Elect Mahan and Blickstead

In an uninspiring field, only one ticket has the skills and experience necessary to lead

As students begin logging on this morning to cast their votes for the next president and vice-president of the Undergraduate Council, they face an unenviable choice. Rohit Chopra ’04, the council president who has worked tirelessly and effectively to improve student life in the last year, will be gone in January; of the four candidates seeking to take his place, it has become increasingly clear that none can fill his shoes. While each ticket has its appeal, no current candidate has the full combination of traits that makes a great council president. Those with the most passion lack experience; those with the most detailed plans seem unlikely to unite students and persuade administrators. But students would be irresponsible if they let this situation dissuade them from playing their role in the election process that will affect the next 12 months of life at the College. In this week’s lackluster race, the ticket that contains the most potential for productive leadership and the least fatal flaws is that of Matthew W. Mahan ’05 for president and Michael R. Blickstead ’05 for vice-president.

Mahan and Blickstead, whose complementary skill sets seem to have produced the best pairing in the race, have recognized the need to fix some of the College’s most critical problems. Though they have left many specifics undetermined, they have promised to address mental health in the student population, safety concerns and student finances. These goals have the potential to leave a durable and beneficial mark on Harvard’s undergraduate experience. While several of their opponents have identified similar concerns, Mahan and Blickstead are the best choice because their grand plans are backed up by the most apparent ability to deal with administrators who may not always share students’ agendas. Having good ideas that undergraduates support is essential for any council leaders, but ideas are not enough. Mahan and Blickstead seem most likely to get heads nodding in University Hall—a sometimes-hidden skill that has been essential to Chopra’s successes as an advocate for students.

It has been noted that the major work involved in many past achievements Mahan and Blickstead claim for themselves—helping to defeat Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s destructive preregistration plan last spring, securing universal keycard access for first-years and establishing the council’s popular “Dollar Movie Nights,” to name a few—might more accurately be credited to Chopra and other council members. But working on these projects has given them valuable experience on which we hope they will capitalize. Mahan and Blickstead have a familiarity with the workings of the council that cannot be learned on the job.

Yet with the breadth of lofty goals set by Mahan and Blickstead comes a dangerous potential for a frustrating, ineffectual year. Mahan and Blickstead’s ticket lacks a clearly-articulated vision for the council as a whole, nor does it place a priority on specific goals that can be easily accomplished. Without either of these factors, it is difficult to predict a successful council tenure with any certainty.

Additionally, opponents have attacked Mahan and Blickstead for apparent arrogance in their campaigning style—a sense of entitlement and a tendency to exaggerate their own accomplishments. Such traits are unbecoming of effective, consensus-building leaders; they will do nothing to endear Mahan and Blickstead either to the students they must represent or to the council members they must lead.

These characteristics are troubling in their own right, but are especially worrisome in that they bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the flaws that have marred past council presidencies. Like Mahan and Blickstead, former Council President Sujean S. Lee ’03 followed a popular predecessor—Paul A. Gusmorino III ’02 had redefined the council’s relevance to student services, much as Chopra has used his term to successfully advocate for student interests. During her campaign, Lee touted many of Gusmorino’s accomplishments in a broad but directionless platform. And once she took office, Lee proved an ineffective leader, and few of her projects came to fruition. Lee failed to use the momentum of Gusmorino’s successful year; Mahan and Blickstead must learn from her lesson to make sure they do not squander the unprecedented responsibility and power they will inherit from Chopra.

After a year in which Chopra has defined the council as a powerhouse with tangible positive effects on student life, it would be easy for students to think that improvements will continue to accumulate forever. But no matter how entrenched programs that met with success this year may seem, they and any future initiatives ultimately depend on forceful and goal-oriented leadership to stay reality. Of all this year’s candidates, Mahan and Blickstead offer the best prospect for that leadership. We hope that they will rise to the occasion and not let this opportunity pass.