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Governing The Ivies

...Behind Closed Doors

By Roger M. Klein

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.

Because meetings are closed, it is not clear how much influence the student minority can exert at the meetings. Two years ago, one of the graduate students on the committee resigned, charging it was a rubber stamp for administration policy. During the same year an undergraduate member published a dissenting budget report, criticizing the majority budget report as overly concerned with Princeton's financial status, and calling on administrators to set a budget that would preserve what he called the university's "educational endowment." He suggested considering more seriously a proposal to spend the endowment's principal in order to maintain Princeton's quality of education.

But despite their lack of statutory power, Princeton students have still succeeded in influencing university policy; adequate information and a receptive administrative ear have enabled them to convince administrators of the correctness of their positions.

Brown: University as Participatory Democracy

The stereotype of Brown-that of an activist student body--also categorizes Brown's student government. Students sit and vote on several faculty-dominated policy-making committees, and have frequently won over the administration with their arguments. And although final power lies with the administration, the central student government often tries to influence the high honchos with the results of university-wide polls.

Brown's central student government, the Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS), consists of 31 students elected at large. Like Princeton's USG, the Brown council's only statutory responsibilities consist of appointing students to the student-faculty committees and distributing funds to undergraduate organizations. Brown's student activities fee of about $25 per student yields about $130,000 in funds for the UCS. The UCS in turn funds about 100 student organizations.

Student polls provide the UCS with a potent weapon for swaying the administration. "The tradition in the past is that before we do anything, we take a poll," Michael L. Mael, vice chairman of the UCS, says. Past polls have questioned students on subjects ranging from their opinion of Brown's health service to whether the members of a student-faculty committee should resign in protest of the body's ineffectiveness.

A current poll asked students whether they favor reform of Brown's current calendar, which places exams after Christmas vacation. Brown President Howard R. Swearer, who favors calendar reform, asked the UCS to survey the students; the council will present the results of the poll to a faculty committee studying the issue.

Several student-faculty committees provide students with the opportunity to vote on policy. The Educational Policy Committee, where students sit as voting members, has authority to approve or disapprove proposed courses, concentrations, and independent concentrations. Students also vote, along with the faculty, as members of the Undergraduate Council on Student Affairs (UCSA), a rough equivalent of Harvard's Administrative Board. Only the president may overturn UCSA decisions. Students arrested for activities in support of Brown's striking workers last year decided to let the UCSA hear their cases. The board acquitted them.

Yale: Government as Lobby

Except for the power to distribute funds to undergraduate organizations, the Yale College Council (YCC), Yale's 27-member student government, has no bottom-line authority. Nor do the student-faculty committees to which it appoints members. But this lack of tangible power has not prevented the council from making itself heard on a variety of undergraduate issues.

Yale's current strike gave the YCC an opportunity to show its stuff. At the start of the strike, Yale was able to operate the freshman dining hall by assigning white-collar employees to work the kitchen, and gave upperclassmen a daily allowance to purchase food, because all other dining halls were closed. But believing that freshmen should not be forced to cross picket lines by eating in the dining hall, the YCC voted to request that Yale offer freshmen the daily stipend on an optional basis. Administrators denied the request, but after meeting the YCC officers, Hannah Gray, Yale's acting president, agreed to the change.

The YCC has not shied away from taking a stand on the strike, either. In addition to calling for both parties to begin negotiations, the council passed a resolution supporting the union's demands for greater job security. However, the YCC passed a resolution hostile to some of the union's demands for a wage increase. Other YCC members, working independently of the council, convinced the union to drop its request for a gradual phaseout of student jobs.

"We play on the fact that the administration doesn't like to get students too angry. Our real power is the potential to get students out to demonstrate and show that they're angry. We're not so much a government as a lobby," Segall vice chairman of the YCC, says.

In keeping wit philosophy, the YCC contributed to efforts to show student support for greater access to budgetary data, which many students perceive to be a key to credible criticism of, and influence over, the budget. The YCC helped to organize a group that planned to lobby for more input into the budgeting process. Also, the council endorsed a demonstration calling on the administration to release more budgetary data.

Though the student governments at these three schools vary in function, a core of powers, practices and problems is common to all. In each school, students have been permitted a foot in the door to power, by membership on advisory and policy-making bodies. In each, students are slowed by insufficient information and a lack of genuine authority to set policy. In each case, success in opening the door wider depends on students' ability to convince administrators that they truly represent student opinion, and to lobby administrators with polls, demonstrations and facts.

Issues such as these have confronted the roughly 50 delegates to the Harvard convention that has begun the process of writing a charter for a college-wide student government. Whether the government these delegates from--if they form one--will gain sufficient credibility and effectively mobilize student opinion, as the Brown, Yale and Princeton governments have done on occasion, is another question.

Though the student governments at these three schools vary in function, a core of powers, practices and problems is common to all. In each school, students have been permitted a foot in the door to power, by membership on advisory and policy-making bodies. In each, students are slowed by insufficient information and a lack of genuine authority to set policy. In each case, success in opening the door wider depends on students' ability to convince administrators that they truly represent student opinion, and to lobby administrators with polls, demonstrations and facts.

Issues such as these have confronted the roughly 50 delegates to the Harvard convention that has begun the process of writing a charter for a college-wide student government. Whether the government these delegates from--if they form one--will gain sufficient credibility and effectively mobilize student opinion, as the Brown, Yale and Princeton governments have done on occasion, is another question.

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