From Divestment to Elvis: Buying In Or Branching Out?

The Undergraduate Council

When the Undergraduate Council was first formed five years ago, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III predicted a short life for the new 89-member body. The council, Harvard's first student government in more than 12 years, would address a limited list of issues and then dissolve, he said at the time.

"I had a theory it would die within five to 10 years. I think [my theory is] being proven wrong," Epps says now.

Today, the council has "significant" input into policy making, Epps says, adding the College "would not make a major change without consulting [the council]."

While the council proclaims itself the only legitimate student government at Harvard, members say to best serve students they must please administrators enough to maintain their influence on University policies. Council members say that this ability to work with administrators is what has made the student government a viable body.

The Undergraduate Council is "not just student government; it's student government with direct input into the University governing structure," explains Chairman Richard S. Eisert '88.

Undergraduates often aren't aware of the "intimate link" between the council and the administration, Eisert says.

The council's most important avenue for influencing the administration is membership on prominent student-faculty committees. Council members hold five seats on each of three committees--the Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Committee on Housing Life and the Committee on College Life.

But some members say because the council is ultimately accountable to the student body it must maintain more independence from the administration.

By keeping independent the purse of the student government, which is funded by a $10 fee on undergraduate term bills, the council is able to retain some of its autonomy. The council uses a large part of its budget to fund various student organizations. Each semester, the government doles out grants amounting to about $21,000, which is two-thirds of its operating budget for the semester. Through its funding role over student publications and groups, the council maintains a powerful influence at the College.

But the council itself may have some organizational problems which make it less effective, some members say.

"This year the council was about 50 percent as it possibly could be, and about 75 percent as effective as it ever will be," says Evan O. Grossman '87, council member and chairman of the Residential Committee.

Flaws in the council's structure hold up the efficiency, and too much time is given to reviewing and suggesting changes in the status quo, some members say.

What the proper role of the council should be has been a matter of fierce debate and is still unresolved. While some see the council simply as a student government, others see it as a tool for improving student social life. Yet others say the council should take a more active role in confronting the administration especially on political issues.

The proper role of the Undergraduate Council should be to improve College life, says past-Chairman Brian C. Offutt '87. The council "really isn't a governmental body" but is instead concerned with student issues, says Offutt. The motivation for running for council should be an interest in making Harvard's life a little better, he says.

This year, the council ventured into new grounds, expanding its role as student government into social organizer. The council, together with Student Productions Association, succeeded in bringing Elvis Costello to Bright Arena for a concert, the first such concert in three years. The council's co-sponsorship of the Memorial Hall party was a move designed to promote campus unity, members say.

The Undergraduate Council's new-found role as social facilitator fills a vacuum in Harvard's social life, and is particularly fitting for the council because of its access to manpower, finances and administrative sanction, members say.

In fact, the social events were the best thing the council did this year, says Offutt.

Despite the council's successful social season, the council's role is not solely that of a social organizer, says Eisert, who adds that although sponsorship of campus-wide social activities garners the council the most recognition, its other tasks, such as writing reports and giving out grants, are "just as important."

"The Undergraduate council can do things we're expected to ordinarily as well as branching out and providing campus-wide social life," says Vice-Chairman Amy B. Zegart '89, adding, "the council is the logical organization to put on these events."

This year's debate over whether the council should serve as social engineer has been tame compared to the bitter battle last year over whether the council should take political stances.

Last year's political infighting polarized the council and made it "a very unpleasant year to be in the council," says Zegart.

The proper role of the council was thrown into question as controversy erupted over whether the council could debate divestment. Members split into two factions, "political" and "apolitical."

According to the political side, the council could and should debate and take official stands on political issues that according to the "apolitical" faction fell outside the realm of student life, and so outside the sphere of council influence.

Led by chairman Offutt, the "apolitical" faction held that the council should avoid such debates and concern itself with issues that directly affect students, which they said did not include divestment. Judging by this year's concern with social events, observers say the "apolitical" faction won out and is likely to dominate the agenda of the council in the future.

In addition to internal sole-searching, the council must also face the claims of students who challenge the very existence of the government. Each year, approximately 15 percent of students return a vote of no confidence in the council and request refunds of their ten dollars.

And despite a year that members called the council's "most productive" ever, the student government remains plagued by problems of inefficency and what members say is little appreciation for its achievements.

Low turnouts in the Houses for the annual elections to council reflect students' failure to recognize what's done by the council, says member Thomas D. Warren '88 of Lowell House.

"When something happens that is beneficial...students look at these and say these are good things" but they won't know about them until they happen, says Warren. Many council projects are long-term and do not take effect until they have been approved by numerous outside committees.

"People seem to think of chocolate milk and think that's all council does," says Michael Joachim '87, referring to last year's council coup which brought chocolate milk into Harvard dining halls.