Serving Students With Politics
The Council's Future:
THE road between the Harvard Undergraduate Council and the University administration is paved with impotence. Technically, the council holds no real political power. All the Council resolutions in the world cannot force anyone in the administration to act on anything.
This impotence was all too painfully evident during the notorious debates over the ROTC this spring, when the council was never so presumptuous as to discuss what it was going to do; rather, all the controversy was over what it was going to ask the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to do.
It is precisely this complete lack of political power that is responsible for the wave of frustration currently plaguing those whose hopes for a political council ran so high as recently as a year ago. Robert P. Mahnke '90, who provided a voice of progressive student activism as last spring's services committee chair, has called the council "a waste of time." Mahnke notes, "There are better ways to make Harvard a better place."
The conventional wisdom is that this year's council will succumb to such political frustration and primarily focus on "student services." Accordingly, one candidate in last week's elections advertised that, if elected, he would not waste time on the "hip issues" ("final clubs and ROTC") but would rather emphasize "the issues that really affect you."
Perhaps it is a good omen that the candidate who wrote that ad was not elected to the council.
CONVENTIONAL wisdom has been known to be wrong, and in this case, the conventional wisdom on the council is deeply flawed. The belief that the council is going to shift its attention from politics to student services assumes what is simply not true: that there is a clear distinction between political issues and service issues.
If one looks at the sorts of issues the council has faced recently, one readily realizes that most of the so-called "services" issues are manifestations of underlying political problems.
Take the issue of campus security. The UC has been vocal in calling for such security reforms as more lighting in the Yard. Such reforms directly serve students, and the issue has therefore been reasonably classified as a "services" issue.
At the same time, the council's role in calling for the hiring of more women and minority faculty members has been labeled "political." Why the black-and-white distinction? A more diverse faculty obviously serves students just as directly as Yard lighting.
More importantly, the two issues are linked politically. For it is the administration's lack of concern about Harvard that has made issues out of both security and faculty hiring practices. On one level, it is an apparent lack of concern for women that links the two issues. On another level, it is a broader disregard for Harvard students, for our well-being and for the quality of our education.
Other potential council issues high-light the fuzziness of the conventional politics-services divide.
For instance, many newly-elected representatives in the so-called "services" camp plan to challenge the administration's plan to "randomize" housing on the grounds that this significant decision was made without even consulting those who would be affected by it--the students.
The traditionally "political" topic of divestment centers on the same underlying issue: the administration's unilateral mode of decision-making and its refusal to listen to opposing views. This is not to claim that the plights of Harvard students and of South African Blacks are similar. Rather, it is to say that Harvard's governing bodies and administrators are equally willing to ignore the concerns of both groups in the interest of convenience.
ITS real impotence notwithstanding, the council undoubtedly possesses the stature to transform the campus political scene, as we saw last year with both the ROTC controversy and the calls for increased hiring of women and minority faculty.
The opportunity exists for the council to provide a vocal and coherent critique of the administration, through connecting student services issues with matters that affect the world outside the University. An effective council will spread the word that the University's failure to provide student services goes hand-in-hand with its readiness to provide disservices to the world.
Last week's elections provide a ray of hope. Several candidates running as political progressive were elected as representatives. These new council members now bear the burden of working together to convince the whole council to maintain the political role it has taken on in recent years--and to expand that role by building a convincing and progressive student position on what the University's mission really should be.
In order to re-establish its credibility among students, the 1989-90 Council is going to have to assert itself. Disappearing down the easy path of fiscal responsibility and self-concerned services will not be enough. What Harvard needs is an Undergraduate Council that will lead us into the 90's by tabling all talk of tabling politics.