Last week, the Undergraduate Council (UC) circulated a declaration of grievances remonstrating against the cold shoulder the administration has turned to students recently. While we take issue with the petulant and self-righteous tone with which the declaration was written, we wholeheartedly sympathize with many of its complaints. The Harvard administration’s chronic deafness to student voices has alarmingly limited undergraduate input into the conduct and affairs of our University. As students, we do not demand that our opinions be put into immediate effect, but that our counsel be heard and given some degree of credence. We do not think this too much to ask.
Undergraduates are an integral part of Harvard’s community with a completely different perspective from most administrators. As such, students should be able to present their needs, preferences, and interests by serving on the bureaucratic committees that wield so much power over their daily lives. As is often the case at Harvard, faculty and administrators on panels such as the Standing Committee on the Undergraduate Experience and the Committee on Social Clubs make decisions on student life without any student representation whatsoever. And when there is student representation, their voice is greatly overshadowed and even ignored.
The decisions that these committees make often reflect this attitude—rulings and decrees come down from upon high reflecting a profound ignorance (or perhaps apathy) of the student experience at Harvard. The report of the Committee on Social Clubs is a case in point. Despite virtually uniform student protestation (which the committee was kind enough to duly note in their report), the Committee went on to recommend holding student leaders responsible for alcohol-related disciplinary infractions that occur at their events. And just yesterday, the administration announced in a meeting of the Committee on College Life that it would take the report to the Faculty Council without altering it or even considering student feedback on it, despite leading UC executives to believe otherwise.
To remedy such unfortunate situations, students should be added to all committees that affect the student experience so that at the very least their perspective will be aired. Such a system has already been successful where it has been tried. In the academic realm, student representation on the Task Force on General Education added an important, if not crucial perspective on pedagogy. By all accounts student representation on bodies like the Educational Policy Committee, the Committee on Undergraduate Education, and the Committee on the Core Curriculum have led to similar results.
And yet students are continually shut out of important decisions. For example, in decisions concerning Harvard University as a whole, such as the presidential and decanal searches, students have only had an advisory role in name and less in practice. Appointments of such import should seriously involve undergraduates, or risk losing an important perspective on the role and responsibilities of such positions. Similarly, students deserve to be judged by their peers alongside faculty and administrators when they are summoned before the Administrative Board.
Furthermore, Harvard’s bureaucracy ought to be far more transparent and navigable to the average concerned student. Hunger strikes and protests should not be the only means by which student activists think they can get the administration’s attention. Students with legitimate concerns about the university’s policies or practices should have clear ways to voice them and a staff of administrators who actively seek and understand the value of student input. The UC itself, in its declaration of grievances, expressed its frustration with both the inner workings of University Hall and the administration’s unreceptiveness to their expressed concerns. If the student body’s representatives do not have a medium to effect change and voice complaints, then the process must be all the more inaccessible and discouraging to individual students or student groups.
Unfortunately, the UC’s means of protesting this sad state of affairs is equally lamentable. Using language that “demands” representation as a “right” in the form of a policy paper (which have historically been almost uniformly ignored by the administration) will not advance their cause. Instead, if it cannot find a willing ear within University Hall, the UC should build support for reform among sympathetic and influential faculty members and students until the administration cannot afford not to listen.
It is a sad irony that we are taught, throughout our time at the College, that disagreements can be worked out through reasoned, passionate debate, but when it comes to policies that affect students, disagreement is ignored. Decisions are issued by fiat, sometimes condescendingly and oftentimes without rationale. To be clear, we are not incensed with University Hall for refusing to bend to student opinion, but rather because administrators almost uniformly ignore that opinion and refuse to engage with it at all.