The Undergraduate Council's recent "depoliticized" bill supporting the return of the Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) was a disappointing finale to an otherwise healthy and vigorous campus wide political debate. While declining to take any substantive political stance on the program itself--and by extension, the military's discriminatory don't-ask-don't-tell policy--the council instead passed a watered-down resolution from a strictly "student-services" perspective.
Although this move was intended to be a compromise between the opponents and supporters of ROTC, the council undermined its own credibility by sidestepping the fundamental issue. Moreover, we are deeply disappointed that despite the waffling language of the bill, the council saw fit to endorse ROTC--however tentatively--on the Harvard campus. Fortunately in the case, it seems unlikely that the College will act on the council's recommendation.
Most troubling is that the bill is indicative of the larger aim of Council President Noah Z. Seton '00 to remove politically-charged issue from the council's agenda altogether. Pointing to the presently deadlock council as a flawed justification, Seton has claimed that the debate of political issues takes away from the council's ability to serve students. Instead of addressing politically, ethically or morally controversial issues, he argues, the council should "[lobby] on specific issues that affect the Harvard life of Harvard students."
But there are important political issues that do affect the lives of Harvard students. Students are affected--either directly or indirectly--by the presence of more minority faculty, the option of anonymous HIV testing at UHS, an ethnic studies program and ROTC. Certainly these and numerous other issues are inherently politically charged. But it would be a shame for our student government to abstain from addressing them simply because of this fact.
Nor should, as Seton claims, a political council allow council representatives to introduce any sort of superfluous political legislation. Embracing political issues doesn't mean bills can lack a clear objective, methodology and justification. Thus, while the council's recent decision to endorse an outside advocacy organization's same-sex marriage resolution touched on an important and relevant issue, it did nothing other than simply declare a political stance. A political council can affect real change only when it ties larger issues to the specific Harvard-related policy.
This type of council would also give itself the legitimacy it so desperately requires. As it stands now, students do not vote in council elections precisely because representatives do not "represent" but merely work towards universally accepted goals. If candidates were to run on a political platform, they would be able to distinguish themselves from their competitors and spark greater voter interest. The unusually packed meeting hall last Sunday night is indicative of student interest on important and relevant political issues. Cutting the size of the council will also help it gain legitimacy, since fewer available seats would increase the election competition.
Last November we endorsed the candidacy of Seton and Vice President Kamil E. Redmond '00 with the hope that the two would work together to create an agenda which addressed both student services and politically-charged issues. Contrary to the declared "apolitical" platform of last year's council leadership, we--along with the students who elected Seton and Redmond into office--believed the council could still maintain its commitment to SpringFest and frozen yogurt even as it engaged issues which happened to be political or controversial.
But if the council's leadership is to succeed in fulfilling their campaign promise, they must abandon the notion that politics and student services are inherently at odds with each other. Seton is concerned that political issues take too much time to debate during full meetings. But how much is there to debate about lower telephone rates, fly-by lunches or improved UHS treatment? These types of students services are best achieved when committees and individuals work closely with the administrators and officials. They do not require hours of council-wide discussion.
Halfway through their first term in office, Seton and Redmond have succeeded somewhat in reinvigorating politics on this campus while maintaining a high priority on student services. But the council is still far from the admirable and ambitious vision they touted last November. We still believe that vision can become a reality. But it is up to Seton and Redmond to make it so.
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