We’re in the basement of Old Quincy, in the newly created Rothenberg Meeting Room. The walls are made of whiteboard; there’s a large new television in one corner that you can just tell has never been used.
It’s a meeting of the Undergraduate Council’s Student Life Committee, one of those semi-secret gatherings your average citizen isn’t allowed to attend, though the agenda isn’t too scandalous. The items discussed: Housing Day Eve, bike safety, increasing UC representation on student-faculty committees. It’s all pretty par for the course.
But then Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15, who’s been sitting quietly near the back of the room, shooting off emails and contributing the occasional question, whispering now and then to a fellow representative, raises his hand. “What about sandbags?”
I’ll admit: I haven’t been following the details of the meeting too closely. But I can still tell it’s a non sequitur.
There’s a confused look or two in the room, but by and large the other representatives seem receptive to this interruption, as though it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time.
The president of the UC explains: it’s snowing outside, has been for a few days now (big sodden clumps, too), and those puddles on Massachusetts Ave.—aren’t they the worst? “How about if we get some sandbags, write ‘UC’ on them, and put them in the puddles so students can walk across?"
The other members of the committee spend a few minutes hashing out the logistics: where will we get the bags? The sand? Will the city be okay with this? And I’m asking myself: Are they serious?
A few days later I cross Mass. Ave. near Widener Gate and spot two sandbags sitting like islands in one of those glossy, deceptive puddles. They are, indeed, helpful.
This idea’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from Mayopoulos, whose UC presidential campaign with roommate Sam B. Clark ’15 last semester revolved around the promise of more tomato basil ravioli soup in dining halls and thicker toilet paper. Freshly sworn in, Mayopoulos is still coming up with the occasional quirky initiative.
But there’s a sharp divide between the Gus who ran for vice president of the UC—the guy who honed his comedic chops as a member of the improvisational troupe On Thin Ice, and the satirical newspaper Satire V—and the Mayopoulos now serving as president of Harvard undergraduates’ only representative body. He’s divested himself, at least partially, from the persona of the campaign. There are still moments of spontaneity and humor, but they take the backseat to a budding professionalism.
At UC general meetings, Mayopoulos runs things smoothly and efficiently. The two times I hear him crack a joke it’s quick and non-disruptive, eliciting a short burst of laughter. And, afterward, it’s back to business.
He’s not a joke anymore, the way he’s dealing with things. He has a mission, and the humor, when it’s employed, is a tool aimed at increasing the UC’s relevancy. And regardless of how efficacious a president he’ll turn out to be, you can’t deny he’s taking things seriously.
AN OLD JOKE
Mayopoulos, a junior in Kirkland House concentrating in History, began to joke about the campaign with Clark over the summer. “We just thought, that would be really funny to do,” he says.
While the campaign itself—playful, pedantic—might have seemed revolutionary at the time, Clark and Mayopoulos were actually working within a long tradition of joke campaigns at Harvard.
In 2006, Tim R. Hwang ’08 and Alexander S. Wong ’08 ran on a simple platform: “Terminate the UC.” Their pseudo-anarchist ticket derided the UC’s blatant inefficacy and drew into question the necessity of “UC middlemen” in dealing with the College administration.
In 2008, Michael C. Koenigs ’09, who, according to an article in The Crimson, “made a signature issue out of housing small animals, such as ants or baby chickens, in dorm rooms,” ran for the body’s presidency, despite being a senior at the time (and thus unable to serve a full term). The UC’s election rules did not prohibit Koenigs from running.
Clark and Mayopoulos drew particular inspiration from the ticket of Robert G.B. Long ’11 and David R. Johnson ’11, who ran in 2009. The Long-Johnson ticket—which featured slogans like “Change is hard…so hard,” “Reaching out to touch students,” and “Long-Johnson: It’s in your hands!”—set its sights on many of the same problems that Sam and Gus diagnosed in their own campaign; namely, the UC’s inefficacy and lack of student interest in the UC.
If the respective campaigns sound a little too similar at this point (just trade the phallic double entendres for a shtick about soup and toilet paper), as though the Clark-Mayopoulos campaign were a mere rehashing of Long-Johnson’s, consider that a Long-Johnson victory, as pleasurable as it might have been, was never a serious possibility. The pair was dubbed a “very friendly joke ticket” by then-president Andrea R. Flores ’10, and failed to put forth an original platform—even one as thin as toilet paper. Instead, they made slight alterations to the platform of fellow contenders Johnny F. Bowman, Jr. ’11 and Eric N. Hysen ’11, calling their use of it “fair as parody.”
It seems a comment on students’ perception of UC elections that the Long-Johnson ticket still earned enough votes to derail the election. Neither Bowman and Hysen nor competitors George J.J. Hayward ’11 and Felix M. Zhang ’11 received a majority of first place votes, forcing the redistribution of Long-Johnson votes.
Harvard students were clearly willing to vote for a joke ticket, a phenomenon that Clark and Mayopoulos would later capitalize on.
IT’S NOT FUNNY ANYMORE
From the beginning, there was an unexpected thoroughness to the Clark and Mayopoulos campaign. “Our room has a saying,” Mayopoulos says, “‘commit to the bit,’ which means when you commit to a joke you need to commit all the way or not at all.” As Clark explains, “We decided, if we’re gonna do this joke campaign, we’re gonna commit to the bit of the joke, we’re gonna do a well-executed joke campaign.” They sent vague emails to friends eliciting their help (election rules prohibited formal overtures at this point), created a solid base of supporters, and began to draft their infamous posters.
“I think we may have been the first joke campaign that took their own joke so seriously that we saw it all the way through,” Mayopoulos says, “and perhaps further than it should have been seen through,” he adds with a laugh.
Whereas Long and Johnson refused to attend their debate, protesting the lack of a serious dialogue to be found therein, Clark and Mayopoulos took advantage of the opportunity. Another difference between their campaign and past joke campaigns became apparent, namely their willingness to step out of a purely comedic realm and present legitimate, unadulterated concerns.
“The debate was this pivot point,” Clark explains. “It was half stupid jokes and half sort of taking it very real.”
For Clark and Mayopoulos, it was an opportunity to make a general protest against the UC (the half-joke aspect of the debate) while at the same time portraying themselves as serious and considerate candidates whose concerns, though delivered in a humorous way, still carried heft (the half-real aspect). It was a bully pulpit, of sorts. And, of course, no one could complain—after all, they were a joke ticket.
Observers took note of this more serious bent. Lowell House UC Representative Dhruv P. Goyal ’16 told the Crimson on Nov. 19 that “[Clark and Mayopoulos] did expose some shortcomings in the UC,” adding, “I didn’t know they were taking this seriously until now.”
Yet while external sources mark a clear shift at the debate, the transition came a little earlier for Mayopoulos. “I would say it was probably around the time we passed around 800 Facebook likes,” he claims. “It became apparent that we actually had a significant base of supporters who were going to vote for us whether or not our only platform was soup. I think from that point onward [Sam and I] started having nightly discussions about what we were doing exactly.”
These discussions, however protracted, didn’t prepare them for the results of the election. As seriously as he’d taken the campaign, Clark had never intended on taking the position, a result of involvement in other groups such as the Hasty Pudding Theatricals (“Sam’s a superhuman person, but it would probably kill him,” Mayopoulos says).
This raised further questions for the unlikely victors. “The problem we ran into was, how do you begin a conversation and then leave?” Mayopoulos explains. “Is it really responsible to say, ‘Oh, here’s this question that we’ve now created—goodbye?’” Yet on the night of the election, they promised to resign.
The election and pursuant promise of resignation happened before Thanksgiving break. That Wednesday, in a strange turn of events, Mayopoulos and Sietse K. Goffard ’15, who had unsuccessfully run for UC vice president alongside C.C. Gong ’15, shared a flight back to Dallas. “We were sitting in Logan Airport at 6 a.m., talking about the elections and both of our thoughts,” Goffard says. “At that point he was still very set on resigning. He’d claimed that he wanted no part in this; the campaign started as a joke and would end as a joke.”
“And then I went to Dallas,” Mayopoulos explains, “and mysteriously reappeared afterwards, and I was like, ‘I think I’m going to stay on, and I’m pretty set about that.’”
Mayopoulos’s conversion in Dallas was surprisingly simple. “It was some time away from Harvard, and some time with my family,” Mayopoulos explains. “Breaks are always weird; you don’t have classes and you don’t have other things on your mind, so you’re just thinking about the big picture: what do I want to do with my life, where am I going, who am I. I basically came to the decision that I’d like to have a voice in the conversation Sam and I started, rather than not have a voice."
THE LEARNING CURVE
On Dec. 8, Mayopoulos was inaugurated as president of the UC; at the same meeting, Goffard won an internal election and was inaugurated as vice president. Yet Mayopoulos still faced the question of legitimacy, especially among UC members.“
Naturally, most of the Council were very skeptical,” Goyal says of Mayopoulos’s accepting the presidency. “They were scared; this is a huge organization, it’s the year of a capital campaign—could we really have an outsider come in and lead us effectively?”
Mayopoulos, aware of the steep learning curve, set out to alleviate the concerns of his fellow UC members.
“What’s absolutely, unbelievably remarkable,” Goyal continues, “is that Gus spent his entire winter break studying UC material, from the constitution to various project reports we were writing up, to the work that individual committees were doing.” Goyal, who hails from India, recalls Skyping with Mayopoulos for hours on end. “He spent his entire winter break communicating with the executive board, getting them on to his side, making it very clear he was serious.”
Mayopoulos was also forthright in addressing any enmity left over from the election. “I sent an email out over [the] UC social [email list] and basically said, ‘I don’t know what you people think of me—I imagine most of you think I’m an asshole. My job is to show you that I’m not an asshole.’”
Yet full assimilation remains unlikely. As Goyal explains, “It’s taken me one and a half years just to figure out what’s happening on the Council.”
It’s a shortcoming that Mayopoulos readily admits. “Naturally I’m at a disadvantage in the UC. Whether those disadvantages wind up being to the Council’s advantage—I think it’s a possibility,” he says.
Mayopoulos’s lack of experience has forced him to adapt his style of leadership, relaxing the UC’s hierarchical structure. “I give a ton of leeway to individual committee chairs, because they know their jobs better than I do. I’m essentially telling them, you know better than me in your realm, and I want you to pursue what you think should be pursued,” he says.
Current UC representatives have noted the differences between Mayopoulos and his more experienced predecessor, Tara Raghuveer ’14, who had been on the UC since her sophomore year.“
When Tara was in the room you knew who was in charge,” Meghamsh Kanuparthy ’16 explains. “Even in a lot of meetings with administrators sometimes—you knew who was in charge, and it was definitely Tara in a lot of cases.”
Raghuveer did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
AND THE WORLD LAUGHS WITH YOU
Yet Mayopoulos comes into office with a valuable asset: the focused attention, however fleeting, of the student body. Just about every UC administration tries to tackle the problem of undergraduate relations. Read up on any campaign that’s been run in the past ten years or so and you’ll be assaulted by terms and phrases like “perception,” “popularity,” and “relevance.” They’re buzzwords now; but they’re relevant ones.
Amidst this ongoing discussion, Clark and Mayoupolos's victory arrived as a magnificent sort of meta-solution, drawing, of course, high levels of interest from the student body, while at the same time precipitating a more serious form of the discussion of student interest levels. As Goffard puts it, “That was the moment the whole school realized the UC has some serious problems we need to correct.”
I ask Goffard to consider the steps he and Gong would have taken had they been elected. “We would have definitely wanted to shake things up, a drastic perception change of the UC,” he says. “That was something we understood.” Whatever form that change would have taken, Goffard cedes that Mayopoulos’s election created an atmosphere more amenable to a perceptual shift: “Had we been elected, the sense of urgency wouldn’t have been as powerful.”
The 800 Facebook likes that the Sam and Gus campaign page garnered were only a prelude; Mayopoulos’s frequent and irreverent posts as president regularly receive hundreds of likes from the student body.
And so, there is a bit of pressure riding on Mayopoulos’s shoulders. The heightened interest resulting from last fall’s election isn’t permanent. As Gus puts it, “Part of what I’m trying to do is create a sustainable way for the UC to maintain student interest.” Readers of Mayopoulos’s emails to the student body will note that humor is part of this plan.
“With Gus being there, we have this mandate, almost, to use that type of humor, and those types of strategies, and to be engaging in a way that we’d never dared before,” Goffard says.
Still, some question whether adding the occasional gif to an email is enough.
“I don’t think the answer is, you know, for the next ten years, let’s make jokes,” Brett M. Biebelberg ’16, Quincy House UC representative, says. Rather, he thinks student interest revolves around something a little deeper than jokes. “It’s not necessarily the humor that’s drawing people in, it’s the novelty of somebody taking a different approach, it’s the change from the status quo.”
Biebelberg draws a parallel with another high-profile campus leader, Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister: “I don’t think what we should look for in successful deans from here on out is an interest in botany and mushrooms or fungus, because that’s not what’s engaging students. What’s engaging students, and what students find attractive about him, is his ability to be mundane and to be relatable in a way that people can smile at.”
Yet there’s an acknowledged need to balance these attempts at increased relatability with a sense of respect. As Biebelberg puts it, “It would be hard to maintain a student government that didn’t carry some weight, and some gravitas, because if it was a total joke we would have no bearing with administrators to discuss issues of importance. So the concern was how to balance to those two, and can we find a balance, and I think we have so far, though it’s a bit too soon to say, officially.”
For their part, administrators have responded with various degrees of praise.
“I can honestly say that Gus and Sietse have my utmost respect. I really enjoy working with them. They ask tough questions, but they are thoughtful and respectful. Their approach may be humorous, but they are serious when it comes to their advocacy for students,” Emelyn A. dela Peña, assistant dean of student life for equity, diversity, and inclusion, wrote in an email.
Though Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 appreciates the more humorous approach, he cautions against taking it too far: “I think all of us benefit from not taking things too seriously, but it’s another thing to make a mockery of the good work that’s out there to do. There’s a difference between not taking things too seriously and not taking the opportunity seriously.”
TAKING STUDENTS SERIOUSLY
Questions of relatability and respectability are important to consider in light of the UC’s relationship with the administration, something Mayopoulos has consistently stressed.
Goyal recalls one moment at last fall’s debate: “Gus took out thin toilet paper, poured some water on it, and the water percolated through. He took out thicker toilet paper, poured some water on it, and it stayed on the surface of the toilet paper.” He says that Mayopoulos was trying to convey something that most people missed at the time. “He made the point afterward that UC advocacy is the exact same as this water when it comes to dealing with the administration; we ask for something and it just percolates through the administration and nothing happens.”
This harsh indictment hardly gels with the UC’s past. As Kanuparthy points out, “If you look back through UC history you see that the administrators created the UC, and to them it’s also an expedient, it allows them to say, ‘We’re taking into consideration student input.’” He goes on: “They have as much invested in seeing the UC succeed as the UC does, and I think that gets overlooked. They’d like very much to deal with one UC president rather than hordes of students.”
As dela Peña writes via email, “I think if you spent some time with any of the administrators at the College, you’ll find that we are pretty passionate about our work with students as well, many of us having chosen a career in higher education because of our commitment to student life.”
Kanuparthy draws a distinction between administrators and the administration; he characterizes the former as the responsive, responsible individuals who work eagerly with the UC. The latter are the institutionalized structures that make any modicum of action at Harvard difficult.
“You hear a lot of words tossed around,” Kanuparthy explains. “Most have to do with [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Dean [Michael D.] Smith, you hear the Harvard Corporation tossed about, you hear all these different vague theoretical steps: the faculty would have to vote on it, the Faculty Council would have to vote on it, which means it would have to be approved by the docket committee, which means that there has to be another committee that recommends that it gets pushed to the docket, which means that there has to be a professor or faculty member to sponsor a fee increase, which means that the FAS administration has to agree to it and the FAS budget office, which means the Corporation could ultimately control or override or decide what this fee would be because it involves changing around the money.”
This is the background that frames the UC’s recent push for increased funding. Last Thursday, Mayopoulos and Goffard sat down with University President Drew G. Faust to discuss their recent and well-publicized request for an additional $250,000 in annual funding. It wasn’t as tense as you might imagine; Mayopoulos received an autographed copy of Faust’s book. Goffard would have received one too, if he hadn’t brought his own copy.
The results were clear: while Faust wasn’t as opposed to an increase in the Student Activities fee (a $70 fee on each student’s term bill that constitutes the UC’s entire operating budget), requests for direct funding from the College were deemed unrealistic. Fortunately though, the UC didn’t exactly need a resounding success.
“In no world am I expecting that Gus and Sietse will walk into that meeting and then walk out with a check,” Kanuparthy said a week before the meeting. “We’re not expecting a check, we’re expecting guidance. ‘This is what you want to do? Here’s how to convince us.’”
Faust’s guidance came in the form of a recommendation to pursue the request with several FAS administrators, Smith and Pfister among them.
Since the UC’s last budget increase in 2006, UC executives have requested a funding increase almost every year. However, the current push benefits from the increased visibility Mayopoulos has brought to it.
Part of the logic in creating a spectacle around the UC’s request lies in the power of a mobilized student body. “What Gus is doing differently is he wants the entire student body to advocate with him,” Goyal explains. “So that now when we go to the administration and make a case that look, we’re asking for this money for these reasons, and these reasons are actually coming from the student body, it’ll be a stronger case.”
He continues: “Even if the administration shoots us down, at least the student body will know that the UC fought for them, as opposed to past [UC] administrations when that hasn’t been the case.”
That’s the brilliance of this public campaign for additional funding: Gus and the UC can’t lose. On the off chance that Faust had supported wholeheartedly any and all of the UC’s proposals, well, that would have been an obvious win. But when Faust rejected most of their proposals—which, recall, members of the UC were expecting—it opened up a golden opportunity for the UC, the chance to shift the onus of efficacy on to the administration.
Consider what Goyal had to say nearly a week before the meeting: “If we don’t get our money, we’re going to be very frank with the entire student body, we’re going to tell them, this was our demand, this is why we made the demand, this is what President Faust said as to why we’re not getting our money, and now the decision is yours as to how you want to view this situation, as to whether the administration is taking undergraduate life seriously.”
I sat down with Gus once more, the day after his meeting with Faust. At our first meeting he was calm, composed, tossing out facts and figures quickly and assuredly—the UC’s current budget constitutes only 0.014 percent of the College’s annual operating budget; student government funding at Harvard pales in comparison to that of other Ivy League schools; and so on, and so on—but now he seemed exasperated, passionate, and caustic.
At our first meeting he’d asked me, “What does Harvard have going for it that no other institution has?” He paused a moment, then supplied the answer: “It’s Harvard, and that’s all it needs to tell anybody.”
“Harvard doesn’t ever have to capitulate to its students about anything. You can’t change the yield. It’s invincible, to an extent. Horrible things happened to this city and this school; yield is higher than ever. It’s ridiculous, but that means something. It means that it doesn’t matter—and that’s the hardest part of dealing with the Harvard administration—there’s no way you can cause enough noise to overshadow Harvard.
Now, a day after Faust’s refusal, he seems more convinced of this point than ever. He tells me, perfunctorily, that the next step in the UC’s capital campaign will be arranging a meeting with Smith.
“A lot of people are saying Dean Pfister is the next step; he is not. Dean Pfister has told us that he supports our desire to get more funding for the UC. It’s really going to come down to Dean Smith. Dean Smith reports directly to President Faust, and so we’re hoping that we can make him understand how important it is for the College to use its funds to support this.”
When I ask him if he feels he’s being shuffled around from dean to dean and back again, he responds sardonically, with assured comic delivery:
“I would hate to imply that University strategy is to shuffle me back and forth between people until I graduate, and then for there to have been no progress on this on behalf of students. That would be almost dishonest in a way, so I would hate to imply that that’s what’s happening. However, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad strategy on their part, and it’s certainly difficult to arrange meetings with whoever it is who is actually responsible for making this decision. I do think that Dean Smith is our best shot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if many more meetings were necessary even if we were to gain his support.”
He stops speaking, but I can’t stop laughing. It’s a strange comment, funny in a whole new way, biting where once he was light-hearted. Just a few days later the UC reached out and made contact with Dean Smith’s office, laying the groundwork for a future meeting.
Mayopoulos is adapting. Perhaps Harvard is too.