You Can Save Harvard ... Or You Can Turn the Page
Did you ever wonder why a great college like Harvard is screwed up in so many little ways?
Did you curse silently (silently since nobody listens anyway) because the College has no optional meal plan and you pay for meals you don't eat?
Or because undergraduates are charged $10 an hour to play tennis?
Or because the stodgy old Law School could change its calendar but we can't?
Or because there are not enough reserve books in Lamont or free toilet paper for the River Houses--or because the deans make up students' minds with only token input from an amorphous alphabet-soup-bowl-full of so-called student-faculty committees?
Or because the CUE Guide no longer gives grading statistics and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility does not have the resources to prevent Harvard from selling its corporate soul to the highest bidder?
Or because we are the only major college you know of without a student center?
Do you ever wonder why we don't have a student government association?
Perhaps the answer to the first ten problems above is contained in the answer to the last question. Don't you find it odd that Harvard is probably the only college in the United States without some form of central student government? Even the graduate and professional schools at Harvard have student associations. We do not.
We used to. Until 1969 Harvard had what was called the Undergraduate Council. But it reached a crisis when its politics and influence no longer fit the student mood, which by 1969 had turned very radical, very quickly.
You have to keep in mind that ten years ago Harvard really was the way you feared it might be after watching Love Story--coats and ties to dinner in all-male dorms with parietals, a more homogenous student body, and even sports on the front page of The Crimson! The students were tired of being told how to live, and they demanded a direct role in formulating University policy. In an effort to restore harmony to embattled Harvard, a generally conservative administration under President Nathan M. Pusey '28 agreed to set up a new, experimental system--student-faculty committees. Thus, CHUL, CRR, and CUE were born while the old Undergraduate Council was put out to pasture.
The experiment, however, has been a failure. As a vehicle for policy input and student unity, today's system just does not do what those 1000 men of Harvard who assembled at Soldier's Field that night in 1969 intended it to do. It is not that the people who were on these committees are bad, it is just that acting alone, these independent legislators (many of whom also serve on the Constitutional Convention) do not have the resources to solicit student opinion or to fight the good fight when the administration makes a mistake. Their vote, even at those rare times when it is coherent, can easily be overwhelmed by the lopsided faculty-administration majority. They have no control over the agenda and so cannot take any initiative that does not coincide with the deans' sentiments. CUE members have no idea whether their recommendations are even presented to the Faculty Council.
What is really needed is a united student organization to poll student opinion, to research and brainstorm, to lobby and to provide a base for action when the student body believes it has been wronged. A student government association would do this--and much more.
Assume for a moment that CHUL, CRR, CUE and ERG are all perfectly representative of student opinion, that there is coordination between them, and that the few students on them have the resources and wherewithal to research alternatives to University policy. Even if this were the case, there is still a huge gap to be filled. Many more services could be provided by the Houses if House committees were coordinated and resources pooled.
And to whom does a student turn with gripes such as those mentioned above? Who now organizes college-wide activities? Who investigates the quality of medical services at UHS? Who investigates the Food Services and proposes alternative menus at comparable prices? Who looks into the allocation of student employment or questions budget priorities that allow $500 fee increases year after year? These areas are only given token consideration now. If for no other reason, we need a central student association as a coordinator and a breath of fresh air. If Harvard lacks student unity, it is not because we are so diverse--it is because no organization serves to draw us together.
Some students are pessimistic about the effectiveness of a student government association. The best argument I have heard is "What if the association loses wide support and a small faction misrepresents student opinion and distorts the association's purpose?"
While one cannot deny this possibility in any representative body, its likelihood can be reduced by setting up constitutional safeguards. One such safeguard is that unlike very small, autonomous committees, the new assembly will have one representative for every 75 students--that is, 85 separate voices. Since every undergraduate will be a member of the association, eligible to vote for members to the assembly, no student may be denied speaking rights in the assembly. There may also be provisions for periodic "town meetings" in the Houses, as well as the power of initiative and referendums on important issues.
Another argument is that "the status quo is adequate." If it were, how could I cite so many obvious problems that students are powerless to address without a central voice? Why, even at schools with decision-making based on a student-faculty committee system, would there still exist an umbrella organization to maintain student unity and provide student services? One thing is certain: a student association will not make things any worse.
If students here are apathetic, it is not because they are uninterested--it is because there is no organization by which to pursue student interests. Nobody has an incentive to work for anyone but themselves. The Harvard of the '70s has become a vegetable garden, turning unwitting achievers into little one-men corporations. We operate under the profit motive to maximize future profits and minimize current risk.
It is this state of vegetation, such a contrast from the '60s, that demands a Constitutional Convention. As Pericles told his public-minded Athenians 2500 years ago:
We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
Together, the students, faculty and workers at Harvard form a community: a community of which we 6400 are the vital center, not just customers of corporate Harvard, dashing off $7000 checks on our way to the library. One senior, who also happened to have been "prepared" at a private school in England, suggested that in every case the administration knows how best to prepare us for our future roles as society's elite. "The student's only responsibility and only right is to accomplish his studies," he said.
That left me incredulous. Such a mindset only "prepares" one to unquestioningly take up the work of the multinational corporation--with no social responsibility. Such an attitude allows you to practice law with no concern for justice, or to pay your taxes and mow your suburban lawn with no concern for your life as part of a community. The Harvard that educated social and political reformers like Adams, Thoreau, FDR and Nader is getting its old veins clogged with rampant pre-professionalism. Harvard itself is not beyond reform; we all know our lives and educations here could be better.
At stake here is not merely better student representation on antiquated and stagnated committees perspiring the status quo. The real issue is this: Do the students have the intelligence and the determination to make Harvard a greater institution, a better college and a more responsible actor in society? I really think we do--we only have to overcome our own selfishness.
It is easy to be blinded by pre-professionalism, at least for three weeks every January and May. But in between times neither books nor overloaded social circuits should keep us from giving some thought to improving this place. If you do nothing else this semester, read the constitution all the House committees have joined together to write. It will not in itself solve any of our problems--that part will be up to you.
Michael A. Calabrese '79 is chairman of the Harvard-Radcliffe Constitutional Convention. A Government and Economics concentrator living in Leverett House, he is also a Crimson editor.