The Back of the UC Ballot

News analysis: The Undergraduate Council’s process for approving ballot referenda leaves room for unfeasible questions

Crimson-UC Crossfire Debate
Undergraduate Council hopefuls answer questions during The Crimson-UC Crossfire Debate on Saturday evening. The candidates discussed topics including social inclusivity, sexual assault policy, and undergraduate mental health.
UPDATED: November 19, 2015, at 3:36 p.m.

Before the voting period in the Undergraduate Council’s annual presidential election comes to a close on Thursday evening, undergraduates have the chance to weigh in not only on which students should lead the College’s student government next year, but also on two questions at the end of the ballot.

One of these questions, student-proposed referenda that purport to measure the pulse of the student body on central campus issues, asks voters whether students should have greater input in Harvard’s sexual assault policies, something student groups have advocated for the past several years.

The other, though, is an unconventional take on recent debate about campus social life: whether or not Pusey Library, which holds University archives dating back more than 375 years, should be turned into a “freshmen-oriented social space.”

Several current UC representatives maintain that the likelihood that Pusey Library will ever become a freshman party space is low, but the question still made the ballot. Indeed, proposed referenda must garner 670 student signatures to make the ballot or earn the UC’s endorsement, and the UC checks successful questions for bias, but they do not enter a formal vetting process to ensure their feasibility.

As a result, if they garner enough support, questions that ask students to vote on measures that are far from actionable—even joke questions—can make it to the voting box. Some students say that leaves open the potential for students to propose less-than-serious referenda.

PUSEY LIBRARY AND BREAKFAST MEETINGS

This year’s election cycle alone has featured proposed and successful referenda that are feasible to varying degrees.

Many students acknowledge that the Pusey Library referendum, which made the ballot after a majority of the Council voted to endorse and fast-track it earlier this month, may not be feasible. UC representatives debated the measure for about an hour before they voted to endorse it, with Cabot House representative Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18 calling it a “crazy idea.” Winthrop House representative Daniel R. Levine ’17, a former Crimson news writer, called the library a “treasured academic resource” that should not be vacated to provide students with a place to unwind.

Even though representatives approved it by a wide margin, skepticism for the referendum question did not end at the meeting. At a debate between UC presidential candidates at the Institute of Politics on Tuesday, running mates Shaiba Rather ’17 and Daniel V. Banks ’17 made clear that they have doubts about Pusey Library’s proposed transformation, even though they both voted for the question to appear on the ballot.

“No, we ought to find spaces that are in the Yard that are more feasible,” Banks, who is running for UC vice president, said when asked if he supported acting on the referendum.

Another question, which does not appear on this year’s ballot because it failed to meet the 670-signature requirement, planned to ask students if Harvard should add a provision to the student handbook to ban students from joining male final clubs.

Some legal experts have said Harvard administrators, who have become increasingly critical of final clubs, could reasonably argue that it is within their rights to enact such a policy. But as originally conceived, the proposal was less specific, and questionably feasible: An earlier version asked if Harvard should “reclaim administrative control over final clubs.” Jordan T. Weiers ’16, who submitted the question to the UC’s Rules Committee, said he changed its wording because “the University’s authority to do the previous question was murky at best.”

Another proposed question that failed to earn the signatures necessary to make the ballot sought to ban students from holding meetings at breakfast time, something neither the UC nor Harvard likely have the power to do.

SOME REALISTIC, SOME NOT

No matter how serious or realistic they are, though, those questions would have appeared alongside a referendum looking to improve Harvard’s approach to preventing campus sexual assault had they all garnered the requisite signatures. And had more than half the student body voted in this week’s election and a majority of voters had supported them, they could have become the official stance of the UC.

Jessica R. Fournier ’17, a member of the anti-sexual assault advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, said it may have taken important attention away from the group if the breakfast question made the ballot alongside the sexual assault policy referendum. That question, submitted by Julia R. Geiger ’16 on behalf of Our Harvard Can Do Better, asks students whether or not meetings of Harvard’s sexual assault policy task force, which includes no students, should be open to all interested College students.

The referendum process and the fact that unrealistic questions could conceivably get through it can at times reflect students’ uncertainties about the power of their student government, she said.

“I think it displays a certain amount of cynicism from the student body about what the UC is capable of achieving,” Fournier said. “I don’t think that cynicism is always misplaced.”

The Council’s Rules Committee chair, Brett M. Biebelberg ’16, acknowledges that the referendum proposal process leaves a window open for unrealistic questions to make the ballot. Still, he suggests that adding a feasibility clause would take agency away from undergraduates in what he sees as a fully “student-driven process.”

“Part of the rationale of there not being a process for determining which questions are viable or feasible is that it would involve the UC or some other body making a subjective judgement on what should or should not be on the ballot,” said Biebelberg, who is responsible for overseeing the referendum process.

The procedure for getting questions to the ballot has evolved over the last few years. The Rules Committee has previously worked alongside the Institute of Politics’s Public Opinion Project to screen questions’ wording for neutrality, for example, but the UC now does that itself. Students now may also submit statements either in favor of or opposition to ballot questions.

Other students acknowledge that referenda are often more symbolic.

“Referenda in general are a way of students putting public pressure on the administration, in a way that rarely happens [in meetings],” Geiger said. “Administrators get really scared when they see a lot of students voting for something.”

—Staff writer Jalin P. Cunningham can be reached at jalin.cunningham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @JalinCunningham.

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