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Three years ago, 30 idealistic Harvard undergraduates met once a week for a semester to draft a constitution for a new student government. When they were done, the "constitutional coventioneers"--as they called themselves--uncorked bottles of champagne and drank toasts to "a new era of student power at Harvard." That era never arrived.
Although a majority of the undergraduate student body ratified the constitution in the spring of 1978, the newly-formed Student Assembly was not formally recognized by the Faculty, had no offical powers, suffered from poor attendance, was chronically short of money, and failed to earn the respect--or even the interest--of most undergraduates. Finally, after four semesters of frustration, the assembly last spring conceded defeat and asked the dean of the College to appoint a student-Faculty committee to review the role of student government at Harvard and to suggest changes.
The "Committee to Review the Structure of College Governance"--usually called the Dowling Committee after its chairman, John F. Dowling '57, professor of Biology and master-designate of Leverett House--was appointed by Dean Fox last spring in compliance with the assembly's request. The eight-member committee, which consists of four undergraduates, three Faculty members and the dean of students, met privately a dozen times this fall and issued a report in March suggesting two major reforms: the creation of a new student council with a $60,000 annual budget, and the division of the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life (CHUL) into two smaller student-Faculty committees.
The Dowling proposals, though not as radical as some students hoped, were more substantial that what the undergraduates on the committee originally expected. At the start of the fall term, the two Student Assembly representatives on the Dowling Committee said they feared the assembly might be made subservient to CHUL or phased out entirely. Obtaining permanent funding for the impoverished assembly was their highest priority, they said, but they did not expect to get it. When the committee finally voted to suggest a $60,000 budget. Natasha Pearl '82 remembers, "I almost fell out of my chair. I wanted to take it and run, before anybody changed their mind."
Although both students and faculty approved the Dowling Committee's proposals in straw votes this spring, the creation of a new student council is still at least a semester--and several complicated steps--away. In early fall, a student constitutional committee, modeled in part after the "conventioneers" group of three years ago, will revise the draft constitution for the council that it prepared this spring. Another committee, chaired by Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, will then review the constitution to insure that it maintains the "spirit" of the Dowling Committee's report. If the constitution departs from the report's guidelines. Epps says, the Faculty Council will be asked to "adjust or arbitrate" it. Once Epps' committee and/or the Faculty Council have approved the constitution, it will be submitted to students for ratification. If 3100 students (a majority of the undergraduate student body) ratify the document, the full Faculty must vote on it because the Dowling proposals would alter student-Faculty committees, and then Corporation approval would be required before the University could fund the council.
At the end of this long process will come a "reform" that some students consider futile. Ross Boylan '81-3, a Student Assembly delegate and vocal critic of the Dowling Committee, says the committee's proposals "do not make any real change, because any decision which students take part in will be advisory. If the Faculty and administration were seriously interested in involving students in College governance, they would give us final say in some areas, like student life."
This spring's undergraduate straw vote in favor of the Dowling plan, Boylan adds, "was really a pyrrhic victory" because it demonstrated at least as much indifference (only about one-third of the student body bothered to vote in three days of polling in the dining halls) as support (71 per cent of those voting favored the plan). Moreover, 82 per cent of those voting indicated they would like "more student autonomy" in areas like housing and meal plans.
But Joseph F. McDonough '81, former chairman of the Student Assembly and a member of the Dowling Committee, is quick to defend the plan. "Some people say it won't give students real power," he says, adding, "But I'm an optimist. The proposal has very large opportunities for students to increase their influence in University affairs. It's a tremendous contrast with the impotence of the previous system." The key reform in the Dowling plan, McDonough says, is providing the assembly with independent financial resources: "With money it will be able to lobby, to be creative, to take the initiative. It won't make many decisions, but it will influence them."
The student council's budget, which the Dowling Committee suggests should come from a $10 surcharge on each undergraduate's term bill, would include $20,000 for the council's own expenses, such as publishing a newsletter, hiring a part-time secretary, and buying office supplies. Another $5000 would be used to sponsor campus-wide concerts and social events. The bulk of the money, about $35,000, would be distributed by the council to other Harvard student organizations.
Providing official funds for student groups would be a major departure from past practice at Harvard, where the traditional philosophy has been "each tub on its own bottom." Dowling says. He adds that just three types of student groups should receive funding through the council: those having short-term financial difficulties, those that need "seed" money to start up, and those that have few alumni or outside supporters (such as some minority groups).
Though many student organizations are pleased by the prospect of receiving funds from the University, at least one is not--the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS), which currently receives a $5 surcharge from each undergraduate's term bill and distributes $7000 to $9000 each year to women's and minority organizations. According to Epps, when students vote on the Dowling proposal next year, female undergraduates will also be given an opportunity to vote on whether to continue supporting RUS. Fearing that RUS could lose its funding and that the new council might "irresponsibly" deny support for women's groups, RUS members attempted this spring to strike a compromise whereby they would control a portion of the new council's funds. The fate of the compromise will not be certain until the constitutional committee finishes its work in the fall.
Dowling says the controversy over the funding proposal, and particularly the charges that the assembly might not be responsible about allocating money to student groups, surprised him greatly; but he still expects that students, Faculty, and the Corporation will approve his committee's plan. "I see no reason why the new governance structure shouldn't be in place by February 1, with the first elections in December," he says.
Members of the Student Assembly are less sanguine about the chances of ratification, and some have already begun planning a publicity drive to generate support for the plan in the fall. They are eager to avoid a repeat of the events of a decade ago, when the last official student government gambled with its life and lost. In a bid to gain power, the Harvard Undergraduate Council (HUC), as the government was known, first dissolved itself in 1970 and then asked students to re-establish it with greater responsibilities and a larger budget (which would have been provided by a $10 addition to all undergraduate term bills). HUC severely misjudged its popularity, however; a majority of undergraduates voted against re-establishing it, and Harvard was left without a central student government until 1978.
"No doubt the majority of students who vote will approve the Dowling Committee's proposals," Nancy Northrop '81, a member of the committee, says. "What I'm worried about is that students will be apathetic, and we won't be able to get a majority of the undergraduate body to vote. People won't vote against the plan--they just won't vote at all."
In the debate over ratification next semester, a major issue is likely to be the Dowling Committee's decision not to include special representatives of campus minority groups in the new student council. When students wrote and ratified the assembly's constitution in 1978, a clause allowing each of six groups (Asian-Americans, Black Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and RUS) to appoint a delegate to the assembly provoked weeks of controversy but eventualy won approval. The Dowling Committee's report did not mention minority representation, Dowling says, "because we worried that if there were special seats for minority delegates, then members of the minority community would feel that they were already represented and would not run for the council." There is enough diversity at Harvard, he adds, that "I cannot believe that minority groups and their views will not be heard on the council."
Some students disagree. "The Dowling Committee made a big mistake by not involving RUS and minority groups in its discussions." Boylan says, adding, "It unilaterally went ahead and wrote a document without any provision to insure that minority concerns are addressed. The student constitutional committee, in a compromise between the Dowling report and the current system, has included a clause in the draft constitution allowing minority groups, including the Gay Students Association, to appoint non-voting.
Regardless of student debates over such issues, Faculty and administration support for the Dowling proposals is almost certain. Administrators are particularly pleased by the recommendation to divide CHUL into two smaller student-Faculty committees, one dealing with housing issues and the other with College life, possibly because discussions of kiosks and registration packets proved they did not control CHUL. "The Dowling plan reduces the size of the student-Faculty committees to a point where hopefully there will be a real exchange of views and a greater amount of trust," Epps says, adding that "at CHUL, exchanges are ritualized. People come in with set positions and don't change them."
Under the Dowling plan, the new housing and student life committees would each be composed of five students and five Faculty. There would also be a 10-member, student-Faculty committee on education, similar to the current CUE. All the students on these committees would come from appropriate subcommittees of the new council. Unlike the assembly, which consists of one delegate for every 75 undergraduates (96 total), the council would consist of five delegates from each upperclass House and 20 freshmen (75 total).
When they were drawing up the council's electoral system, members of the Dowling Committee split on the question of whether students should elect delegates directly to subcommittees of the council, or simply to the council-at-large, allowing their representatives to choose their subcommittee berths after election. Northrop, a proponent of the former plan, argued that elections for specific committees would result in well-informed candidates, and would mean that students could readily identify their representative in a specific issue are. Other committee members countered that delegates should be generalists, and that elections for specific subcommittees would result in the best candidates running against each other for a single seat. In the end, the committee reached a compromise: Students will elect delegates to the council rather than to specific subcommittees, but each House delegation must divide up after the election so that one delegate serves on each of the council's five working committees.
To make sure delegates attend council meetings, the constitutional committee has drafted strict recall and dismissal provisions, including a possible by-law that would automatically oust any delegate who misses three consecutive meetings. In addition, the committee has proposed a complex system for the council's allocations of funds to student groups: There would be six budget subcommittees dealing with different categories of student groups; each of the 130 recognized student organizations at Harvard would have one representative on one of the six subcommittees; each subcommittee would submit a separate budget to a steering committee; the steering committee would review the proposals and allot a percentage of the council's funds to each subcommittee; and the subcommittees would then draw up final budgets for approval by the full council.
Except for autonomy over its budget and social events, the new council would have only advisory responsibilities. McDonough and the other students on the Dowling Committee attempted to place a broad statement of the council's role as the "collective voice of the student body" in the committee's report, but even that was softened by compromise. The council "could eventually have the utility for students that the Faculty Council now has for faculty," Robert J. Kiely, master of Adams House and a member of the committee, says, adding. "In my 20 years at Harvard I've never seen a student council that's been very effective, but maybe its time. If it doesn't work, it won't be because its not a good plan. It'll be because students don't care."
Dean Fox, who says the Dowling report "has to be seen as a reaffirmation and adjustment" of the current system of College governance, agrees that students would hold the key to the effectiveness of the new council. "What matters around here is how well an idea is prepared and the merits of that idea, not what structure produced it," he says. "If the new student council comes up with well-thought out ideas, they will be given all the consideration they deserve."
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