FOR THE FIRST TIME in more than two years, a new Harvard student government seems assured. The full Faculty vote on May 18 is basically a formality because the Faculty's advisory council has already given the new government the go-ahead. And so, following dozens of meetings and immeasurable haggling, a funded and more centralized government really will replace the decrepit Student Assembly next fall. Yet, few are celebrating.
On paper, the new Undergraduate Council shows a modicum of promise. Previously diffuse student representation on Faculty committees will end with all representatives coming from and reporting to the new council. And with money donated vin term bills, the government will be able to give financial support to campus organizations and have visibility never available to the Student Assembly unfunded and unrecognized by the University.
But before the new government can effectively address any item on the campus or national agenda or work to form a unified student voice, it must tackle a problem which supercedes and subverts legitimate student leadership here: that is, the widespread and increasing alienation between Harvard students and their elected representatives. The absence of a visible and legitimate student government for more than a decade has understandably caused a lack of interest in College politics among students. The delays in finalizing the new government, originally anticipated for this spring, further entrenched the apathy. This numbness has affected more than just constituents. At its first meeting this semester (on February 28, the latest start in the body's four-year history), the Student Assembly not only had shoddy attendance but also had only about half of its available positions filled. pathetically, only Leverett House had needed an election to choose its representatives with the over Houses having had fewer--or, at best as many--candidates than alloted seats.
IN LIGHT OF the malaise affecting both students and student leaders, it's understandable that few have rejoiced at the prospect of a new government. Although students and Faculty who worked on the constitution claimed a ringing victory when 75-percent approved the new government in a three day referendum, attracting 58-percent of the campus, a number of circumstances surrounding the referendum show it to have been much less. In fact, the vote indicates in several ways the wide schism separating the few involved in student government and the great number who aren't illuminating the primary problem the new government must deal with on the road to effectiveness.
The most salient characteristic of the referendum was actually what was missing. Except for a University funded publicity drive which produced leaflets and posters, there was little or no talk of the plan for a new government. Although the handful of students who had finalized the constitution and organized the referendum scattered among dining halls to ask people to vote, the talk was glib. "Too busy to vote?" and "It's Your Ass" condescended leaflets, and the minimal dialogue never delved into the constitution's substance. The result was an approving but wholly uninformed electorate. A Crimson poll on the eve of the election found that only 39 percent of a random 372 undergraduates had even read the constitution much less scrutinized or discussed it. Even more disheartening was another poll of 199 students, conducted last week. It revealed that half were unaware of the referendum's 50 percent turnout requirement, a clause which caused confusion and subsequent protest. The clear familiarity with the specifies of the new government and the voting process thus diffuses any assertions that the vote signaled a resurgence of campus activism. Essentially, students voted against the status quo and nothing more, akin to booing a bad joke.
The controversy about the 50 percent turnout clause following the referendum also illuminates the problems with student leadership which exist at present and promise to persist. After the ballots were counted, one student filled a formal protest with the administration after collecting signatures of those charging the vote had been inconsistent "with good election procedures" because there had been no mention of the turnout requirement of official publicity. Those responsible for the referendum agreed that the voting procedure should have been explained particularly because if those who had voted "no" had instead abstained the constitution would have failed, with only a 43 percent turnout. But everyone agreed that the omission of the rules of the referendum had been accidental.
WHAT IS MOST troubling about this confusion is what it says about the state of student leadership, not about the legitimacy of a slightly misunderstood referendum. It is discouraging that the organization of the referendum was, by default, left to essentially one student: Constitutional Convention Chairman Leonard T. Mendonca '83. Because of multiple concerns of the referendum which Mendonca had to plan and coordinate with the Faculty, it is more understandable that the election had a quirk. Even more amazing is the rapid ascendancy of L. Gerome Smith '84 to a position of leadership. After collecting about 100 signatures at a couple of meals. Smith complained to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III about the confusion stemming from the lack of publicity concerning the turnout opponent to the referendum procedures and last week vaulted him in front of the Faculty Council to speak against the referendum results. A couple of hours spent talking in dining halls and a determination to voice a valid complaint was enough to make Smith a leader, a further demonstration of the transparency of Harvard's student leadership fabric.
A constitution drafted by a dozen or so interested students and a referendum chiefly organized by one and challenged by another does not seem like the type of solid foundation necessary for a government to eventually attain success. While a new student government realistically can not be expected to immediately become effective and responsive, it must at the very least generate legitimate interest in the beginning, interest that will hopefully translate into commitment in the future. The referendum in March demonstrated there was no strong sentiment in any direction toward the new plan. Think about it: 42 percent of the campus refused to spare 30 seconds to cast ballot in a vote which spanned three days, six meals and countless trips back and forth across the dining hall. And equally worrisome: a government structure which will attempt to represent the concerns of thousands of Harvard students in the coming years was designed, shaped and finalized by perhaps twenty.
The anemic state of students government at present does no doom chances for future success and, indeed, demonstrates the acute need for something new. But now that students have a new mechanism, it truly remains to be seen whether beginning in September they will attempt to utilize it, or whether they care.