applicants were guaranteed a first-round interview, Farley said there would be no point for Summer Welcome to implement blind applications. Instead, he said programs that don’t do first-round paper cuts could eliminate potential for hiring bias by implementing group interviews.
By having more than one person interviewing a potential candidate, it provides a check on a potentially biased person. Summer Welcome and Tour Team use this strategy to ensure a fair analysis of each candidate.
“You could think a person is outstanding, but if everyone else doesn’t agree, you can take a step back and say, ‘I’m probably seeing this through a biased lens,’” former Summer Welcome student coordinator Alyssa Goldberg said. “You have to keep business separate from pleasure. You have to remove yourself from a situation, compartmentalize and evaluate them based on a leader, not as a friend.”
The Summer Welcome hiring process is partially blind when it comes to paper applications to eliminate any potential bias. When student members read applications, they don’t receive applicants’ names — only the executive board knows.
First-round interviews are done with pairs of applicants, second-round interviews are larger groups of six to eight applicants and third-round interviews are individual.
“When (an applicant) gets to the interview process, we are scoring them the same way based on the same questions on the same scale,” Goldberg said. “We tell our leadership team that this is a completely unbiased process so we know that going into the interviews. They’re trained on how to look at each applicant with the same eye they would the next.”
Sometimes knowing an interviewer might help a candidate simply because of personal familiarity. Because group interviews provide a check on bias, it can help with nerves throughout the process but will not give a true advantage, Goldberg said.
Dade knew one of his interviewers for AASB through Marching Mizzou when he applied to be on the board.
“Knowing someone definitely helped make the interviews not as stressful because I already felt like I could connect with them,” Dade said. “When they asked what my favorite tradition was, I talked about Marching Mizzou because I knew that they would understand. I felt a lot more confident.”
Stroupe mentioned an instance in which a campus colleague contacted her about a specific applicant for Tour Team. Stroupe said she didn’t know if the person applied or not because of the blind applications.
“In our old process, I could have matched (the name with the application) and that might give that person a slight advantage because now someone I know is recommending this person,” Stroupe said. “The blind application process takes away all of that. It makes every student compete for the limited number of spots on their own merit.”
Room to Improve
Despite these efforts, the hiring systems across the campus are not perfect. There are still cases where students feel like politics prevented them from being hired.
Amy Schmidt, who graduated in May, joined the College Music Committee as a freshman and worked her way up to social chair her sophomore year and senior chair her junior year, a position she held through first semester of her senior year. When the 2015 MSA executive cabinet took office, Putman became the new director of Student Activities, putting her in charge of hiring for the CMC.
Schmidt was not hired back for her final semester as a senior. She said she didn’t even get an interview when she applied.
“It didn’t make sense because I was the most qualified,” Schmidt said. “(I worked as CMC senior chair) for the last year and a half. I really enjoyed doing the work and didn’t mind putting in the long hours. In my opinion, the most qualified person should be hired because you’re spending students’ money. It’s a very serious responsibility.”
Putman wanted to give new people a chance when hiring her cabinet, she said. As a newcomer to MSA, she knew how much a student can learn by doing their job and how important it is to keep fresh faces in these positions.
“It’s really easy to get burnt out (as a chair), and new students are dying to have these positions,” Putman said. “I don’t think it’s super important to be around for a long time. These positions aren’t meant to be set in stone. I have only been on exec for a year, and if I had not been given this opportunity, I would not be where I am now.”
Putman sent out an email to the candidates who did not get an interview.
“I should’ve been told in person,” Schmidt said. “I didn’t do something wrong. She wanted to make her own decisions. Regardless of my qualifications, I wasn’t even asked to interview. Everyone should get a fair chance to interview if he or she is a qualified applicant. I wasn’t treated with respect.”
Putman said leaders have to strike a balance between hiring an applicant with more experience and hiring an applicant with less experience but potential to grow through their position. A newer student can’t get experience to become a future leader in an organization if the positions are only given to older, more experienced and qualified students.
MSA executive cabinet members are often a part of other student organizations.
Chris Chandler, a former member of DSA and now a student at the School of Law, felt that MSA was directly connected with other big power players on campus to ensure some individuals advanced more quickly than others through the organization.
“Getting inside the in-group will put you on the fast track to the top,” Chandler said. “It seemed like the in-group was always the people who were on Tour Team, AASB and Summer Welcome.”
Chandler said people in MSA could predict who was going to run for president because they were often Summer Welcome leaders that year. His theory is that because all freshmen see the Summer Welcome leaders before they start the school year, they can more easily recognize a presidential candidate.
Before Smith-Lezama took office with MSA President Payton Head, who is also a member of AASB and Tour Team and a past Summer Welcome leader, they had already discussed who they thought would be in their executive cabinet.
“Going into it, I had some people in mind that I thought were really going to stand out,” Smith-Lezama said. “I thought I was going to be able to predict what our outcome was going to be and I was very wrong about that. I think we were a little naive in that sense.”
Smith-Lezama and Head decided not to make paper cuts — everyone who applied for their executive cabinet got an interview. This decision changed their mindset on their administration.
“There are people sitting on our cabinet that may not have had the opportunity to interview for those positions if it was based purely on a paper cut,” Smith-Lezama said. “There are incredible applicants that you’re just not aware of. MSA has such a wide reach. It was really interesting with the outcome that we got. We have a wide range of people.”
Although many students are involved in more than one of these programs, student leaders are working to ensure that getting a leadership position is based on more than just who you know.
Blind applications, in-person interviews and group interviews may not be the perfect solution to break up the campus leadership culture. It’s not feasible for a group with a large amount of applicants to interview every single one, just as it doesn’t make sense to have blind applications if every applicant gets an interview automatically.
However, as many of the students noted, these measures do help. If not for the ones hiring, it helps give the applicants a peace of mind knowing they’ll be judged for their merit, not for their connections.
Smith-Lezama said she sees students who are afraid to go after major positions on campus because they feel they aren’t qualified.
“Let the people interviewing you deem whether or not you are qualified for that position,” Smith-Lezama said. “A lot of the times you have people interview on a whim and they end up surprising you.”