Mutual Benefits

The President's Men

Meet Lawrence H. Summers’ new buddy: Sujean S. Lee ’03. The two most beleaguered leaders on campus are scratching each other’s backs—and it’s one of the best pieces of public relations luck either has had in a while. The president of the University and the newly-elected head of the Undergraduate Council need each other to show (his) interest in and (her) influence over Harvard undergraduate life. Lee’s surprising new agenda to reintroduce a political bent to the council rides on Summers’ prompting and participation—just as visits to council meetings are improving Summers’ credibility and visibility with undergraduates.

Lee has already demonstrated that on her own, she doesn’t have the political clout of her spectacularly successful predecessor, Paul A. Gusmorino ’02. Her recent installation speech dismayed more than one voter: during her campaign, the overriding message was that she wanted to continue Gusmorino’s legacy of student services. Now, that promise has been overshadowed by her saying she wants the council to discuss more controversial and political campus issues, including Harvard’s hotly-debated approach to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which is not officially supported by Harvard. In a recent Fifteen Minutes roundtable, Lee praised Summers’ active interaction with undergraduates. She also told a Crimson reporter that the change in the council’s course stems from a meeting with Summers in which the University president said he wanted the council to be more of a student voice.

But do students want the council to be their voice in campus political issues? Lee offers this example of the need for the council to serve as a gauge for student body opinion on these kinds of issues: an ABC News reporter approached her, asking for Harvard College students’ take on the recent uproar surrounding Summers and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74. Lee has said she regrets not being able to speak for the student body in that instance. I don’t regret it at all. Is the role of the president of the Undergraduate Council to be the student body’s voice to the media or the world? Is one student quote in the Boston Globe going to ascertain that the Afro-American studies department stays put? Highly unlikely, and certainly not the premise under which I voted for Sujean (whose political views are notably to the right of our liberal campus).

I’d far rather the council focus on its role as our mouthpiece to the administration. But the council’s ability to gauge opinions like this and pass them along to the administration is dubious at best. In a recent letter to the editor, council member John F. Bash ’03 likens Lee’s plans to the “Days of Dialogue” held under the administration of Fentrice D. Driskell ’01. But for all that event’s community-building, what significant and lasting campus change did it prompt? That same administration’s failed Harvard Census 2000 would seem to indicate that the council isn’t the right organization to gauge student opinion. Despite the spotty track record, Summers has anointed them. Forget the press; it doesn’t matter if Lee can’t adequately represent our views to the New York Times. If Summers plans to consistently turn to the council as the voice of the student body, then Lee will have a power that debatably not even Gusmorino wielded.

And just as Lee needs Summers, he needs her and the council. To carry out his plan of revamping undergraduate education at a place notoriously reluctant to change, he needs well-publicized student input, and the council is the best (College-affiliated) venue for it. Like no president has before, Summers has turned to the council as the only institutionalized and formal representative of the College’s students. He has already visited twice and has said he wants to make his Sunday night trips to Sever 113 a once-a-semester ritual. The man accused of having poor people skills is making a concerted attempt to look like he listens. By pledging to stay abreast of the council’s doings, Summers has made his dedication to students very concrete. You can say whatever you want about shenanigans with faculty or administrators, but now that he’s said he wants to co-sponsor Springfest, he has made it difficult for anyone to say he’s not paying attention to undergraduates.

On the other hand, if Summers takes student input but then decides against what students say, he risks looking like his council visits are just lip service—and Lee’s attempt to re-engage in political issues will mean her council will be stuck with the impotent image of yore. The Lee-Summers relationship is a slippery slope: both the University and the Undergraduate Council are constantly waging an uphill battle for positive public relations. Likely next on the new “joint” docket: ROTC, a road guaranteed to be rocky. During her campaign, Lee’s support for ROTC cost her the endorsement of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters’ Alliance. Summers has been quoted widely saying that academia needs to be more patriotic. With a groundswell of support for the war on terrorism—and alums like Caspar W. Weinberger ’38 taking up the cause—there’s a strong chance Harvard could end up increasing its support for ROTC in some way.

No matter what happens, Summers and Lee will need each other’s support more than ever.

Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan ’02 is an English concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.