Conor Healy ’19 and Parth C. Thakker ’19 are not afraid of controversy.
In their bid to serve as Undergraduate Council president and vice president, respectively, the two have developed a platform that does not shy from radical positions: Healy and Thakker hope to totally restructure the UC’s committee system and the yearly election process for UC House representatives.
But their most radical suggestion involves their proposed solution to the College’s efforts to penalize single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations over the past year-and-a-half. Administrators announced sanctions on members of these groups in May 2016 in an effort to minimize the social clout of Harvard’s final clubs, which Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and others say foster gender and race-based discrimination on campus.
Healy and Thakker’s solution? Create more final clubs.
“If you think final clubs are a problem, we agree,” Healy and Thakker wrote in their platform, posted online. “But the problem is that they are in such short supply. The idea of a final club is fundamentally appealing.”
If elected, Healy and Thakker want to help new final clubs “get off the ground and acquire space,” according to their platform.
But Healy and Thakker’s candidacy is controversial for reasons beyond their ticket. Healy has won both criticism and praise on campus for his founding of the Open Campus Initiative, an undergraduate group that aims to test the limits of Harvard’s free speech values by inviting what some students call hateful speakers to campus.
Healy acknowledged his work with the Initiative has drawn censure but said he is “not worried” this will affect his chances for the presidency. The two are similarly optimistic about their ability to implement the large-scale changes they propose—even though only Thakker has experience on the UC, having served as Kirkland House representative for the past several semesters.
Running under the banner “Fix Harvard,” the two point to Healy’s outsider status and the radical nature of their proposals as an advantage.
“Nobody currently on the UC—save for my fantastic running mate Parth—would ever propose the kind of serious change we want,” Healy wrote in his platform. “They live within the system. I don’t.”
Ever since University President Drew G. Faust announced penalties on members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations, the sanctions have drawn national attention and polarized campus. Asked for their opinion in an interview Wednesday, Healy and Thakker did not mince words.
“We’re against the final club sanctions, wholeheartedly,” Healy said. “And we’ll do what we can to advocate for some change in that approach.”
Healy and Thakker’s published platform is even more direct, criticizing the UC for “push[ing] back so little” on what the two called “Rakesh’s senseless social policies.”
Over the past year, Khurana has largely become the face of the sanctions, which—starting with the Class of 2021—bar members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from campus leadership positions, athletic team captaincies, and certain prestigious fellowships. Healy and Thakker said they think Khurana and other administrators are taking the wrong approach in trying to penalize final club members.
“To us, the longer-term solution seems obvious: create more of a good thing, and don’t destroy what we already have,” the two wrote in their platform, referring to final clubs.
Healy and Thakker said they think administrators should fork over office space to serve as houses for new, final club-type student social groups.
“I mean Harvard occupies most of the good real estate in Harvard Square,” Healy said Wednesday. “All these little offices and dean-lets who occupy them make it nearly impossible for groups to establish the kinds of spaces that they have done regularly at other universities.”
“So they’re crowding us out,” he added.
Healy and Thakker specifically suggested that administrators convert venues like the Office of International Education, the Office of Fellowships, and the Office of Career Services into spaces for student social groups. Healy said he recognized this plan would be expensive, but said he believed Harvard “has the money set aside.”
In an interview in September, Khurana said the College has undertaken a number of initiatives to expand the social offerings available to students on campus. He particularly pointed to new party venues in residential student Houses, the ongoing renovation of the Smith Campus Center, and the recently redone Cabot Science Library.
The candidates also suggested that social life on Harvard’s campus could be improved by updating University policies to permit marijuana on campus and by establishing an “open door policy” for alcohol in freshman dormitories. Under this system, administrators would allow freshmen to drink alcohol as long as they kept the door to their room open. Currently, alcohol is banned from freshman housing.
According to Healy and Thakker’s online platform, this policy would allow for better communication between proctors and students and for a “much safer relationship with alcohol.”
Another core tenet of Healy and Thakker’s platform involves restructuring the UC. As it is now, the current UC system leads to a representative organization that “doesn’t reflect the student body,” Healy said.
The candidates propose significant updates to UC structure: They want to change the way UC House representative elections are held and the way the UC appoints undergraduates to serve on University committees.
Currently, elections for UC House representative positions take place online: Students submit their votes through a digital form. Healy and Thakker said they think this structure leads to poor voter turnout. Instead, the duo propose holding UC elections in House dining halls and requiring students to come and vote in person.
“Elections ought to be a yearly tradition within the Houses and Dorms that people participate in, and look forward to,” the two wrote in their online platform. “An in-person vote in an important public space is how these essential choices should be made.”
The two also hope to alter the UC committee system. As it stands now, elected UC officials are responsible for nominating members to various student and student-faculty committees. The candidates said they think this system is too laid-back—Thakker said that, in practice, joining one of these committees only requires sending an email to the relevant UC member.
“If you’re the only person who’s contacted them to be on the committee, that’s it, you’re on the committee,” Thakker said.
Healy and Thakker said they would like to make this selection system more rigorous. The two propose electing individuals to serve on committees through a popular vote. Both said they think electing students to committees through a vote would give undergraduate committee members greater legitimacy.
“Those are extremely important roles,” Thakker said. “The students who are chosen for those committees have an enormous say.”
Healy and Thakker said they are well aware of some students’ negative opinion of the Open Campus Initiative.
The group’s guest lecturers—including conservative political scientist Charles A. Murray ’65, who has alleged intellectual inequality among racial groups—have often drawn student protests. Healy said classmates have confronted him in the dining hall and criticized the Initiative as a “Nazi group” at least three times.
“I don’t know how we’re defining Nazi here, but that seems like a real stretch of the imagination because that’s just crazy,” Healy said. “More than half of our members are card-carrying Democrats.”
Thakker said he and Healy discussed the group and its relationship to their campaign at length before announcing their ticket. After talking it through with Healy, Thakker—who said he is not a member of the initiative—said he came to better appreciate the group and its role on campus.
He said he now understands the real purpose of the effort: to invite speakers on both ends of the political spectrum and to encourage necessary debate on campus.
“Communicating that effectively to the voters and other students who may not have that idea may be a challenge or may not, but that’s certainly something that we spent time talking about before we decided to run,” Thakker said.
Healy said that, if elected, he almost certainly plans to step down as president of the Open Campus Initiative. But he said he will remain committed to promoting free speech on campus.
“Do I intend to change my tune on these issues? Absolutely not,” he said.