Students Don't Govern at Harvard

There are probably more former student body presidents, secretaries, treasurers, preppie "proctors," and other assorted high school politicos at Harvard than at any other university in the world. "Involvement" in high school politics is one of those things that fairly drips from the entering freshman class in any given year. Being "involved" means that you were in some ways unique. Your fellow high school students liked you (after all, they presumably elected you). Your teachers liked you. The local Harvard alumni recruiter liked you. As a one-time high school honcho you have "leadership potential." You have public spirit. You are ambitious. You are a Harvard freshman. Welcome aboard.

It may, however, come as something of a surprise to those of you who spent half of your high school careers working on the student council, to learn that despite the number of former student governors running around Harvard Yard, there is no student government at Harvard. What there is instead is an assortment of student and joint student-faculty committees with no unifying structure or purpose, all attending to a variety of issues and problems that affect student life. Few students at Harvard can tell you what these issues and problems are. Fewer students can tell you the names of the committees that are attempting to solve the problems. And still fewer students could tell you the names of their fellow students who are serving on the committees to solve the problems.

Despite their invisibility, the problems, the committees and the students serving on them do exist. And decisions are made that affect the four years you will spend at Harvard. With this in mind it may be worthwhile to describe the more evident student committees and discuss how they work, what they do and why they have come into existence.

One thing you will learn on coming to Harvard is that freshman are different from other students. You live together in the Yard (though a few of you will be allowed to mingle with the "upper classes" at Radcliffe), you eat together and you have your own special student committee called the Freshman Council. You will be asked to elect representatives to the Freshman Council from among the 1200 or so of your peers in the Yard. But the Freshman Council's jurisdiction is limited because it deals only with freshman problems. Harvard's big-time junta is the Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life (hereafter referred to as the CHUL).

The reason the CHUL is hypothetically more important than the Freshman Council is because it can make decisions that affect every undergraduate at Harvard. Two members of the Freshman Council are selected each year by their fellow councilmen to serve on the CHUL. Besides the freshmen members, the committee includes 13 "upperclass" representatives and a variety of administrative deans and faculty members. It is one of the few places where students can become acquainted with some of the administrators and professors who really do run Harvard. That is another reason why the CHUL can be considered to be a big-time committee. Although student members have little power, they rub shoulders with a few people who do.


It would be nice if the CHUL were the only student committee that dealt with all undergraduates, but it isn't. There is also a Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), an Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), and a Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR). As its name indicates, the CUE deals with problems concerning undergraduate education. The ACSR makes recommendations on how Harvard should vote in the corporations in which it owns stock, and also on how Harvard should invest its money. The CRR was designed to be a sort of "honor court" in which students who had violated some aspect of the Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities (basically the Harvard honor code) would be judged by fellow students and members of the faculty. But students have refused to serve on the CRR because they consider it to be a kangaroo court. Students brought before the CRR have no right to counsel, no right to appeal, and are judged by a jury composed of twice as many faculty members as students--hardly a trial by one's peers. As a system of justice the CRR fails to make the basic guarantees for individual rights that the U.S. Constitution managed to embody 200 years ago.

By now you should be as confused as most students who have been here for three years are. It is all but impossible to keep track of the various committees, and it is certainly impossible to coordinate their activities. This institutional maze is made even more impenetrable by the existence of separate committees for each of the 13 Harvard Houses. These committees only have jurisdiction over their respective Houses, but they make it all the more difficult to organize students throughout the college on any single issue.

Despite its weaknesses, the current structure of separate student committees is not all bad. Although Harvard is a relatively big place with over 6000 undergraduates, the administration attempts to provide a sense of community by dividing students into smaller groups. By having its own committee, each House has a degree of local autonomy and control over its affairs. In the same way, the Freshman Council can deal with freshman problems. Student government is weakest at the University-wide level. Students serving on the CHUL or the CUE have no institutional relationship with the 13 Houses from which they are elected. Few people in the Houses know what their representatives are doing and the House committees have no formal input into the University-wide committees. Members of the CHUL will sometimes conduct a referendum in the Houses to measure student opinion on certain issues, but even with the occasional referendum, student government at the University level remains largely inscrutable. This is due not only to the committee structure but also to the way power is distributed at Harvard, the nature of the "Harvard experience," and the nature of Harvard students themselves. The lack of student government at Harvard is not accidental; it is very much a product of the environment and those who have created it.

Power is not an issue in most American high schools. The school board, the trustees, the administration and the teachers have power. The students do not have power. Student government in high school is generally concerned with pressing issues like when to have the homecoming dance or the senior prom. High school students are seldom involved in the actual administration of their school or their curriculum.

The high-school division of labor also exists at Harvard, but not quite in the same manner. The student committees at Harvard are theoretically designed to give students some say in the decisions that affect their lives--particularly on issues that concern student housing or food services. But despite the fact that these committees do make recommendations on how the University will regulate students' lives, the old high school division of power remains--the students don't have any.

An example of this weakness is the CHUL, the largest and hypothetically the most powerful committee at Harvard. It is the only committee that brings students, faculty and administrators together on a regular basis to discuss issues affecting all undergraduates. The intent of the CHUL is to allow students to have a say in how Harvard College is administered. The committee deals with issues such as the number of freshmen that will be assigned to live at Radcliffe instead of Harvard Yard, or the number of women that will be admitted to Harvard, or whether or not to abolish the CRR. Some of the issues are more important than others, but they all affect undergraduate life.

The administration has never failed to comply with a recommendation from the CHUL that concerned student housing or food services. But on other issues, like abolishing the CRR or changing the academic year to permit students to complete final examinations before Christmas, the administration has not followed CHUL recommendations. The reason for this is that changing the calendar or abolishing the CRR would affect not only the students, but also the faculty and the administration, and they must approve any CHUL recommendation. Even if a large majority of the student body recommended changes in the academic calendar the faculty could refuse the change by simply voting against it; which is exactly what it did two years ago.

As tempting as it is to blame the administration and the Faculty for the failings of student government at Harvard, they are not the only guilty parties. Students are perhaps equally responsible for the present system of impotent committees. Unlike most high schools or prep schools, Harvard is not a self-enclosed community where students spend eight hours a day, five days a week studying and playing for four years. And unlike high school, being elected to a student committee at Harvard does not mean you are the most popular or best-looking kid in the class. Most students couldn't care less who is on the various committees at Harvard, and those who do care generally forget the committees exist once the elections are over. Between academic work and going to movies, few students really have either the time or the inclination to concern themselves with deciding how many freshmen should live at Radcliffe or whether the first semester should end before Christmas. And with the increasing cut-throat competition among college graduates, it is doubtful that serving on the CHUL will get you into medical school. So why bother?

The answer is that most students don't bother, including a number of those elected to serve on the various committees. And that is the main reason why students are powerless. It is true that the Faculty and administration steadfastly refuse to give students more power, but it is also true that students have failed to convince anyone, including themselves, that they should have more power. And they have correspondingly failed to organize themselves to gain power.

The fact of the matter is that a great deal of basically boring work is required to find equitable solutions to problems that affect over 6000 people, and few students have the time or the desire to do that work. Harvard has literally hundreds of people working 40 hours a week trying to manage the University--some people even make a career of it. The typical Harvard dean must solve problems that affect the Faculty, the alumni, the Corporation, Harvard employees, and the local, state and federal governments, so it isn't hard to understand why student desires are often not reflected in the administration's actions. Harvard is more than a college, and students are not always its central concern. You can agree or disagree with this state of affairs, but it is the status quo.

Harvard has not always had student committees. Twice in the past there have been attempts to establish a central student government composed of and run by students. Both attempts failed. They failed because most students didn't participate in the student government any more than they participate in the present system of student committees. With this in mind one can take a less critical view of the committee structure. It does at least give some students the opportunity to say something about what the University is going to do to the rest of you.

But the fact remains that the committees are weak. The real advantage of a single all-embracing student government is that it would have to be able to present a unified student position on particular issues. This might not affect the final action taken by the administration, but it would at least force the University to reject publicly the student position and give the students the opportunity to demand an explanation. The idea of this sort of adversary system of decision-making in which students would confront the administration and Faculty as a unified whole gives Harvard administrators ulcers. But it would only work if students gave a damn about their government; nobody else around Harvard is going to encourage students when the chips are down. You either cover your own heads or get bumped as students have in the past.

Assuming that your class is like its predecessors, student government at Harvard will remain a non-entity. But there are a few things you can do to improve the present situation if you care to. The first thing is to realize that it is a mistake to elect people to committees who are more concerned with getting into law school or gaining some administrator's approval than with working to improve the conditions you live in. They don't help you, and the Faculty and administration do not respect sycophants. Electing them only serves to reinforce the low opinion most professors and deans already have for student politicians. The next thing is to realize that the administration is not a monolith. There are both good and bad administrators and some are more concerned with students than others. Find the ones who care and work with them.

Perhaps the most important thing you should do is demand that all committee meetings be open to the public. At the present time CHUL meetings are closed to the 5,985 or so students who are not members, and the same is true of the CUE. These committees are making decisions that affect you, but you have no way of knowing how the decisions are made. The administration and Faculty members of the CHUL argue that if the meetings were open to the public it would be impossible to discuss sensitive issues or confidential information, like how much to increase your tuition next year. But this is a false argument. The committee can meet in closed session when it discusses a particular issue that must remain confidential, but that is seldom necessary.

The fact is that the present system of closed meetings permits the Faculty, the administration and the student members to do what they please without your being able to hold them accountable. This allows some faculty members of the CHUL to skip meetings and do little or none of the work that must be done. Closed meetings also allow student members of the CHUL to do nothing if they choose and to argue for positions and vote however they please. Like most monopolies, the present system of closed student-faculty committees is inequitable, self-serving, and inefficient. Open meetings would at least give other students the opportunity to see for themselves why student government does not exist at Harvard.

Recommended Articles