Student Power at Harvard: An Overview and Some Demands

"Harvard administrators claim that students are listened to and have influence already: 'Any good idea will be approved, no matter if it comes from the students, the faculty, or Hayes-Bickford.'"

"It is clear that student opinion does not have influence at the present time."

Student power, the full and equal participation of students in the decision-making process of their educational institution, has become a major goal of American student leaders. This concern is not a new outburst of self-importance but is rather a continuation of the concept of education illustrated by student activities supporting civil rights. Students' recent social and political involvement has altered the traditional view of education as a preparation for life -- students are now assuming a more meaningful role in society and are no longer content to live in a cocoon. It is recognized that it is impossible to know and fulfill the responsibilities of freedom without first being allowed to make choices and exercise that freedom. Students are expected to make value judgments about the outside community and to affect it through responsible action. It is incongruous that they should not make a similar critical analysis of their educational environment. The concern with student power, therefore, represents the concentration of critical faculties upon the students' closest and most relevant environment.

Student power, together with the resistance it has generally encountered from faculty and administration members, has noticeably affected campus attitudes. Much of the actual discontent and rebellion in the student community is due to students' isolation from the rational process which governs their environment.

The right to make decisions emanates from two sources: 1) competence to make the decisions and 2) being affected by the decisions. There is no question that most decisions within an educational institution profoundly affect students. In fact, though these decisions also affect faculty members, administrators, and even in some senses the institution per se, it is still true that they affect students much more than anyone else. Their impact, moreover, is doubly significant at a residential college such as Harvard.

It would seem, therefore, that students have a greater right to make decisions affecting their lives and and education than does anyone else. However, is there a significant difference in competence between the faculty-administration (which are highly integrated at Harvard and which will be referred to as "faculty") and students which may negate the students' rights?

There probably is a difference in quality of reasoning since faculty members have had more experience than students. However, the very fact that these people are no longer students seriously limits their perspective. It is students who are in direct contact with the pressures (and the immediate effects of these pressures) of the educational process. The "shortrun" perspective, which many people bemoan as limiting, is a necessary and important part of any complete analysis. It is not included now, and only students can supply it. Thus, the difference in competence is compensated for by the potential student contribution of a more immediate knowledge of educational pressures and conditions.

At Harvard, the power to make decisions has been delegated by the Corporation to various entities within the University, e.g., the President, the Overseers, and the various faculties. To varying degrees, the concept of student power is applicable to all these decision-making "structures."

The "structure" most relevant to Harvard undergraduates is the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which has been delegated the power to make almost all decisions affecting Harvard College. It has, in turn, established numerous committees to prepare recommendations within certain areas. The Faculty almost invariably approves the recommendations of its committees.

It is argued that student access to these committees would hinder the committees' activities because (1) confidential and meaningful discussions would be impossible and 2) not enough interested and informed students could be found.

Colleges all over the country (e.g., Columbia, Indiana University, Brown, Rice) have recently experimented with joint faculty-administration-student committees, and none has reported security leaks, absence of meaningful discussion, or lack of informed and interested students who had sufficient time to devote to this type of activity. These committees have become integral parts of the decisionmaking process at these colleges. Unless Harvard students are substantially less trustworthy than other students, unless Harvard's faculty-student gap is incredibly large, or unless Harvard students are considerably less interested in their environment than other students, it appears that these objections are unrealistic and that, in addition to students having the right to participate in the decision-making process, their participation would be beneficial to that process.

However, an individual can make a meaningful contribution to an educational community only if he is in a position to analyze intelligently and act responsibly on any given issue. At present, students are discouraged from contributing since it is impossible to do either without access to all crucial facts, including the reasoning upon which the final decision is based. Harvard's paternalism deprives students of the learning experience inherent in helping decide, reinforces immaturity because students are not fully responsible for their decisions and are not encouraged to analyze and reform the environment around them, and separates the students and the institution.

Harvard administrators claim that students are listened to and have influence already: "Any good idea will be approved, no matter if it comes from the students, the faculty or Hayes-Bickford." But even communication between students and faculty--the basis of any meaningful contact--is haphazard if not non-existent. Some examples of this occurred this fall. The Committee on the Houses (COH) relied on the CRIMSON to communicate to the Harvard Undergraduate Council (HUC) its decision regarding the HUC's parietals proposal and the HUC's request to meet with the COH. In fact, the official spokesman for this committee refused to speak with an HUC representative until the day after the decisions were made. In addition, the current Student-Faculty Advisory Council was established without any intention of consulting the HUC. If discussion does eventually occur, it is often delayed so long that much of its relevance is lost.

The situation is slightly better between the (student) Harvard Policy Committee (HPC) and the (faculty) Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). This fall was the first time that students were allowed to present an HPC proposal to the CEP; but this was a one-shot occurrence, and the students were not allowed to be present when the final discussions and decision-making took place. Students are never permitted to address or attend a Meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In the classroom, instructors profess that they are not able to decide the validity of issues for students and that, at least in the social sciences, there are no absolutely true doctrines. Yet, outside the classroom, they seem willing to, and consider themselves able to decide for students the rules by which students must behave and under which students must learn. There is a blatant inconsistency here--an arrogance is implied which is disturbing.