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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Same Old Song

BRASS TACKS

By Paul A. Engelmayer

THERE'S A WONDERFUL SCENE at the end of the movie The Candidate, just after a youthful Senate candidate played by Robert Redford learns he has won a major upset victory. Before descending from his hotel room to deliver his victory address, the fledgling politician anxiously pulls his aides into a vacant suite and nervously asks, "What do we do now?"

Dozens of students across campus must have felt much the same way this week after winning seats on the Undergraduate Council. More than 200 students ran for 89 Plouse-based seats on the new body, which is Harvard's first funded and recognized student government ever. They vied on tickets including the "Mellowcrat" party in Lowell House and the one-man "Joe Derita" slate in the Yard.

Few put forth concrete campaign planks transcending the predictable calls for "student power" and "an ameliorated quality of life." Few had a clue what they were getting into. Most probably spent the hours after being informed of their elections wondering why they ever managed to commit three hours of their Sunday evenings to the enterprise.

And, if a Harvard sponsored debate Wednesday night among the eight declared candidates for council chairman indicates anything, most of the new outfit's self styled leaders are equally out to lunch A mere two or three expressed concrete ideas. Several, ludicrously enough, based their candidacies on their "experience" in the pathetic Student Assembly that went belly-up last spring, its singular accomplishment being its securing of toilet paper for the River Houses several years back. Most spoke in only the most banal of generalizations and platitudes.

Victor Freeman '84, for example, told the assembled council members and the approximately 40 other undergraduates who happened to pop into the open session--that "I spent a long time in student government and I've waited for this moment." Why? He didn't say. Asked to single out the one issue he would focus on as chairman. Freeman came up with "academics," which is kind of like a presidential candidate running on a platform of improving "the world situation."

Rosemarie Sabatino '84, another Student Assembly vestige, said nothing more in her address than that, basically, she wanted to be chairman and was apolitical enough to do the job well. Among other uninspiring candidates. Sesha Pratap '84--though sensible at times--came up with the malapropism of the year. "The chairman," he declared, "should be able to get the council lumbering."

Individual gaffes aside, what was quite striking about the session was just how much attention was paid to procedural minutiae and how little to the council agenda. After all, it was the incessant fidgeting with quorums, titles, and Robert's Rules that--along with its non-budget--did in the Student Assembly.

Yet here they were again, bickering and moaning about who could speak when and who could respond to what. Everybody agreed that a primary council mission had to be "educating the student body" and that the government had to get out of the starting gate fast. But for the most part, nobody could think of how to do it.

ONLY TWO CANDIDATES sought to portray themselves as more than managers observed with issues of organization. Not surprisingly the two--former Gay Student Association officials J. French Wall '83 and Michael G. Colantuono '83--were the only candidates with significant experience in campus minority organizations, perhaps explaining why they alone stressed the need for quick, visible achievements by the nascent body.

Colantuono and Wall both shod front emphasizing their GSA experience. But both struck a theme that can only reflect their frustration at having had to square off with Harvard so many times for concessions which, to the University, could only be considered miniscule. "Our first priority is overcoming the image of powerlessness," said Wall. Colantuono said the council could work only by helping students to "take control of [their] own lives."

Alone among the candidates, Wall put forth a specific set of ideas on issues ranging from investments in South Africa to various forms of discrimination on campus to inadequate heating in dorms: He seemed to have the only clear idea of how the council would go about realizing the "action" that his fellow candidates promised. Specifically, he suggested that, on each issue, the council seek out natural allies to work with. For example, to increase student voice over Faculty appointments, the council should align itself with junior professors disgruntled about their snowball-in-hell chances for tenure.

Wall could win the chairmanship, but then again, anti-gay campus sentiment and the new council members' apparent fixation on procedural questions could work against him. Should his election he seen as a clear impossibility by the time the council meets to choose its leaders Sunday night, two possible scenarios loom.

On the one hand, liberal activist delegate Jamie Raskin, the during of the campus left, could gallop in as a white knight to rescue the chairmanship. Raskin had ruled out running early in the week, but he left the door open a crack at Wednesday night's session. When nominated by a fellow delegate, he said, "I decline for now." The other scenario has the chairmanship going to a Freeman, a Sabutino or another unimaginative remnant of a decidedly anglorious past. In that case, the only thing they'll be passing In Science Center B on Sunday evenings will be fistfuls of No-Doz.

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