New Plan May Hurt PBH
Since PBHA signed the agreement with Harvard in July, I have felt that I was on the wrong side of the organizational tide. Originally, both PBHA President Andrew Ehrlich and I were slated to sign it, but I decided not to sign because I did not feel it was the best decision for the organization. I do, however, understand the reasons for signing the agreement. Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles makes a compelling argument when he points out that Harvard University is liable for what PBHA does because we are housed in Harvard Yard, draw on Harvard's material resources and use primarily Harvard volunteers. As vice president, I am very cognizant of and thankful for the benefits PBHA derives from its affiliation with Harvard. The question is, however, how much should we give up for those benefits?
The agreement sets forth a new, closer relationship between Harvard and PBHA. First and foremost, the University has agreed to accept our Board of Trustees on a provisional basis. This is monumental because, for the first time, we will have a a formal forum in which students, faculty, university administrators, alumni and community representatives can come together to determine the future of PBHA. Along with this recognition, however, comes certain provisions that seem to emasculate the power of this new board. For example, Harvard's assistant dean for public service "maintains oversight and authority over PBHA programs for risk management, fiscal integrity, and compliance with legal insurance requirements." The broad definition of these three categories gives Harvard control over basically everything the organization does; almost any decision we make can be traced to one of those three things. Additionally, the executive agent, theoretically an agent of the PBHA Board of Trustees to execute its policies, "will cooperate as a member of the PBH senior management team." In most non-profit organizations, one of the primary roles and powers of the board is the ability to hire and manage staff. This board, however, is stripped of even that power because our primary staff member will be, instead, part of another organization's senior management team. The existence of the board is acknowledged, but nothing more; what power does the board really have under this new agreement?
A more logical solution to our bind would have transferred authority through the board. If Harvard really was willing to recognize the full powers of the board of trustees, it should have allowed the board, of which it is part, to work its magic. Recognizing that we are very much a part of the Harvard community, the board of trustees, once recognized and in full operation, could have passed a set of policies that would require PBHA programs to be in compliance with Harvard University standards in issues of safety, fiscal liability etc. Thus, Harvard could have the same assurances they have under the present agreement. The difference, although picky, would have been that the board of trustees made the decision, not Harvard. PBHA would function, essentially, like the non-profit corporation it is, and recognize the enormous contributions Harvard makes to our operations and give Harvard the same respect any other donor would receive.
Aside from the legal technicalities implied by the agreement, however, there is a new spirit to PBHA's relationship with Harvard. Instead of the hostility and antagonism that characterized our relationship in the past, there is a new sense of cooperation. In voicing my objections to the agreement, I do not want to seem the saboteur to this new team. People often misinterpret my dissension as a sign that I think PBHA should separate itself from the Harvard community. This is not the case. PBHA should remain nestled in the northwest corner of Harvard Yard for as long as possible; the issue here is whether or not PBHA will truly function as a human service non-profit corporation or a student group victimized by the paternalism that characterizes Harvard's administration. Given our rapid growth over the past several years and the increasing complexity of our programming, I believe we should recognize our responsibilities as a non-profit corporation. We can no longer be run with the simplicity of the snowboarding club. We can run as non-profit, however, and still maintain the spirit of closeness with Harvard that has evolved. There is no reason that our board meetings, where university administrators meet students, community representatives and alumni, cannot be open, respectful discussions about PBHA's future.
One of my greatest regrets about this whole process is the image PBHA may have cultivated on campus. As a voluntary human-service organization, PBHA does not seem to be the student group that should be embroiled in a political controversy. Our discussions of structure, power and authority, however, are more than a mere turf war; instead, they are our efforts to resolve the long-standing structural tensions that have existed between PBHA and Harvard. History has shown us that structural flaws can adversely affect programming. Instead of just a band-aid, we are now searching for a more long-term solution; the controversy erupts because Harvard has a different opinion of what this should be than we do.
Some people are turned off to PBHA, I think, because it seems to be a political bureaucracy more than an embodiment of the "warm and fuzzy" empathic ideals normally associated with volunteerism. Upon closer examination, however, I think people will see that the politicizing is part of an open discussion characteristic of any collaborative organization. We just had an officers' meeting where three very controversial votes were taken; in all three cases, people made a concerted effort to inform themselves of the issue and open a dialogue around the table about the pros and cons of each perspective. Although we disagreed--and often disagreed rather passionately--we took a vote at the end and accepted the majority decision. This vote-taking, and the "campaigning" leading up to each vote, can seem to be irrelevant to the volunteerism occurring within programs; in reality, however, it serves as a forum for reflection. As we hash out opinions on different issues, we are articulating our views of PBHA and thinking of ways to better support programs as they deliver services. Likewise, the sometimes mismanaged bureaucracy in PBHA is, on closer view, reflective of a tension between student creativity and the need for professional systemization in running complex programs. Our bureaucracy would not exist if we had not cultivated student initiative that raised the level of complexity of our programs. At the same time, the bureaucracy would not seem so messy if the "creative chaos" of student life did not get in the way. Both are necessary, both have their merits and both should exist.
Someone once told me that never again will I encounter a group of people who are as "committed and competent" as the group in PBHA. Later in life I may work with people who are one or the other, but I will never again find the same unique blend. I have spent a large part of my three and a half years at Harvard at PBH and suffered many headaches, considered quitting many times, and often wanted to surrender. In the end, whether I am on the wrong or right side of the organizational tide, I know that I was wise to stick it through. Although it manifests itself in many different ways, seeing the dedication our volunteers and program directors have to our communities is reason to remain idealistic. I know we make mistakes, but without those mistakes we would never change or learn. If nothing else, I have witnessed the power of student initiative, learned the workings of democracy and seen remarkable service provided to quite a few communities in Boston.
I hope this does not get lost as we move closer to Harvard and let it tighten the reins of control. The spirit of cooperation can be a double-edged sword if the energy and vitality of PBHA is lost. This agreement is signed for one year; in September 1997, both Harvard and PBHA will review it. I urge next year's leaders to take this evaluation seriously, consider the history behind the agreement, and do a thorough review of the organization to see whether or not the agreement was the best thing. Perhaps we will find that it was a mistake, perhaps we won't.
Hahrie C. Han '97 is vicepresident of the Phillips Brooks House Association, Inc.