Negative messages and mentions of racism clouded this year’s Student Government campaign at Harvard Law School. The student body ultimately elected Matthew P. Gelfand on Wednesday as president of the school’s Student Government—despite the fact that as a third-year student, he is set to graduate halfway through his one-year term.
Gelfand said that Student Government rules allow him to hold the position of president even after graduating but that he intends to step down at the end of this semester after making the reforms he promised during the election.
Despite his class year, he decided to enter the race after hearing that the field was narrow, he said. He thought that his chances were low.
“If you had asked me at the time whether I thought I would win, I would have said no,” Gelfand said. “As I asked people about the campaign, people became more interested in the message.”
In his candidate statement, Gelfand wrote that he hopes “to rewrite the HLS Student Government Constitution and Bylaws into reasonable documents constrained by rationality and common sense.” Among his proposed changes, he said he would like the government to disclose minutes from its meetings and seek student permission before changing the bylaws.
As Gelfand campaigned on these topics, tensions erupted between the campaigns of his opponents, Daniel B. Vargas and Rachna Shah.
Vargas said that he focused his campaign on diversity issues, transparency, and increased interaction between students in different Law School programs. In his campaign statement, he cited a Student Government policy that forbids the formation of organizations centered around national identity as one of his concerns regarding diversity.
“To truly fulfill its commitment to diversity, HLS should give voice and institutional support to students with new ideas to enrich the quality of our HLS experience,” read Vargas’ campaign literature. “However, Student Government has just approved a measure...that bars future student organizations based on state, national, or regional identity.”
In a widely distributed email, Shah, who served as vice president of the Student Government when this policy was put in place, responded to this criticism from Vargas and his running mate Judy Lai, along with others about the Government’s policies.
“I write to you today extremely, extremely saddened by how this campaign has developed. Otherwise meaningful discourse has devolved into accusations of discrimination and racist behavior,” Shah wrote in the email. “Vargas/Lai claim in their candidate statement that Student Government is ‘anti-diversity’ and has made these claims personal in addition to ‘discriminatory’ and ‘racist’ being used to describe my position.”
Vargas said that he never intended for his statement to be read as a “personal attack” and that he never used the word “racist.”
Shah and Andrew J. Chinsky, the vice presidential candidate on her ticket, could not be reached for comment.
Vargas said that although his ticket lost the election, he believes the Law School will benefit from the discussion of diversity.
“One of the accomplishments that will result from this campaign is to raise the level of the discussion,” Vargas said.
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