Comparative Government

Other Ivy League Structures Smaller, Richer Than Harvard's New Undergraduate Council

"Students Endorse Constitution For Undergraduate Assembly" The Crimson, April 22, 1978

"Students Approve Constitution"   The Crimson, March 19, 1982

When discussing any major College issue. Harvard administrators often mention what they call the campus's short institutional memory. With an entirely new generation of students every four years, administrators point out the difficulty in maintaining steady, progressive development in some areas of student concern because of the transient nature of the College. Instead, campus discussions and issues tend to recycle themselves, explain the officials who have been around long enough to see freshmen housed at the Quad and other figments of recent, but in student terms, distant, history.

The successful two-year drive for a new student government for the fall serves as a prime example of the cyclical nature of Harvard student life. As the reprinted headlines below indicate, a similar successful movement occurred here four years ago--just before the present batch of seniors invaded the Yard. So although next fall's Under graduate Council will be Harvard's first ever funded government, it will also be the second student government in five years, with a birth via constitutional convention and student referendum nearly identical to the one it will replace. Proponents of the new council are hoping that with money collected from term bills and representation on student-faculty committees, they can reverse the fortunes of the short-lived Student Assembly which failed to captivate student interest for much more than a semester.

Another often-mentioned tendency related to cyclical College discussions is losing not only a sense of history but also of context. Sometimes the trap of viewing "Harvard as the center of the universe" waxes tongue-in-cheek, like the recent save-the-ivy debate when one freshman Student Assembly delegate boldly dubbed it "one of the graver issues of our time." But in the discussions preceding the vote approving Harvard's incoming student government, some students writing and reading the constitution viewed it as a bold and pace-setting document. Actually, a survey of Ivy League student governments and some others around the nation shows that Harvard's new structure is the one playing catch-up. With few exceptions, the budgets of other governments greatly overshadow the $60,000 hoped-for by the Undergraduate Council, where a $10 student activities fee, will be refundable in contrast to mandatory charges at least twice that size nearly everywhere else. Further, the coveted link between the Undergraduate Council and the Faculty--allowing council members to serve on Harvard committees where students unaffiliated with student government and perhaps less accountable sat before--pales in comparison to the student role in decision-making at some schools in the Ivy League.


Associate Dean of the Faculty John. E. Dowling '57, who chaired the committee which produced the basic outline for the new student government, cautions against drawing comparisons with other schools, saying Harvard's unique House system provides students with an incomparable structure of less centralized leaders and extracurricular lives. And in fact at Yale, usually considered the campus most similar to Harvard's, the College Council handles a meager budget with the $32 mandatory activities fee going directly to a student's residential college. Says senior Jeffrey Porzan, the council's former chairman: "The residential colleges are sacred cow. If you have anything that would take away from the dignity or prestige of them, they'd get vetoed."

Despite the difference in student life here because of the House system with decentralized committees and dining halls, there are similarities between the structure and goals of Harvard's imminent Undergraduate Council and other school governments. And often these points of comparison bring to light the more far-reaching elements of student roles at schools like Cornell, Columbia and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

One common denominator shared by Harvard and many of the present student government in the East is a very short history. A great number of the organizations started just a few years ago, slowly emerging from the rubble caused by the unrest on campuses in the late 1960s. At Harvard in 1969. like at Brown and Dartmouth at about the same time, the student government decided to dissolve itself, citing a general lack of student support. The Student Assembly, initiated here in the fall of 1978, was the first attempt since then to have an organized council in addition to student representation on College committees. Although not every Ivy League student government disbanded because of campus pressure, each existing one is less than a decade old with several having not even five years of experience. This would appear to indicate that the same fledgling search for a legitimate and respected government plan here has also recently occurred on other campuses.

Some schools are likewise experimenting with their second go-round with student leadership since the explosive times which began to abate about a decade ago Cornell, following the armed takeover of Straight Hall by militants in 1969 and an ill-fated government called the Campus Council, initiated a new structure just this fall which must approve all Cornell budgets and may pass resolutions solutions which can only be vetoed by the university president Dartmouth last month began a drive to replace its Undergraduate Council, just four years old, with a body incorporating present fraternity and dorm governments which. Dartmouth Undergraduate Council members say, diffuse interest in the campus wide structure.

But while Harvard's outgoing Student Assembly and incoming Undergraduate Council share a newness and a history of previous turbulence with other campus governments, the new government here will be several times the size of the others with only a fraction of their budgets. Yale, despite having a student body of approximately Harvard's size, has only 24 representatives on its College Council, compared to about 90 here where there is one representative per 75 students. Even at Cornell, with 12,000 undergrads, the Student Senate boasts just 30 elected representatives. During both constitutional conventions here in 1977-78 and 1981-82, a prime concern was electoral accountability, and the student politicos designing the structures have chosen a slew of council seats as the correct way to avoid communications breakdowns.

Student leaders at other schools, however, view Harvard's huge delegation as too large to be effective. "You're not going to get anything done. To me, that would seem unwieldy," says Princeton's Undergraduate Student Government President I. Kenneth Saxon. It remains unclear exactly how much interest there will be in the Yard and houses when 90 brand-new seats are unveiled and put up for grabs next September. But the anemic attendance record for the Student Assembly this spring--when only 55 students volunteered for the group's 96 spots and just 21 attended the final meeting--suggests a natural attrition to the size of other Ivy League governments.

With substantially fewer troops, the other student governments generally boast a huge arsenal of funds collected from mandatory fees often twice the size of Harvard's soon-to-be $10 optional one. The Yale and Dartmouth student governments don't receive student funding, but Brown undergrads, who pay the highest fee, fork over $47 a year activities fee, with a little better than half going to student government which gives two-thirds of its budget of campus groups and divides the rest between administrative costs and social events. Columbia and Princeton recently raised their fees, giving their governments hundreds of thousands of dollars while Harvard's first batch of Undergraduate Council officers will hope for $60,000 and only a trickle of refund requests.

And then there are the budgets which student government activists around the Ivy League can only dream of. At the University of California at Berkeley, the gargantuan Associated Students of the University of California government manages a whopping $10.5 million budget annually and employs 90 full-time and 450 part time employees. The activities fee at the 30,000 student campus is about $9 a quarter with the majority of the government's income coming from student stores a restaurant and other activities in the student government-owned four-story student center and accompanying eight-story office building (Another bit of money comes from renting one floor of the taller building to a tenant--the University.) Like U-Mass Amherst, which operates a similarly massive $1.5 million budget. Berkeley student officers spend a great deal of time managing the services offered, leaving places on faculty and administration committees to appointed undergraduates.

Berkeley Student Body President Steven A. Anderson cites a $13,000 registration and draft counseling center and an $8,000 legal clinic along with the large sums given to about 150 campus groups and a lecture-note service as just a few of the ways in which undergraduates can benefit from the body's structure. He firmly believes that these elements of the autonomous government--much more than policy-making--are the core of the structure's legitimacy. Even at Ivy League schools where the budgets are considerably smaller, leaders reiterate the importance of funding. Says Princeton's Saxon: "When it comes to legitimizing the student government here, it's the services. That's what students can get their teeth into."

But, again, Harvard's model basically aims to counter this widespread feeling of the importance of money for a student government's acceptance. Certainly, administrators and students agree that funding will give Harvard's Undergraduate Council elevated status. But the relatively small fee and the refund option reflect a view which downplays the belief that money is a student government's lifeline. Harvard's Dowling says it is important not to let the allocation of funds dominate the council's chief function: meeting as a group and with faculty to discuss College issues. "We believe student organizations should be self-supported as much as possible," he says. "That's different from most other schools with huge amounts of money where the student governments spend most of their time deciding how to distribute it."

Harvard's government design differs in one other major way from some of its more substantially funded but smaller Ivy League counter parts. The Cornell and Columbia governments in particular have a link to university policy which seems dramatic in comparison to Harvard, where students have an impact chiefly at the first stage where policies are proposed and then shaped. Recommendations for curriculum changes or improvements in house life are taken up at a meeting of the appropriate student faculty committees, eventually, the final decision is either made by the appropriate dean or by Faculty vote.

But at Cornell, votes by the Student Assembly go directly to the president, assembly leaders express particular satisfaction with the rapid adoption of grievance procedures for Cornell's 5000 student employees earlier this year, a process which they say could have taken much longer through administrative and faculty channels. In addition to that form of tangible influence, students have five seats on the approximately 60-member Cornell board of trustees.

Another example of this more direct kind of student decision-making role is at Columbia, where the three-year-old Student Assembly sends three of its representatives to the University Senate comprised of faculty and administrators as well and charged with deciding policy. Students at these schools explain that the most constructive student input in fact occurs at the lower, committee level, but they nevertheless indicate a wider channel of direct communication when it is needed. The difference at these schools from Harvard, according to Ivy League student government officers, is primarily an absence of a particularly powerful faculty structure, resulting often in student and faculty cooperation for changes in administrative policy. Says Columbia Student Assembly President Othon Prounis: "In terms of influence, they're [Columbia faculty members] almost like students."

A survey of the condition of governance in the Ivy League finds some tangible similarities and differences between what Harvard is about to adopt and what recently has been established elsewhere. Regardless of the applicability of comparison because of unique features like Harvard's House system and Cornell's large size, leaders acknowledge one common and indisputable enemy: pervading apathy. Despite the new student government in Ithaca. Cornell undergraduates continue to stay away from the polls; the most recent vote drew 19 percent of the campus, the largest turnout in years, according to one student government officer. In that election, just 30 students vied for the 22 available seats. Even at Amherst--where the government wields a budget 25 times the size of Harvard's--about 25 percent vote for their representatives, officers say.

The numbers--or lack thereof--suggest that even the student governments which appear impressive with their hefty budgets and multiple services may be moving simply out of physical inertia. These governments seem to command little mandate or draw much ire. A Brown referendum earlier this spring appears to have been the victim of just this. The vote--on whether a new form of government should be adopted--failed, but just 800 undergraduates on the 5300-student campus, or 14 percent, went to the polls. Cornell's Senate Speaker Susan L. Bisom summarizes her attitude toward student-government in terms generally shared by the leaders of structures varying in size, age and funding. "Students just don't see how involvement in student politics is going to get them anywhere. You have to be a masochist."