Governing The Ivies

...Behind Closed Doors

Back in the '60s, things were different. They were different in many ways, of course, but one was that Harvard had a College-wide student government. That body, the Undergraduate Council, met its demise in 1969 when activist students grew impatient with its lack of power. Students finally put the question to a referendum and voted overwhelmingly for a different form of student government--student representation on the standing Faculty committees.

In response to that desire, and as a reaction to the 1969 student takeover of University Hall, the Faculty created the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL). Today, "student government" at Harvard consists of several student-Faculty committees: CHUL, the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities. For the most part, these bodies have little statutory power: with the exception of CHUL, which decides whether to recognize student groups as official undergraduate organizations, the committees' discussions and findings merely serve as advice to all-powerful administrators.

But Harvard is an exception among the Ivy League schools. Students at Brown, Princeton, Yale and other Ivy colleges elect representatives to college-wide student governments and participate in decision-making bodies, leaving undergraduates at these schools with a clear ability to influence university policy.

In some cases, that influence is direct and unquestioned. The Brown, Yale and Princeton student governments, for instance, may spend several thousand dollars in student activities fees that all students must pay. Usually this money supports student organizations and funds social and cultural events.

Often, however, the student power that flows directly from the government is diluted in the process. All three student governments are responsible for appointing student members to committees of students, faculty and administrators that deal with specific topics--groups analagous to CHUL, CUE and the other Harvard committees.


Although some of the committees have authority to set policy, far more common are the groups whose mandate involves little more than permission to complain. The power of the purse notwithstanding, the central student governments at these schools lack formal power, so their influence derives mostly from their ability to persuade, to do superior research and to marshal and publicize student support.

Most generalizations about student governments, of course, ignore crucial distinctions between individual cases. The best way to get a line on Ivy League student government is to look at each example in detail:

Princeton: Student Advice, Administrative Consent

Fixing driers getting more washing machines and converting a little-used parking lot into a basketball court: these are the burning issues facing Princeton's Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Richard F. Jacobsen, chairman of the USG, maintains. Jacobsen was elected last October on a platform advocating a change in the USG's focus, from political matters to problems of everyday campus life. Under his leadership, Jacobsen says he hopes the USG will turn its attention toward improving student services and expanding social activities such as concerts.

"The USG has been ineffectual. They've focused their attention on things that are too political. If the USG can show students we can improve things like laundry facilities, more people will see us in a better light," he says.

Because administrators are not bound by USG votes, Jacobsen maintains the best way to improve services is to consult with university officials and convince them of the need for better facilities. Jacobsen points to research as one essential weapon in this battle of persuasion: USG members will present administrators with a study of the costs and benefits, for instance, of the parking lot conversion, and hope for a favorable decision.

The other weapon in the USG arsenal is money. An $8-per-student activities fee gives the USG a $36,000 annual discretionary budget. (The USG sets the amount of the fee, and the university includes it in term bills.) Some USG members are currently considering raising that fee to enable the group to fund more cultural and social events.

The 30 member, all-student USG is only one of several policy-making and advisory groups Princeton students can work through. Not all these groups deal with such mundane matters as fixing driers, either: the Priorities Committee, a student-faculty-worker group, has significant impact on Princeton's budgetary process, its members say. Composed of four undergraduates, two graduate students, six faculty members, a professional staff member and three top administrators, the group has almost complete access to all budgetary data.

Through the fall, the groups meets about twice a week. Each department sends it a detailed budget proposal for the upcoming year, specifying which costs may rise, and which services the department plans to increase or cut back. Over Christmas, the provost reports on the committee's suggestions for tuition, room and board fees, staff and faculty salaries, and departmental expenditures. The committee reviews the provost's first draft in January and then presents it as a recommendation to the university's president, who in turn recommends a budget to the Princeton Corporation. Since the Priorities Committee began to recommend budgets to the president in the 1970-71 academic year, the final budget has always followed its advice.

Although this system seems to provide Princeton students with far more influence than their Harvard counterparts, the committee has come in for sharp criticism. The meetings are not open to the public, and committee members may not openly discuss the budgetary data they receive. Frequent leaks in past years have eroded the significance of this prohibition, but many students still view the restriction as a problem.

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