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Student Government At Crossroads

Committee Considers Critical Changes in Assembly's Powers

By Alan Cooperman

In 1981, Harvard students will vote on a new plan for student government for the third time in little more than a decade. The last official government here--the Harvard Undergraduate Council (HUC)--splintered during the campus protests of the late 1960s and finally dissolved itself in 1969. Undergraduates rejected a proposal to reestablish a more powerful version of HUC in 1970, leaving Harvard without a central undergraduate government until the formation of the Student Assembly four years ago. The assembly, however has no formal powers, no funding from the University, and only "provisional" recognition by the Faculty.

During the past semester, the Dowling Committee--an ad hoc student-Faculty committee named after its chairman, John E. Dowling, professor of Biology--has met bi-monthly to consider the role of the assembly and possibilities for strengthening student government. The committee is now preparing to write its initial report; it will probably propose a plan that would incorporate the assembly into the mainstream of University decision-making and possibly would provide the group with a $60,000 annual budget. Students, Faculty and the Corporation would all have to approve such a plan--by voting on it this spring or next fall--before it could take effect.

Differing Views

Obtaining that approval will be difficult, however, because students, Faculty members and administrators have different views of the Dowling Committee's purpose. Students are hoping to create a government that will not only provide new services, such as sponsoring rock concerts and funding undergraduate organizations, but also have real influence in University decisions on issues such as tenuring, investments, security and meal plans. Faculty administrators, on the other hand, have shown a willingness to provide funding for student groups and to rearrange the assembly to increase its efficiency--but they are adamantly opposed to allocating any real power to undergraduates.

When the four students on the Dowling Committee raised the issue of student government autonomy, they received blunt answers from three Faculty members and one administrator on the committee: student government will "ultimately," "inevitably," and "absolutely" remain "advisory." And when students on the committee suggested abolishing the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities and substituting a student judicial board, Dowling told them that disciplinary matters are "beyond the purview" of the committee. This week two student members of the committee reacted strongly to these proclamations by advising the current assembly to oppose the committee's final recommendations if they do not include "genuine power and influence" for the new government.

One of the most controversial of the Dowling Committee's likely proposals is a $60,000 budget for student government that would be collected from a $10 addition to all undergraduate term bills. The government would disperse approximately $35,000 of those funds to other student organizations; $20,000 would pay for the assembly's own functions, including regular polling of students, mass mailings, a newsletter, office expenses and a part-time secretary; and $5000 would pay for rock concerts, dances and other campus-wide social events.

The committee's investigation into governance at other major universites, which disclosed that Harvard is probably the only major American college that does not have a student activities fee and that does not fund its student parliament, has been a prime influence in the budget proposal. Activities charges range from $10 for four years at Dartmouth to $500 per student per year at the University of Pennsylvania. Almost all colleges allocate all or part of their activities fee to student government; and, in general, the richer the government, the more successful it is. The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), for example, receives approximately $75,000 annually from the University and raises an additional $35,000 by selling lecture notes, t-shirts, movie tickets and travel packages. A recent poll of Stanford students showed a high degree of "respect" for ASSU's management of finances.

Although they agree that Harvard should no longer remain a pariah in regard to student government, members of the Dowling Committee disagree on the purpose of student funding and the amount needed. Archie C. Epps III, dean of students and a member of the committee, has urged repeatedly that the University's policy remain "each tub on its own bottom"--undergraduate organizations should raise their own funds and receive subsidies only to get started. But Natasha Pearl '82, another committee member, argues that Third World organizations and women's groups have few alumni to call on for funds, and therefore may need annual subsidies to survive. Pearl also believes that $60,000 is "far too low," although she may "settle" for it. Other members of the committee say that $60,000 "sounds like a lot" and that neither students nor the Corporation would be likely to approve a higher figure.

None of the committee members has voiced any fears that the student government would not spend the $60,000 or even allocate it badly. Many of Harvard's 160 official student organizations, particularly minority groups and new publications, are in desparate need of funds. The University now subsidizes only four groups: the Harvard Dramatic Club, Crimson Key (only for services during freshman week), Room 13, and an "Efficacy Seminar" on minority students. In addition, the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) receives several thousand dollars annually from a $5 charge on all women's term bills, dispersing, on the average, grants of $400 to $500--but only to about one-tenth of student groups. The assembly itself has had difficulty raising money; its total reserves are now less than $200, which is not enough to pay for a comprehensive poll or any campus-wide social event.

If the $10 charge suggested by the Dowling Committee is implemented, it may be refundable on request like the current RUS charge, although Joseph F. McDonough '81, a committee member, has argued strenuously that it should be mandatory because "student government is as necessary as heating rooms." Nancy Northrop '82, a third student on the committee, says the charge should be optional so that "if students are dissatisfied with the new assembly they can show it by taking their money back." Other members of the committee say making the charge optional will increase chances of approval by the Corporation, which has denied requests for term bill additions in the past.

Two other controversial recommendations that the Dowling Committee seems prepared to make are the elimination--at least in name--of the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) and the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) and the reshuffling of the assembly's current electoral system. After listening to reports on CUE and CHUL last spring, the committee decided that while CHUL is too large and handles too many issues, CUE is small enough to be very effective. Thus, the most recent Dowling proposal would divide the current duties of CHUL between two committees, but would have an academics committee with essentially the same responsibilities as CUE. The student members on each of these new committees would also be members of the new assembly.

The current Student Assembly is aportioned according to the population of each House and section of the Yard--one delegate for every 75 students. Under the committee's proposal five students from every House and ten from the freshman Yard would serve as student government representatives. Members of the committee disagree on whether delegates should be elected to particular committees of the assembly, all of which would meet together twice a month, or to the assembly at large, allowing individual delegates to choose committee berths.

The new government would have five standing committees: social, academics, residential, student services, and executive. If delegates were elected directly to particular committees, each House would have only one delegate on each committee. If delegates were allowed to choose their berths after election, a House might have several delegates on one committee and none on another--unless a proviso to the contrary were attached to election rules. Each committee would have about 15 members, and the entire structure would include 76 delegates, including six voting minority representatives (in the current assembly, the minority delegates are from the Asian American Association, the Black Students Association, the Native American Students, LaOrganizacion, RUS and Raza.)

*The academics committee would choose five of its members to meet regularly with five Faculty members in a committee replacing CUE.

*The residential and student services committees would also each elect five members to meet regularly with Faculty in two committees replacing CHUL.

*The social committee, which might include all House committee chairmen as ex-officio members, would plan campus-wide activities such as concerts, dances, happy hours, and booze cruises.

*The executive committee, which would include the chairmen of the other committees and the officers of the assembly, would be responsible for a newsletter, agendas, and budgeting. It would also review grant applications from student organizations, which would have to be approved by a majority vote of the full assembly. The Dowling Committee has not considered whether the new government's officers would be elected by students at large, or by the assembly itself as they are now.

No matter how different the structure of the new assembly might be from the current one, the track record of student government during the past four years will undoubtedly be a major issue in the debate over the Dowling Committee's final recommendations. A statement prefacing the Student Assembly's constitution, ratified by students in 1977, promised that the assembly would "handle important student concerns like alternative meal plans, library hours and reserve policy, athletic facilities and tennis court fees, calendar reform, housing transfers, bland menus which also make it nearly impossible for vegetarians and some religious groups to maintain their diet, funding for new student groups, and much more." Thus far, the assembly has not produced a substantive change in any one of these areas. Instead, it has sponsored social events such as disco dances, happy hours, a rock concert, and a "spring weekend."

Students on advisory committees have been just as ineffective at achieving reforms. Despite polls showing that the majority of students opposed the Core Curriculum, students on CUE and the Core subcommittees did not oppose the Core. And despite polls showing that students favor calendar reform, longer library hours and alternative meal plans, CHUL has made no progress in any of these areas. Student members of CHUL say they have felt particularly impotent this year in controversies over kiosk and registration-packet regulations.

Some of the failures of student government stem from problems the infighting of student political groups. In its early years, the Student Assembly was consumed by internal bickering over the Coalition for a Democratic University (CDU), which some delegates claimed was a political party attempting to take over the assembly. This year, the assembly has been hurt by indifference--attendance is low at sub-committee meetings and quorums are rare at full meetings. Several students on CHUL say they have "panicked" under pressure from administrators at stormy meetings this fall, leading, for example, to a vote reversal in the kiosk debate.

Many of the failures of student government at Harvard, however, are caused by structural problems. Student governments at all the Ivy League colleges face three problems: student apathy, meager funding, and lack of real power. But while other schools' student governments struggle with inadequate funding, the assembly has no funding at all. While other colleges have factions in their central councils, Harvard does not even have a central council: The assembly is not fully recognized by the University and has no formal powers. And while other colleges allow their student governments limited autonomy in a few areas, such as funding student organizations, every committee on which students sit at Harvard is advisory. A report of the first intercollegiate conference in Philadelphia, at which student leaders from Stanford, the University of Chicago and all the Ivies compared their home institutions, sums up the situation. "Harvard's internal [government] structure is clearly much more complex than that of Brown or Stanford [the two other schools examined in depth in the report]. The student government wields no substantive power. Student power is instead located in a sprawling structure, spread out in organizations across the entire campus."

Student members of the Dowling Committee argue that once the structural position of the assembly improves, its membership will improve as well. The assembly now acts like a debating club, they say, because it has no more influence than a debating club. On the other hand, in the one area in which the assembly has had some autonomy--social activities--it has scored some successes. The question for students during the next year will be whether the recommendations offered, by the Dowling Committee actually offer a substantive change in the University's power structure or whether they would merely shift the names and places of a half-dozen committees.

The Dowling Committee has the power to suggest autonomy for students in areas that most directly affect their lives, such as housing lotteries, transfers and sex ratios; meal plans and menus; security and shuttle buses; and financing of student activities. It could follow the lead of other Universities, such as Cornell, by recommending that a student serve on the Corporation to represent the opinion of a substantial part of the University community in decisions on investments, tuition and budgeting. It could recommend the creation of a student judicial board and of student panels to influence tenuring and admissions policy. It could suggest a community ferendum procedure, by which a majority vote of Faculty, students and alumni would reverse a decision by the Corporation.

But as the committee's proposal now stands, students face a dilemma. They may accept the Dowling proposal or they may hold out for real power. Accepting the new student government could mean impotence, loss of energy, and more frustration--or it could mean a base to work from, better funding, and equal student-Faculty representation on several key advisory committees. In either case, the ultimate goal--student autonomy in some policy areas and effective influence in others--will endure, inside or outside student government

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