WHEN THE UNDERGRADUATE COUNCIL begins its second year in about two weeks, a number of its representatives will be serving as volunteers. That's because three of the 12 Houses scheduled to hold elections this week don't even need to print up ballots. Hotly contested elections have become in one year the exception instead of the rule.
This dramatic drop in interest in Harvard student government is easily the biggest problem confronting the council as it reconvenes. A perception of powerlessness has deflated previous College governance structures, and the council must confront this dilemma sooner than perhaps even campus skeptics would have predicted.
An initial flourish last year generated nearly three candidates for every seat and brought half the campus to the polls. But attendance slipped as the year progressed, and frequent replacement elections proved necessary as members resigned. Now, barely 130 candidates want to serve on the 87-seat council. And about one-fourth of those running are incumbents, which further suggests that the numbers interested in the council's business are a slim percentage of the campus.
Council veterans blame the drop in candidates on bad publicity and the short time allowed for nominations undoubtedly did contribute to the low turnout. But the erosion in interest also suggests a loss of faith in the council as an effective decision-making organization. That impression can only be combated by more of the long-term, down-to-earth research projects that made the council effective last year. Ironically, the time required to boost the council's popularity and drum up candidates and voters can only detract from such projects.
The council must strike a balance between immediate and farsighted service. That means members (volunteer or otherwise) must communicate frequently with the students they represent. A Crimson poll last spring found that only one-third of undergraduates had ever discussed council matters or college policy with their representatives. The council can only react to student grievances through frequent communication, which can identify complaints from repeated fire alarms to erratic shuttle bus service. Another way for the council to affect both current and future student life is to dispense with procedural concerns, which last year consumed a sizable chunk of meetings and produced a 300-page opus on bylaws. It is also imperative that the government remove clauses in its constitution and bylaws which provide for closed meetings "under extraordinary circumstances," items which indicate the tendency toward separation from the student body.
The most immediate step it can take, however, is also the simplest: Extend the nomination deadline another week, thus ensuring that short notice and insufficient postering do not block anyone with a real interest. Beyond that, though, the council should rely on substance, not procedure, if it wants to escape an early retirement.