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Student Assembly: What Next

By David Lakhdir

This week the student assembly met for the second time in its new session. Many of the delegates are new to the assembly, and most of them ran with the stated intent of making the assembly more effective in translating student interests into action. The question, then, is whether the assembly can become more successful at representing undergraduate interests, and if so, how.

The student assembly occupies no official position in Harvard's decision-making structure. Thus the only power the assembly wields is the power of persuasion. Other mechanisms for student input into University decision-making have no more nor less power in this regard. Though graced with official-sounding acronyms, like CHUL, CUE and ERG, the other advisory committees have no real power apart from the power of their advice. The only advantage these groups have is that due to their official status, various administrators are forced to listen to them at prescribed intervals. Their advice may be ignored, but at least it must be heard.

The task of the student assembly , then, is twofold. First, it must open lines of communication between itself and University officials. Second, it must optimize the persuasiveness of its arguments. The assembly, unfortunately, has not been particularly successful at doing either.

There are two basic strategies which the student assembly could follow in trying to influence University officials. First, it may act as an outside pressure group. This alternative may be symbolically represented by a group of students on the steps of University Hall, reading a list of demands. Second, it may function as an inside pressure group. Symbolically, this approach is realized when some of the students on the steps walk inside, sit down with University administrators, and attempt to effect change through discussion and compromise.

During its first session, the student assembly had no problem in passing numerous resolutions indignantly calling for change. The assembly called for a boycott of Nestle products in the dining halls, resolved that the name of the Engelhard library should be changed, demanded that the Corporation live up to its commitments on shareholder responsibility, and recommended that the boycott of CRR remain in force until the Faculty Council agreed to certain reforms. As the term progressed, the assembly passed resolutions dealing with Hispanic studies, the tuition increase, alternative meal plans, and, lest we forget, toilet paper.

The assembly, in short, is very good at passing resolutions. The problem is that a mere resolution is an impotent instrument for changing University policy. Just as a student listing demands on the steps of University Hall can be ignored by those behind its closed doors, so were these resolutions registered in The Crimson and then promptly ignored by University officials.

The student assembly did have some limited success in its first session, but only when it followed up its resolutions by communication with University officials. Ironically, the toilet paper issue poses a good example. A number of assembly members spoke with various administrators, presented unambiguous poll results, provided persuasive arguments, and, eventually, met with success. The limited success of the Nestle boycott stands as another good example of the possibilities of resolution follow-up.

If a group is denied access to University officials, or seeks to affect issues which are not open to discussion in the eyes of the Administration, then it has no choice but to pass resolutions which may be read on the steps of University Hall. University officials, however, have not been unwilling to meet with Student Assembly members. And, with the possible exception of Corporation affairs, most issues appear open to discussion.

University officials have repeatedly stated that they are less impressed by numbers than by persuasive arguments. If the student assembly is to be effective in influencing the University, it will have to do more than pass resolutions that appear in The Crimson. It will have to consistently formulate carefully substantiated arguments which are repeatedly presented to relevant decision makers in the form of letters, telephone calls, and face-to-face discussion. The doors to University Hall are open. It is up to the student assembly to go inside.

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