Meetings, Headaches, and Mixed Emotions
A Constitutional History
AFTER MORE than 50 meetings, hundreds of hours, countless headaches and many consultations and confrontations, the constitution for the Undergraduate Council will finally go to the student body for approval next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Why did it take so long, and why would anyone want to put in that much time and effort for a six-page document? What is it, what will it change, and why should anyone bother to vote, much less vote for it? I have heard these questions since I first began working on the constitution last spring. The Council's structure and its difference from the ineffectual Student Assembly has been explained many times. But the questions of why it took so long, and why anyone should care are trickier and less well addressed. By recounting briefly some of the history of the process I hope I can answer them.
"I got involved first with the Constitution as a Student Assembly member after student and Faculty approval of the Dowling plan for a new type of government a year ago. At that time, the Student Assembly, the Education Resources Group and the student caucus of the Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life formed a constitution committee to compose the actual structure for a new student government The composition of this committee proved to be one of the reasons why the process took so long
In a gross and perhaps intentional oversight the student-Faculty Dowling committee formed by John B Fox Jr. dean of the College, had no minority members Because an important and significant portion of the undergraduate population went unrepresented, the Dowling report did not include any provisions to insure that the new government would represent these students and their special needs The constitution committee set out to correct this inadequacy and this proved to be a difficult and time consuming task
The committee included in its membership representatives from all of the major minority populations on campus In addition, any student wishing to attend the meetings could contribute and vote Through the suggestions of these members, the constitution committee came up with the infamous two-sevenths provisions, giving seven campus minority groups a fraction of a vote on the new government's agenda setting committee
But the provision met near unanimous opposition from Faculty advisors for a number of partially valid reasons. However, the principle it set out to protect--that any government should insure that majority benefits do not come at the expense of minority interests--was, and still is, valid It was the mechanics of the solution which were unworkable and unpopular
Partially because of this unpopular provision, but more because the draft constitution written by the committee needed broader review and approval, a more widely representative constitutional convention gathered in October to produce a final constitution which would be given to the student body for approval This convention, of which I was the chair, was composed of members elected from each House and the Freshman Yard, and six members of the defunct constitution committee to lend "expert" advice
How to best address the minority question, and how to form the other workings of the Council again turned out to be very time-consuming. Since Harvard has never had a recognized, centralized, funded student government before, even the most basic questions had to be answered. How would representatives be elected? How long would terms be? How would funds be dispersed? These questions were not answered by the Dowling Report, and the convention spent over two months working out these details. Finally, after reading period and exams, the convention turned its attention to minority representation
OUR GOAL in this crucial area was to develop a plan for a student government which would insure that all students were represented, heard, and informed. We came up with one by providing seven minority organizations with seats and setting up the student relations committee with outside representation These provisions not only assured representation of all students but did so with the least alteration of democratic principles and without losing student support Unfortunately, the Faculty, in its infinite wisdom, disagreed.
It is incorrect, in my view, to have the Faculty approve a student government. Why should, in a parallel example. Massachusetts have any say in the constitution of California? Granted, if they choose to do so, the Faculty could have offered the student-composed constitution convention the benefits of their wisdom, but only in the form of advice--not veto. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, beggars cannot be choosers Students could, without Faculty approval, set up a centralized student government and elect representatives to it (Sounds like a Student Assembly to me) But since the Faculty control the money and authority-granting ability, we had no choice other than allowing them final approval of our plan if we wanted funding and access to student-Faculty committees.
This unpleasant set of circumstances led to an even more abhorrent outcome. Associate Dean for Education Sidney Verba, in a letter for the Faculty Council, told us: "The Faculty Council will not accept special representation for designated groups." What this meant to us was that if someone could not be elected because of explicit or implicit discrimination, or if certain segments of the undergraduate population were unrepresented, or if the majority got whatever it wanted, even at the expense of the minority--too bad. Justice, to the Faculty it seems, is less important than "basic democratic principles," including the democratic reality that 51 percent of a population can consistently override or even subjugate the other 49 percent Our goal of a representative and fair government was rejected by the upholders of "democratic principles."
Left with a choice of ineffective and token addressing of the problem, or no addressing at all, the convention chose the latter, eliminating any reference to minority representation, but with an important addition. If, as is likely, the Council will fail to represent portions of the student population, those individuals should not be forced to pay for a government which will act, at worst, against their interests, and at best, indifferently to their interests. Therefore, the convention unanimously voted to drop all reference to minority representation and allow any student who feels unrepresented by the Council to receive a full refund by simply requesting it in writing to the Council While not including minority representation, the Council, will now at least not force those who do not wish to participate to do so Ironically, after so much time, this decision was made less by us, than for us.
Finally, since the Faculty got the constitution it wanted, it gave the document a preliminary nod of approval. If students vote to approve the constitution next week, the Faculty will, we have been assured, formally approve it.
Despite this disappointing outcome--or perhaps more accurately because of it--students will finally be able to decide the future of Harvard student government in the referendum on the constitution next week. I view the process with which the document was produced and in which many of us were closely connected with mixed emotions. The Faculty meddling and the eventual veto of our minority provisions was unwelcomed and unpleasant. Despite its claims of the provision's unworkability, there was never any doubt. I am now convinced, that the Faculty objected to the various proposals we presented them with on philosophical grounds.
To admit that a student government would not be perfect in a simple majoritarian scheme is to admit to the failures of Harvard's grandiose scheme of the microcosm of Harvard in the Houses. I doubt that Harvard is inherently racist or sexist, though some students disagree, but I am certain that the homogeneous nature of many of the Houses, and perhaps Harvard as a whole, insulates most students--and the Faculty and administration--from the diversity and open-mindedness which the University so articulately continues to profess.
The student leaders working on the constitution never claimed to have the ultimate answer to this problem, but at least we recognized it and attempted to address at The Harvard Faculty and administration would do well to put in the effort we did instead of turning their backs and pretending the problem does not exist
ALTHOUGH THE PROBLEM of minority representation proved to be the most time consuming difficult and ultimately frustrating question we addressed it was not our only concern. The balancing of various interests, the complexity of issues and the articulate, well-reasoned and intelligent arguments of the convention members all kept my interest There were times when I questioned whether the effort was worth it, but just when a problem seemed irresolvable, a solution arose The convention was not, as some have claimed, a collection of cheap politicians, but rather a group of individuals with a sincere belief that a properly organized, well-run student government would be to the benefit of all students at Harvard Rarely was the convention in consensus about which organizational structure was best, but I never doubted that everyone on the convention was dedicated to the goal of an effective representative student government
The Council despite a structure not fully satisfactory to us can still offer tangible and meaningful benefits to those who choose to contribute to it A number of important and difficult decisions will be made by the Faculty and administration of Harvard in the next few years, without the Council, these decisions will be made without student input How to solve the financial aid crunch, and the House demographic disparities, what to do with the unpopular calendar, what course requirements should be, whether an additional year of foreign language requirement will be added, what tuition will be all those are pending questions for the Faculty and administration Regardless of how students feel on the issues, it is obvious, that students should at least be able to state their opinions on these issues in a manner which will make them heard and respected The Council offers this opportunity
In addition, the Council will be able to fund needy undergraduate organizations and hold campus wide social events A number of worthwhile organizations now struggle and events are not held simply because there is little or no money available Harvard has one of the most diverse, highly talented, and active student populations in the country Why should these activities not have the financial support they so badly need? Why can every other major college hold concerts, major parties and dances, while Harvard limits itself to fragmented and small-scale House-wide events?
Even more importantly, if the constitution should fail--especially if by inadequate turnout--students will have to live with the ineffective and powerless bodies it now has. If students believe the Student Assembly is a fantastic forum for student discussion and input, if students believe CHUL and CUE give students a wonderful opportunity to provide student opinion on important areas of housing, college life and education, if students are happy with only House-wide (and frequently alcohol-free) parties and events and think a campus-wide concert, dance or party is somehow immoral or unwanted, and if students want these marvelous institutions and realities of Harvard life to continue for another ten years (at least), then they should vote no on the constitution--or better yet not vote at all. But if students are unhappy with student government at Harvard now, as were those of us who invested a great amount of time in proposing an alternative, they should turn out in large numbers and vote yes on the constitution, set up the Undergraduate Council, fund it, and maybe run for office next year. Give it a chance, I know I will.
Leonard T. Mendonca '83, who lives in South House, chaired the constitutional convention which began in October. A campus-wide referendum on March 15-17 will decide the future of the convention's proposed plan for student government.