Apathy, Delusions of Power Plague HCUA

Two years after its birth, the Harvard Council for Undergraduate Affairs is in trouble. Unlike its predecessor the Student Council, however, it is in no danger of violent attack. Instead, it faces the far deadlier threat of slow strangulation by student apathy.

Apathy, of course, has been with the HCUA since its beginnings. Disgusted by the scandals and petty politics that poisoned the old Council in its final years, and unconvinced of the need for any kind of student government, more than two thirds of the student body failed to vote in the referendum on the HCUA constitution. It is doubtful that more people would vote in a refrendum today, unless it would be to banish the Council altogether.

Untroubled by community controversy over its actions and deceived by its theoretical representativeness, the Council seems blissfully unaware of its situation. Apathy creates a vacuum, and in this vacuum the Council has claimed for itself a ludicrous self-importance. "We have taken our place of leadership in the community," proclaims Chairman Thomas Seymour in his final report. That leadership, like the emperor's clothes, is invisible.

The Chairman's delusion is pathetic. Unwittingly, his final report is itself the most eloquent testament to the failure of his Council. Despite a long list of reports issued, the HCUA cannot point to one significant policy decision it has influenced. The only tangible achievements are a few minor changes in library rules and exam rooms, and a "prompt and full apology" from the deans when the University announced standard room rents without consulting the Council.

Even so, Seymour insists that "no other student council or student government organization approaches the scope, to say nothing of the effectiveness, of the Council." Either the real power exercised by student governments at Brandeis, Swarthmore, and hundreds of state colleges and universities is unknown to the Chairman, or he has worked out new meanings for the words "scope" and "effectiveness." It is the very narrowness of scope that currently renders the HCUA slightly absurd, and it would be a kindness "to say nothing" about HCUA effectiveness.


Under Seymour, the Council has nearly lost whatever prestige and standing it developed during its first year of life. Substituting debate and votes for lengthy, informative and thoughtful reports, the Council has tried to become what it patently is not--a student government body. The cause of the mistaken direction is clearly indicated in this claim from the Chairman's report: "much of the criticism from other organizations, and most of its vehemence, stems not from the Council's lack of effectiveness, but from its very real effectiveness and representativeness."

The key word here is "representativeness." Gradually, the Council (but particularly Seymour) has allowed itself to believe it actually represents the student body and is competent to speak for it. This assumption has been behind most recent debates. It apparently prompted Seymour to think he was qualified to submit to the Administration a "confidential" 10-page report on what students really think about parietal hours. For many members, the HCUA'S' "representativeness" constitutes the bulk of its rational for existing.

Experience has shown, however, that it is dangerous for the Council to believe in the myth of representation. It was due to this fallacy that the old Student Council fell. Claiming to represent students, the Council created more enemies than friends on every vote, and its officers were placed in extremely compromising personal situations. As long as the fiction existed that the Student Council was representative, no amount of explanation could excuse the active and vocal participation of President Howie Phillips in conservative politics.

When repeated confusions of Phillips' political and Council activities forced the Crisis of the Council in Spring of 1961, even those persons who had argued for some kind of modified council advocated its freedom from the pretensions and responsibilities "representation of the student body implies." It was obvious then, and it remains true now, that the Harvard student body does not want to be (and cannot be) "represented." The community is too individualistic and pluralistic to fit into any neat constituencies. Few students want someone else to talk for them.

On the surface, the voting constituencies established in the HCUA constitution do look like a fair attempt to obtain a group capable of representing the student community. What was really sought was a group of representative students, not "representatives" to speak for the masses. It was never intended that the HCUA would be able to express student opinion on the wide range of policy questions that face the University.

Members elected at large from the Houses have from the beginning been merely representative students at best. Few campaigns have been fought on issues; in fact, so many seats have gone uncontested that there have been few campaigns at all. Members appointed by the House Committees have an even less legitimate claim to represent students on most policy questions. While they are directly responsible to the Committees, the Committee members are not elected for their views on educational or administrative policies.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear that more than a significant minority of students really care much about intra-University disputes. The trend of the past few years has been away from local issues in favor of national political and social controversies. At Harvard and across the country student governments have declined as students begin to become involved in broader issues.

The first HCUA, under the leadership of Neil Minihan, was acutely aware of its limitations and acted with appropriate restraint. Consequently, it was able to make some progress. In response to student pressure it obtained some long-needed revisions in the distribution of tickets at athletic events, restrained the City of Cambridge from confiscating bicycles parked on sidewalks, prompted improvement of Central Kitchen food, brought about new rules in Lamont, and operated a successful book exchange. In addition, it presented a persuasive report urging the establishment of a student activities center, took over supervision of 52 Dunster Street, and effectively mediated minor disputes between House Committees. It made no historic accomplishments, but it did function usefully and quietly in a limited arena. Most important, the Minihan Council established an operating organization which might eventually have been used to significant advantage.

The Seymour Council improved some of the service projects, but on the whole, it did not make use of its inheritance. At times it seemed determined to destroy it. For the first few months of its existence it devoted nearly all its attention to internal house-keeping matters and to long, pompous debates on the "role of the HCUA." The only major issue it treated was the question of continued membership in the National Student Association. Late in the Spring the Council debated the constitution of the Association of African and Afro-American students, but contented itself merely with voting on the issue of the controversial membership clause rather than writing out in detail the reasons for its negative stand.

When reports did begin to trickle in they were, on the whole, quite unsatisfactory. The future of Dudley House was dismissed in one page, and the initial parietal hour report consisted of timid equivocations. One of the few reports worthy of being mimeographed, a study of language instruction at Harvard, was prepared entirely by persons not on the Council. The room rent report was obsolete before it was published, and the Tenth House study was too shallow to be valuable. Fittingly, the Council, at its last meeting, rejected the bulky Executive Committee Report because of vague construction, faulty proposals, insufficiently supported arguments, and narrow scope.