Kate Sim ’14 and Pearl Bhatnagar ’14, who together spearheaded one of the three referenda on the Undergraduate Council presidential ballot this week, stumbled upon the student referendum procedure by accident.
Unaware of this option, the pair had spent much of the semester personally reaching out to dozens of student organizations to push for increased dialogue about sexual assault on campus. But when a UC representative suggested that Sim and Bhatnagar consider a student referendum, they recognized an opportunity to conduct advocacy on a greater scale.
Sim and Bhatnagar’s unfamiliarity with the process is not surprising, given that students last voted on a referendum in 2007, when just over 40 percent of undergraduates voted on—and passed—a proposal to shift winter exams before the break.
In an effort to revitalize the referendum system, the UC revisited the rules and clarified protocol for students in a November meeting. Thanks to the UC’s renewed emphasis, students will be able to vote for three referenda on the presidential ballot until noon Friday.
The three items ask students if they support Harvard’s divestment of funds from the fossil-fuel industry; if they support a reevaluation of Harvard’s sexual-assault policy; and if they support a social-choice fund within Harvard’s endowment.
The passage of a referendum not only shapes the UC’s advocacy efforts, but also provides student leaders with a newfound tool in conversations with University administrators about reform at the institutional level.
Students must collect signatures from 10 percent of the student body and present their petition for a referendum to the UC at least 10 days before campaigning begins. Students have two opportunities to propose a referendum: the first coinciding with the UC presidential election, and the other immediately following spring break.
UC Rules Committee Chair Darragh J. Nolan ’15 said a number of student groups have already expressed interest in proposing spring referenda, including an initiative to ban the sale of bottled water on campus.
"I think it will become a popular thing to do for a lot of students who perhaps want to get their issues heard by the administration," Nolan said.
The history of student referenda at Harvard has featured issues of local and global importance. In 1958, three students petitioned to gauge undergraduate opinion on Harvard’s membership in the United States National Student Association. That same year, another referendum sought to up Council membership to 30 representatives, a third of whom would be appointed rather than elected.
The referendum process has not been without its share of controversies. In 1994, a referendum proposed to eliminate a $10 hike to the student term bill but failed twice due to a melange of complications, including alleged intimidation by Council members, unsecured ballots, and insufficient votes.
Regardless of whether or not the three referenda pass Friday, Sim said she was excited about the conversations they have inspired.
"I’m really grateful for the incredible attention and the momentum that the students have been putting into it," Sim said."I have been hearing about the different referenda just from walking by, overhearing people talking about it."
—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.