Improving Council Accountability

Bridging the gap between students and the UC

It’s been nearly two weeks since the elections—the Undergraduate Council’s, that is—but do you know your representatives? Chances are, you don’t. Sure, you might vaguely recall the visage of some door-to-door campaigner; you might’ve even voted. But, the likelihood that you’re actually well-acquainted with your council reps is slim to none. Every year, they campaign; we inattentively elect; and, after that, most of us are unaware of what goes on in the council—and they’re unaware of what goes on with us. So when the council errs, misjudging campus needs or opinions, it hardly comes as a surprise. After all, if council reps are out-of-touch with their constituents, how could they act with regard for campus concerns? As the council prepares to launch some much-needed campaigns to gain accountability, however, it seems that things just might improve this year.

Last semester, when the council proposed the controversial termbill hike, much of the proposal’s opponents were unsure the council would be capable of managing such a swelling of its budget—a 114 percent increase of current levels. And, the concerns were warranted. Several of the council’s initiatives hadn’t exactly done as well as projections had hoped (read: poorly planned Fall-fests, an inane hypnotist, an unprofitable keg service) and much of the student body didn’t feel the council was effective at bringing what and whom they wanted. So, while the student referendum approved the Student Activities Fee hike—by an extremely slim margin—it seemed most students were willing to pay the extra $40 a year just in case the council managed to score some big campus event, even if it continued to fail with other ill-conceived ones. But a little accountability in the council could go a long way towards building campus confidence in its legitimacy.

Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 and Vice-President Michael R. Blickstead ’05 have begun to take steps in this direction, making efforts to keep the campus informed of council proceedings and potential council issues. For instance, it is hoped that every delegation chair—that is, the representative that scored the most votes in each House or Yard district—will e-mail a summary of council meetings to their respective constituents; and, Blickstead has asked that each council member send him a weekly report of current projects, so that he can compile it online to be perused at students’ leisure.

But, ensuring that the campus can check in on council reps doesn’t ameliorate the often impersonal relations between reps and their constituents. A great concern of many students is that the council is simply unaware of what students want; the only way to improve that, is to ensure that council members are accessible and approachable—and not only during campaign season.

During the council’s Student Affairs Committee (SAC) meeting this Monday, Vice-Chair Theodore E. Chestnut ’06 spoke of plans that would connect committee members more intimately with their constituents; yet, the extent of these plans was urging members to meet five new people in their respective districts. And, while that’s a good start, the council really needs to do more to facilitate representative-student relationships. Meeting a random sampling of five students isn’t nearly as effective as perhaps coordinating with HoCos to plan events where students could meet their council representatives—or some other inventive way to make mingling with student council members sound less lame.

Meeting student constituents and making sure they’re aware of campus issues sounds like the most basic job of being a student representative—yet, it’s been a job lacking for a long while. If the council makes a genuine effort, as it looks like it could be making, then they will have well proved their worthiness for the boost in their budget. Harvard will be more fun, students will be happier, and we’ll have no reason to complain of an out-of-touch council any longer. So, what’ll it be?

Morgan R. Grice ’06, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.