THE DELEGATES to the Harvard-Radcliffe Constitutional Convention should be commended for their acute sense of the lack of any organized student voice, influence, or power in how Harvard is run. Our recent experiences with the Core Curriculum, in which the opposition of 65 per cent of the student body was ignored, and with Harvard's contribution to apartheid, in which the united petition of over 3000 students was ignored, expose the costs of having no leverage over the University.
The major problem with the proposed Constitution is that it provides for no such leverage. At best, the proposed Assembly would function as a student adviser to the Harvard administration, but it is hardly clear that the convention proposal would even do that effectively.
The Constitution's lack of effectiveness is obvious on two levels. First, as far as University-wide policy is concerned, the Assembly would be a very loosely-organized debating society, and any consensus it reached would have about as much effect on Harvard as that of a debating society. That is, it will create more resolutions and petitions which Harvard will ignore.
The second level is the extensive decision-making that takes place in Harvard's relatively autonomous sub-units such as departments and Houses. Despite the convention's vaunted claims of decentralized government, the only organization it sets up is a College-wide Assembly to serve as a forum for student issues. In this structure there is no provision for affecting policy-making in Harvard's smaller fiefdoms. Indeed, by the time grass-roots student activism filters up to the Assembly by way of elected representatives or referendums, is fussed over in that deliberative body, and passed back down, whatever impetus for change there was in the first place will, likely as not, have dissipated.
The six months of student activism that went into the proposed Constitution is already being dissipated by the conflict over the Constitution's minority representation clause, which many people have called "inherently anti-democratic." But that is not the real issue here. That clause should not be the determining factor in anyone's vote this week.
The crucial issue is the Constitution's split between structure and function. The Constitution's structure only facilitates debate. The function needed from a College-wide organization is that of applying pressure on Harvard to take action students want. That function is lacking in the proposed Constitution. We don't need an organizational structure that sees students as "consumers of Harvard's services." We need a student union that recognizes the structural disadvantage of students in Harvard's power system, and we need to organize and change that system.
STUDENTS AT the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are making that effort, doing that organizing, right now. They are putting together a union of students, based on councils within departments and dorms, with a small administrative staff to do basic research, coordinate council agendas, and help mobilize student opinion on University-wide issues. Their effort has been two years in the making, and may require another two years before it includes the whole university. But the students are making changes at UMass-Amherst already, in areas like the hiring and firing of teachers, course selection and requirements, and housing policy.
Their experience should be a lesson to us. The main obstacle they face is not a stubborn administration, but the inertia of a fossilized student government very similar to what the Constitutional Convention has proposed for Harvard-Radcliffe. Supporters of the Constitution say there is no "viable alternative," that our choice is their student government or back to the caves. "All or nothing, and we can change it next year." But when we're stuck with a constitution we spend all our energies amending, an Assembly that floats along on rhetoric, endless resolutions and ad hoc committees that skitter over the basic issue of our lack of influence, then we're really stuck.
Proponents of the Constitution dismiss the idea of a student union as a romantic relic of '60s fervor. They are wrong. The student union approach is the most realistic and pragmatic way students can affect Harvard's cold, corporate decisions. It guarantees the most widespread mobilization of student opinions and pressure on the larger issues, and it focuses student influence in the Houses, dorms and departments, all of which the Constitution overlooks. The student union idea concentrates on the power realities at Harvard, not on sandboxes and soapboxes.
Organizing a Harvard-Radcliffe student union would be a much tougher job than writing a document to establish a junior Congress, but if we really want to end our helpless acquiescence to Harvard's policies, the process starts in our own departments and in our own Houses.
Creating yet another inherently powerless student voice is not the answer; Harvard hears only what it wants to hear. The centralization of impotence does not justify a vote in its favor. What is needed is an organization prepared and empowered to deal with Harvard on its own terms.