Put a Leash on the Council
The word "accountability" has evaporated from the vocabulary of two Undergraduate Council executives. The words "responsibility," "representation," and "fairness" have also disappeared. With their rejection of sophomore Anjalee C. Davis's petition for a five-question referendum, Council President Carey W. Gabay '94 and Vice-President Joshua D. Liston '95 effectively moved to sever the link between student opinion and student government.
Davis's petition, signed by well over 1,000 students, posed five questions related to the U.C.'s recently enacted increase of their fee on the term-bill. Gabay, in an action that the Council's executive board will debate, rejected four of the questions because of the wording of the U.C.'s Constitution: "Any question may be committed to a referendum...by a petition signed by one-tenth of the undergraduates."
Gabay judged this passage to mean that 663 (10 percent of the population) signatures were needed for each question to appear on a ballot. But why should the same person sign five different pieces of paper? Does Gabay believe that students can't read all of the words at the top of a petition, only one-fifth of them? It seems reasonable to assume that people would not sign the petition if they disagreed with its demands.
The argument offered in return by Gabay was that putting in five questions would be "packing" the referendum-as though students at Harvard were not biologically advanced enough to deal with five separate issues at once! Gabay went even further, saying that the Council was "being nice enough" by allowing the main question of the term-bill increase to go to a vote. So Davis was never assured of a vote until Gabay and Liston decided to be nice? The U.C. Constitution would have something to say about that, and so should Dean Epps.
Gabay's final rationale was that he spoke to 10 Quincy House residents who all said that they only signed Davis's petition to reverse the term-bill fee hike. First of all, 10 students is not a very large sample for a population of over 6,600. Secondly, Gabay did not consider equally valid input that all the other Council members from other Houses and the Yard could offer. It is still more distressing that Gabay did not offer any similar House-based justification for his support of the term-bill increase when it was first passed.
But forget about the attitudes of Council executives for a moment--the U.C. Constitution itself could use an overhaul. A continuation of the section on referenda reads, "Such a referendum will be advisory unless the provisions of the referendum make its results binding. Such an order can be overturned by three-fourths of the Council." Students should find this language intolerable.
First of all, any referendum whose results are imposed upon the Council by a majority of the population should be binding. Have you ever heard of Jeffersonian democracy? It's the kind where the majority rules. Have you ever heard of democracy? It's that funny political system where the population has the final say. By threatening to ignore students' mandates, the Council has cut out its own little oligarchy in the middle of Cambridge. The day on which the Council overturns a decision made by its constituents is the day the Council should be dissolved.
Only one exception can be made to the logic listed above. If students are so poorly informed about the Council's activities that the result of a referendum is truly contrary to their own interests, an overturning could be in order. However, such a scenario could only occur when the Undergraduate Council has shirked its responsibility to tell its constituents about its activities. This year, the Council began publication of the Courier, its newsletter. Unfortunately, distribution has been sporadic and unreliable. In any case, 66 of 88 Council members should not be able to veto the opinions of 4,000 peers unless communication has been abysmal.
The sad fact is that the conflicts created by the term-bill increase could well be personal. The quotes and reports emerging from U.C. meetings and reporters' interviews indicate that Gabay and Davis are fundamentally at odds. The interests of students at large will surely suffer as these two aspiring politicians resolve their differences on the public stage. At least this kind of controversy insures that students will find out--every day on the front page of the Crimson--just what their Undergraduate Council is doing.