Undergraduate Council is Reform Material for First-Years
Carsten M. Reichel '98 ran for the Undergraduate Council as a joke.
"I didn't campaign or anything," he said. "I just put my name on the ballot to see what would happen -- maybe I could get scandalized ... or something cook like that."
Many members of this year's Freshman Caucus associated the council with scandals when they came to Harvard last fall, and so it's not surprising when many of them say they want to break from the council's past and change its focus to be more concerned with providing services to students than with political bickering.
Nathaniel A. Malka '98, this semester's chair of the Freshman Caucus, said that the impression he had gotten from campus newspapers about the council was not positive one.
"I was skeptical about the honesty of certain well-known council members, but I was optimistic about the number of new members, and especially since I knew some of the freshmen joining the council, and found them to be earnest, interested members," Malka said.
"In general, I had a feeling that this year would be different from past years in terms of how the council is viewed, at least by my own class, because there was pressure to break from the `scandals' of the past, and as a freshman to assert that we had no part in contributing to some supposed image problem," he added.
Many Freshman Caucus members have gone out of their way not only to distance themselves from any image problem of the council but also to forge a new image for the council,.
Rather than focusing their energies on attempting to sway administrative policy, most Freshman Caucus members say they are interested primarily in bringing the council closer to students so that it can provide bigger and better events.
As many members of the Freshman Caucus were presidents of their high schools' student governments as had never been involved in student government before, but nearly all of them brought to the council a desire to improve the day-to-day lives of students.
Geoffrey Rapp '98 said that the council's recent focus on the administration rather than the students has made it a farce.
"The basic problem with the U.C. is that it has a fundamentally service-oriented function, yet the people that run for it are only interested in hobnobbing with [President] Neil [L.] Rudenstine," Rapp said.
In general, Freshman Caucus members tend to look down upon those council members who they see as trying mainly to pad their resumes and to admire those who stand apart from politics and focus their energies on making council events successful.
While most caucus members have strong views about whether or not council President Joshua D. Liston '95 acted inappropriately when he took a public stand saying that Gina Grant should be admitted to Harvard, they do not feel that the council's time should be spent discussing such matters.
"The debate on the petition provided and excellent insight into what the council is liked and disliked for," Malka said. "Rather than getting to actually debate the petition [to censure Liston], we spent all of the time debating whether or not it should first be brought to the floor."
Malka said that sort of debate is worthless because it doesn't affect students in any way.
"We get caught up in meaningless nitpicking about by-laws issues or other operational nuances, at the loss of events, activities and real service to the students," Malka said.
One of the major concerns of the Freshman Caucus is to make sure that the council is to make sure that the council is more in touch with the concerns of students. Most members seem to agree that the recently-approved popular elections for council officers will help make the council more representative.
Michael E. Driscoll '98 said that direct elections of these officers is necessary for the council to better provide services and to act as a voice for the student body.
"I think the U.C. has been partially successful on both of these fronts, but to make greater strides in both, I think U.C. elections must be competitive. This requires that students care enough about the U.C. to run and to vote," Driscoll said.
Wesley B. Gilchrist '98 said that direct elections of the council's president and vice-president are a must for making students more interested in the council.
"The U.C. must become more recognizable on campus," Gilchrist said. "For all the supposed political power that this great university has produced, the students here seem remarkably apathetic towards their own government."
Some members worry, however that while direct elections may seem like a good idea in the abstract, in practice they could do more harm than good.
Zamari M. Triana '98 said that while she approves of direct elections as a concept, she does not believe that they could be successfully implemented because of the difficulty of working our such details as campaign funding.
"I'm all for the Aristotelean school of political science, but on such a unique campus as ours, certain principles come into conflict (i.e., how can I disseminate my message to 6,000 plus students and have a $250 spending cap?)" Triana wrote in an e-mail message.
Reichel said he advocates a more grass-roots approach to increasing awareness and students' involvement in the council.
"It's always popular to say that more democracy is necessarily better, but I don't think that's so in the U.C's case," Reichel said. "Nobody votes in our elections anyway, and to give a so-called popular mandate to the person who wins a limited popularity contest kind of puts us all at the mercy of his or her whim."
"I think the key to being more responsible to the students is to get more candidates and better turnout on a house-to-house basis. Creating a circus sideshow with a campus-wide election is only going to make the U.C. more vulnerable to criticism," Reichel added.
First-year members played an important role on the council's finance committee, helping to reform the process by which the council gives grants to student organizations. They see this reform as one of the most important ways for the council to broaden its base of influence on campus.
Sandip P. Madhavareddy '98 served on the finance committee this semester and said that the grants package is the most important bill the council passes.
"The fall and spring grants packages have been most important for their impact on the 120 plus groups that drive activities on campus," Madhavareddy said. "Most of the events on campus that are sponsored by smaller organizations are put on with U.C. help."
Hyman said that one of his largest projects on the finance committee has been to encourage reforms to the process of awarding grants so that more groups can be given the help they need.
"The committee has been revamped and revitalized. We sought to incorporate a process that involves much more compromise. There has been a genuine sense that student groups are a major part of the vitality of this campus," Hyman said.
A significant portion of the Freshman Caucus, however, is interested in nothing but putting on more and better events to improve life at Harvard.
Many of them focus on the council's debate over whether or not to bring the band Live to campus, saying that debate was one of the most important ones all year.
While the council ultimately voted down the bill which would have allocated $45,000 to bring the band to Harvard, first-years seem to be more supportive of such large scale events than many of their elders.
Reichel said he voted for the Live bill because it would have been a first step for the council to help improve campus life.
"I felt it was our big chance of the year to put the U.C. on the map as being dedicated to a good campus social scene," Reichel said.
Manisha Bharti '98 said that she voted for the Live concert as well because she thinks that large events are important in the council's efforts to salvage its reputation.
"I think large activities that are cool and that are seen as being cool are very important for us to have," Bharti said. "One, because we have the means to improve social life here on campus, and two, because we also have to power within our own hands to improve our reputation."
"The price tag scared everybody off. They thought we'd put our ass in a sling if it failed. It really showed me that a lot of members are more worried about the continued existence of their own private club than they are about doing something for students," he added.
Rapp, too, said he voted for the bill and harshly denounced those who voted against it.
"Live is a great band and would have been the U.C.'s biggest success in years," Rapp said. "However, the council governs from fear, rather than hope. Instead of hoping for a success, the members of the U.C. feared what it would look like on their resumes if Live flopped."
Still, a sizable contingent of first-years voted against the measure, saying that it was ill-planned.
Haynes said she voted against the bill because the council was not financially ready for such a large expenditure.
"I voted against the Live concert because we just didn't have the available cash to cover the possible losses it tickets didn't sell as well as expected," Haynes said. "To put the council in that sort of financial jeopardy is unacceptable and I think irresponsible."
The lack of financial resources is a worry plaguing many first-years, some of whom see more money as an important step to improving the viability of the council.
Malka said that the Live debate highlighted the council's flaws.
"First of all, it showed that the council needs more money to do more for students, and subsequently to be `liked' by them," Malka said. "And it also showed that most do not realize how little we have to work with, how much more the student governments at other universities have to spend, and how much farther an only slightly-higher term-bill fee would go."
Several other first-year members said they thought a term-bill increase was necessary.
Reichel said that he advocates a large term-bill increase.
"Nobody likes to say it, but I'm all for a term-bill hike of as much as possible, not just to $30 but maybe $50 or $100," Reichel said. "It's really popular to hate the U.C. with the way things have gone in the past, so nobody wants a fee increase. The truth is that as long as our budget is so low, there is room for people to stand in the way of stuff like Live so that nothing ever happens."
"I'd be willing to bet that nearly 95 percent of the students here wouldn't be hurt that badly by an extra couple of dollars on a bill that's already almost $30,000," he added.
Still, with the expected budget for the campus life committee for next year greater than it has ever been before, many first-years are looking to put on a big event now.
Kaufman said that he is already heavily involved in the planning of a Harvard-wide formal for next fall, with a price-tag of around $75,000.
"The thing I'm most excited about is the Harvard-wide formal that I'm working on for next year along with the campus life committee," Kaufman said. "It should be a spectacular event."
Even though many first-years came to the council with a bad impression of the way council members do business, they are not letting precedent or past failures get in their way.
They are, for the most part, retooling the focus of the council--away from administrative matters and toward issues with can directly improve the life of undergraduates.