Choices, Changes, Challenges

Next week. Harvard students will decide whether to form a student association to represent them and their positions before the University. It is tempting to describe the upcoming decision in strident terms--apathy versus activism, cynicism versus idealism, even despair versus hope. But such perjoratives serve only to obscure the real issue: Are Harvard students willing to give themselves the chance to influence University decisions affecting their own lives?

There are, of course, other issues involved. The fact that minority students will have some special representatives in the assembly bothers some people. Others question the motives of those involved, and are skeptical that representatives will see their positions as nothing more than another line in a resume. Still more simply doubt that the University will ever lend an ear to the assembly's expressions of student desires, and that as a result the association will be ineffectual. These are all legitimate considerations. But they remain secondary in importance to the central issue--the desirability of forming an institutional channel to represent student views to the University.

When an administration or Faculty decision is made at Harvard, it is very easy to ignore student feelings on the matter, especially on issues that do not arouse intense feelings. Every other sector of the University community is represented, in one way or another, in or around the decision-making process. Only students, the supposed raison d'etre of the University, have no institutional representation.

The student-faculty committees have proved ineffectual in this area. Their small numbers of students cannot possibly keep in touch with the entire student body, and their effectiveness as independent organs for the expression of student opinion is undermined by the faculty-administration majorities on each committee. The Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) student caucus's unanimous endorsement of the proposed constitution speaks to all of these points.

This is not to say the members of the administration and the Faculty are consciously callous to the interests of students. But even those who are sympathetic to the students in general have no way to accurately gauge student opinion on a given subject. The proposed assembly's large size (approximately 85 representatives) and provisions for referenda on important issues will guarantee that those willing to listen will hear what the students are really saying. And if enough are willing to listen, it may well be that merely the forceful presentation of the views of 6200 Harvard students will influence some University policies.


There will, however, undoubtedly be issues on which students will find few open ears in the councils of decision. If, in the opinion of the student body, the situation warrants it, the assembly could function as an organizer to mobilize student resources and demonstrate our resolve. Obviously, the new assembly will not be a frequent organizer of building occupations. Recent demonstrations at Brown and Penn, however, have had broad-based student support and have been successful in altering administration decisions in Ivy League schools.

The issues addressed by next year's assembly will be determined by the student body. The kinds of actions students can expect first are on issues directly affecting students--such as the Core Curriculum, housing plans, tuition increases, meal plans and the like. One might also expect strong position statements on issues such as University policy relating to South Africa. In short, any aspect of the University's policy is a legitimate area for student concern, and thus a potential issue for the student assembly.

The need for this organized student representation exists. The only remaining question is whether the proposed constitution will create an organization equal to the task.

Special representation for minorities and women was not an easy issue for the convention. Delegates both for and against such representation had quite legitimate points. In the end, the convention decided to grant one seat in the assembly to each of the five minority groups recognized by the department of Health, Education and Welfare, and to women. These seats will be filled by campus organizations representing those groups.

There are many, many reason to justify this arrangement. The idea is not that regular elections will fail to produce, for example, black or Chicano representatives, but that these groups have, in many cases, special needs vis-a-vis Harvard. Their representatives will specifically address those issues, those needs. Student associations at Brown and at Brandeis failed because at critical times they lost student unity when they lost the support of their campus minority communities. Minority representation in the new student assembly will help guarantee student unity here at important junctures in the future.

This is only one of many justifications for the proposed system of representation. Nonetheless, many fair-minded students still favor strict adherence to the one-man-one-vote principle. They feel it applies here even though the assembly is not to be a governing body, like an elected legislature, but one with a vastly different purpose. To these people I can only say that the proposed assembly will contain approximately 85 representatives. Six of them will be special minority representatives. Are six out of 85 enough to warrant voting against a student voice in University affairs?

Another complaint is that the student association will become a haven for pre-law Government majors seeking to fatten their resumes at any price. Even if you accept the underlying assumption that people here are that intrinsically evil, the worst that can result is still better than the current status quo. The institutional link would still exist, ready to be taken seriously when conditions warranted it. In addition, I reject the cynicism inherent in this objection. I know that some members of any organization privately see it only as a stepping-stone, but I would wager that out of the 85 members of the assembly, those apathetic souls would account for a small minority.

Objections to the assembly on the basis of its lack of direct institutional input into University decision-making foreshadow what will doubtlessly be a great source of frustration to future representatives. There weill be issues on which the administration will steadfastly ignore student wishes. In such cases, students will have to decide whether to acquiesce, or whether they feel strongly enough to pursue the issue further. But in many cases, the mere expression of student opinion will make an impact on decisions. If one $500 fee increase is changed to a $400 increase, then the association's existence will be justified.

Students, in expressing skepticism about the need for such an organization, often ask, "What's the point?" The point is $500 fee increases year after year. The point is the Core Curriculum. The point is a housing plan formulated without any substantial student participation. The point is having to pay for 21 meals a week even if you only eat 10. The point is that all these decisions, and scores of others, are made with institutional bureaucratic inputs from every group but the one justifying the very existence of the school--the students.

You may disagree with parts of the constitution. You may think it won't change anything. But when the time comes for you to vote next week, remember that ratification consists of a majority of all undergraduates, not just those voting, so a decision not to vote is the same as a decision to vote 'no.' Before making that decision, ask yourself what you have to lose.

Then ask yourself what there is to gain.

Jay Yeager '79, a resident of Leverett House and a Crimson editor, is a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

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