Every Sunday evening in Sever Hall, a few dozen students gather together and debate solutions to Harvard's problems--from shuttle buses to student groups to Springfest.
But in the course of trying to solve everyone else's problems, again and again it becomes apparent that Harvard's Undergraduate Council can't solve its own.
First, there is the effectiveness problem. The Dean of Students says he's not convinced the council is "the real student government." Even the council's President says the two most powerful men in College life often ignore the council's opinions when making policy.
Second, there is the legitimacy problem. Only 28 percent of the campus turned out to elect representatives last fall, and so some members were swept into office by 15 to 20 votes--total. By now, about half of those elected have resigned or been kicked off for missing meetings, according to the former election commission chair.
Finally, there is the money problem. The council is already financially limited compared to other Ivy League student governments, but the way it disperses limited funds doesn't help the situation. In a year when most student groups received about $250 from council coffers, the council has also spent $340 of student money on its own "random acts of kindness," and $1,000 to send four of its delegates to conference many of its members say is useless.
The council does not always strike out, of course. Extended shuttle service, 24-hour access to Cabot Library during reading period and "grab-and-go" lunches in Loker Commons are proof of that.
Still, these successes are often the result of a few hard-working individuals, pushing their own personal agendas. Even at its best, the Council seems more like an extracurricular think tank than the voice of 6,600 tuition-paying undergraduates.
Without that voice, the council's campus influence is about as reliable as Sister Hazel.
The Student Voice?
Last night's council meeting was an especially telling example of the state of
President Beth A. Stewart '00, who a dayearlier had predicted universal key card access inthree Houses, rose to announce that she was stillunsure what changes would take place.
Council members then urged the administrationto pay for the replacement of a rug taken from theStraus Hall common room, removing from the bill anoffer to pay for the rug with council funds.
"This bill is a eunuch," said council memberJustin D. Lerer '99, who is a Crimson editor. "Allthe more reason for me not to be on the [council]next year."
In University Hall, where council members needto be respected in order to be effective, suchproceedings seem like no surprise.
"I always have the sense that some of our bestpeople aren't in student government," says Dean ofStudents Archie C. Epps III. "Maybe [the Councilis not] the real student government at Harvard."
A few doors down, Dean of the College Harry R.Lewis '68 says he considers individual councilproposals, but own their own merits. Essentially,he treats the council much like an undergraduatesuggestion box.
"I don't take the [council's] vote as arepresentative vote," Lewis says. "The people whoare casting [council] votes do not have torepresent those who elect them."
Stewart says she's resigned to this attitude:no matter how hard the council pushes in the nameof students, Epps and Lewis will not approve anylegislation which they do not already personallysupport.
"Your success just completely depends onwhether they agree with you," Stewart says.
And this message is apparent to rank-and-filecouncil members as well. Nicola A. McKinney '99says she left the council after two years infrustration at its on-campus impotence.
"I just got frustrated," McKinney says. "I justfelt like people put in a lot of effort and do alot of really remarkable work, and they're reallynot making anything happen."
An Individual Effort
But it can't be said that the council has beencompletely unproductive in recent years.
In addition to the aforementioned improvementsin library hours, shuttle service and Lokerlunches. Lobbying by council members has had animpact on the Core reform process.
But these efforts, as well as other recentcouncil achievements, has been more the product ofdetermined individuals than a powerful whole.
Noah Z. Seton '00 and John Paul Rollert '00 wonover Harvard Dining Services (HDS) for bag lunchesin Loker through purely personal lobbying. Thecouncil's only involvement was to pass a bill in the fall giving the pair a mandate to work with HDS.
The same is true for Jobe G. Danganan '99, whoeffectively worked on a task force for shuttle busreform.
"The success of the task force all depended onthe task force chair," Danganan says. "There weresome task forces that were really effective andinvolved every member of the [council]. Othersweren't as effective."
Even the council president often has to pushreforms alone. Recently, Stewart has made thecreation of a $2 million endowment for studentgroup funding a mission, personally writing out adetailed proposal which she presented at lastMonday's Committee on College Life meeting.
Last fall, in a culmination of this trendtoward individual lobbying, the council voted toopen up positions on student-faculty committees tothe entire student body.
"[The average student] can make as much changeas a [council] member and attend less meetingswhile they're at it," Danganan says.
Some council members disagree with this move,saying it relinquishes the last semblance ofcentralized student opinion.
"The question in my mind is accountability,"Seton says. "If the student representatives [onthe committees] aren't accountable to the studentbody, then how can we recall them if they oversteptheir bounds?"
Benjamin A. Rahn '99, also a member of CUE,says council membership did not seem to add anyweight to his words in committee.
"I don't think my position on the council givesme any added legitimacy in those meetings," Rahnsays. "What wins legitimacy is careful andthoughtful consideration of ideas."
James T.L. Grimmelmann '99, who left thecouncil but still serves on CUE and the StandingCommittee on the Core, says the lack ofaccountability Seton points to "has never workedto the detriment of the students."
"I've never seen anyone run for a committeethat wasn't sincerely interested in serving thestudents," Grimmelmann says.
But Seton argues that sincere interest does notalways produce the best representation.Grimmelmann recently proposed that the CUE Guideleave out recommendations for individual TFs, aproposal that Seton says "the council in generaldisapproved of."
The proposal has been retracted, but Seton saysthe potential for maverick committee work stillexists.
"The people on the student-faculty committeesshould be made accountable to the student body andthe [council]," he says.
The bill does provide for non-council membersto be recalled by a two-thirds vote of thecouncil's Student Affairs Committee. The recallprovision has not been used to date, and Stewartsays it would only be used in cases of "recklessdisregard for the interests of students."
By a Landslide
When the administration wants to disregardcouncil opinion, it only needs to point to theturnout for last fall's general elections.
For all contested elections, only 23 percent ofHouse residents voted. First-years in their firstweeks at Harvard had a far larger turnout ofaround 53 percent.
Uncontested elections--rubber-stamp votes inHouses with as many candidates as spots--probablycontributed to voter apathy. Winthrop House had aturnout around 10 percent, while 8 percent ofCabot and only 5.5 percent of Lowell voted.
According to former election commission chairBenjamin W. Hulse '99, most winners needed onlyabout 15 or 20 votes to secure office. Alex S.Myers '00 says he won a Dudley House spot withonly five.
"That's basically asking your blockmates tovote for you," Danganan says.
Administrators and students alike can see thesenumbers on the council's Web page, among otherplaces, and members say they have an impact on thecouncil's on-campus effectiveness.
"You can claim you have a mandate, but when youhave elections where 20 to 30 percent of thestudents are voting, that mandate doesn't exist,"former council member Lanhee J. Chen '99 says."And the University knows that."
Over the course of an average year, about halfof the council's members resign or are expelledfor low attendance, according to Hulse, who washimself expelled and then reinstated.
These departing members are replaced in specialelections with even lower turnouts. Council VicePresident Samuel C. Cohen '00 admits thatnoncompetitive elections often "hurt ourcredibility."
"Almost every week there's a special election,"says council member Steve W. Chung '01. "It'sshameful and embarrassing."
$20--Where Does it Go?
The $20 student activity fee on eachundergraduate's fall term bill is in large partthe stuff the council's $130,000 budget is madeof.
Officially, the money goes to more than 200needy student groups, pays for jousting and eightkegs of beer at Springfest and funds the council'soperational expenses.
Somewhere along the way though, $340 wasallotted by representatives to support "randomacts of kindness." And $1,000 is used to pay forthe trip four delegates recently made to attendmeetings of the Ivy Council, an organization ofother Ivy League student governmentrepresentatives that Cohen says proved to be "awaste of money" the last two years Harvard hasparticipated.
The council was divided in its support for bothallocations, and several representatives nowquestion the rationale behind these decisions.
Robert S. Schwartz '00, who chairs thecouncil's finance committee, says it is oftendifficult to determine what the council should setaside money for. Neither the Ivy Council trip orthe random acts of kindness program used all themoney that was allotted for them, but the leftovermoney cannot be used until next fall.
"The random acts of kindness [bill] is toughbecause you want students to be appreciative ofstaff," Schwartz says. "But do we have to do itusing $350? I'm not so sure."
But Schwartz defends the council's decision tosend delegates to the Ivy Council, explaining thatthose meetings help Harvard's councilrepresentatives see how other schools get thingsdone.
"You're talking about $1,000 that could affectso many groups in so many ways," Schwartz says."If the representatives who go to Ivy council sawwhat other student governments do, it could helpus do so much more."
Kamil E. Redmond '00, who attends Ivy Councilmeetings, agrees with Schwartz, enthusiasticallyendorsing the Ivy Council as a "forum for thedifferent voices to student government to cometogether."
But even Redmond admits that $1,000 might be abit much for the council to allot.
"I think we should pare down the number of IvyCouncil representatives," says Redmond, who is aCrimson editor. "I think $500 is a reasonableamount to spend."
Looking to the Future
While council members hardly ever agree onpolicy, members agree that their studentgovernment is in need of reform.
Council downsizing is one answer--some believea smaller council would promote greater individualresponsibility and increase effectiveness.
"It's impossible to sustain the attention of 90people," Stewart says. "Such a large councilcreates a general atmosphere of apathy. A smallercouncil has more of a role for everyone."
A constitution amendment to downsize thecouncil in the fall failed because some membersfelt the council's most active members often didnot receive the most votes.
Others stress increased communication betweencouncil members and their constituents, includingregular tabling in dining halls and pollingstudents on controversial issues.
"It's all about outreach," Schwartz says. Hesays that the council should more often poll itsconstituents as it did to determine how to spendmoney for Springfest, after Sister Hazel pulledout of its commitment to play.
"What's the [council] afraid of in gettingstudent opinion?" he asks.
Others say the council will only gaincredibility when more undergraduates enter"ucvote" at their fas prompts during electiontime.
"Massive amounts of work needs to be done toincrease the popularity of the fall elections,"says former council President Lamelle D. Rawlins'99.
Of course, observers say the commitment levelsof the council will always fluctuate, greatlydepending on the hot-button issues each semester.
Some, like Kathleen E. Campbell '00, who leftthe council after joining as a first-year, saythey would join again for the chance to work onstudent services.
"I'd like to be on the Campus Life Committeeagain and help those things that students can seeas real benefits the [council] gave them--likevans to Logan at Thanksgiving and Christmas,"Campbell says.P>Still, others say the council will becomeeffective once the atmosphere gets "exciting"again.
"You can only get excited about cable TV for solong," Danganan says, explaining that he wasdisappointed when a resolution supportingaffirmative action failed to muster the council'sconsideration.
But others say the council needs changes thatare more than skin deep. They say members need tounderstand that student leaders on housecommittees, ethnic groups and campus-wide studentorganizations know just as much about what is goodfor undergraduates as representatives elected by asmall minority of students.
"Who know best?" Rawlins asks. "The housecommittee chairs or the Committee on Campus Lifechairs who got elected by nine percent of theirhouse?"
"You have to be honest about those numbers andbe respectful about the mandate you have," Rawlinssays.
Taking Care of the Student Body
The Undergraduate Council has faced criticismfrom some members for several recent fundallocations. For comparison, the average studentgroup grant was $250.
$8000: God Street Wine for Springfest'97 "Who could like God Street Wine? It wasa horrible band and a horrible choice,"--KamilE. Redmond '00, Pforzheimer
$1000: Four delegates to New York for IvyCouncil "We were considering dropping outof it because what was happening over the last twoyears was a waste of money."--Samuel C. Cohen'00, Lowell
$340: Random Acts of Kindness "Youwant students to be appreciative of the staff. Butdo we have to do it using $340? I'm not sosure."--Robert S. Schwartz '00, Eliot