What a difference a year makes.
Last spring, several undergraduate organizations led by divestment activists conducted a campus-wide petition drive to insist that the University's chief governing body hold an open meeting between students and Corporation members. The even-man body rejected the request but agreed to a closed meeting with a select group of council members and house committee chairmen.
A battle raged in the council over the appropriateness of accepting the Corporation's offer. Several members, including former Chairman Brian C. Offutt' '87, called the meeting a golden opportunity to discuss many matters with the Corporation, in addition to divestment and the possibility of an open meeting.
But a few other council members, and many of the activists behind the drive for the open meeting, said a closed discussion would betray their goals.
"A closed meeting is exactly what the student groups didn't want when we asked the council to send a letter asking for an open meeting," activist Kimberly B. Ladin '87-88 said at the time. "The concern of students can only be met by an open meeting."
In a compromise, the council approved a resolution last February 22 calling on then-Chairman Richard S. Eisert '88 to "agree to a closed meeting with the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the sole purpose of discussing the logistics and desirability of an open meeting later this spring."
As planned, council and house committee representatives met with Corporation members last April 20, with their agenda restricted to the open meeting issue. The Corporation adamantly refused to host a public forum but hinted at the possibility of future closed discussions with council members.
One such meeting became more likely last week when the Corporation extended an invitation to council Chairman Evan J. Mandery '89 for a closed meeting with council members and house committee chairmen on March 9. Mandery accepted the offer on the condition that the council approve the meeting.
The council has not met since the offer, but members say the invitation is likely to win approval.
Now, the activists' voices have weakened, and council members appear to agree with the Corporation that their discussion should cover subjects other than the open meeting question.
President Bok, who heads the governing body, said in an interview early this week, "I would hope [the upcoming forum] would be broader-ranging than the open meeting."
"The Corporation needs to have an opportunity to hear the views of the Undergraduate Council on a range of issues of concern to them," Bok said recently. "I would hope we would have an informal free-wheeling discussion on a number of issues."
And Mandery appears to agree. "They'll have to come to trust a group of students before they allow an open meeting," the chairman said of the Corporation.
Because last year's closed meeting resulted from a drive by activists and student organizations, Mandery says the student representatives were obligated to talk only about the possibility of an open forum in the future.
But this year, Mandery says that since the Corporation extended an unsolicited invitation to the council, the student representatives should try to represent their classmates' interests on many fronts.
He says he hopes the student representatives will engage the Corporation members on tenure policy, the possibility of a student center, and divestment, in addition to the topic of an open meeting.
"Any form of communication is better than stonewalling and not talking at all," says Richard Eisert '88. But he adds, "Things at Harvard, especially on this level, happen very slowly."
Jay Hodos '89, who was among the petition drive's leaders last year as a member of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC), says of the invitation, "It's a big victory, but it's still not what we wanted, and it's still not enough."
Ladin, another SASC member who led the open meeting drive, says "The Corporation would like to have a nice chat over lunch and not talk about real issues."
She says she would support the upcoming meeting if members of student organizations in addition to the council and house committees were in attendance. "The Undergraduate Council is increasingly defining its role as a social organization," Ladin says. "There are other groups out there who have other interests."
Delegates who represent the entire student body should attend the closed meeting, says Ladin. She wants the council to meet with all interested undergraduate organizations and agree on a method for choosing student representatives to attend the meeting.
A Corporation meeting where only council and house committee members were represented would be symbolic and unproductive, Ladin says. "If they're going to give in to the Corporation to that extent...it's such a token meeting that it's not worth going."