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Don't Break the Promise


By Thomas H. Howlett

A GRAND TOTAL of 20 people out of 89 put the finishing touches on the Undergraduate Council's first year last Monday night. That is one fewer than the number who assembled last May to write the last chapter of the Student Assembly's history, a four-year student government experiment which failed. Superficially, the figures could indicate zero achievement by the new student government, the first funded one in Harvard's history. If a Harvard student can't even assemble three-fourths of its elected representatives, students may understandably ask, what impact can it have on undergraduate life?

It's true the inaugural year of legitimate student government wasn't scintillating. The marathon session last week where the council's picayune by-laws received approval was not a marked departure in size or substance from the nearly two dozen previous gatherings. Meetings rarely drew a crowd far above a quorum or attracted more than a handful of observers.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be both seriously excited and concerned by what the first council had to offer. Its subtle influence across campus is foremost. The council doled out thousands of dollars to dozens of organizations with money collected from student term bills. These funds in turn translated into publications, symposiums and projects which reached all students repeatedly. Look closely issues of publications and posters from clubs without special thanks to the Undergraduate Council for a crucial grant are rare exceptions.

A second major plus for the council was its professionalism. The grants process was administered with model efficiency. Applications required detailed explanations of how the money would be used and the status of an applicant group's own finances. To avoid developing parasite groups, the council repeatedly insisted that organizations demonstrate attempts at garnering money from other sources including grass-roots fundraising. And all grant decisions were made in public, where applicants and others could serve.

This kind of organization translated into a third accomphsnment--several marked victories for undergraduate interests. When administrators carelessly indicated that unlimited storing privileges were a thing of the past, the government effectively reversed the decision by assembling impressive research showing there would be enough space even with House renovations. Council representatives also loosened a rule which initially made the meetings of two new student-faculty committees closed to the public. The government also gained praise for helping to endow teaching awards to be given out annually. And, less visibly, the council effectively exerted itself in a number of Faculty channels by sending representatives to numerous Faculty committees.

THESE NOTABLE STRONG POINTS are barely half the story, though. While council members clearly established themselves as effective administrators through the grants process and a string of well-run meetings, they fell short as politicians. Repeatedly, the cohesiveness of the council threatened to unravel when a political issue demanded action or comment. A number of council members expressed doubt about the propriety of the council's attacking controversial topics at all.

Unlike with other responsibilities explicitly mapped out in their constitution, council members lacked a directive in this area. The practice of periodically passing empty resolutions was an easy out--a way to invest minimal council energy and avoid potentially endless theoretical debate.

The council desperately needs a coherent way of responding to the political concern of students--a well-reasoned political bite to complement its bureaucratic efficiency. To maintain a professional air and earn respect, the government has to break out of the routine it adopted on this year's weighty issues: listen to an explanation of a controversial issue by a student with an explicit, usually anti-Harvard view of the subject: entertain debate for several minutes, including several complaints about the lack of a better procedure: then support the view put forth by the student by passing a resolution, an uninformed endorsement carrying little weight. It must address such issues better if it hopes to be a visible, important part of undergraduate life.

The best idea to have emerged from representatives discussions is establishing special ad hoc committees which would research subjects like Harvard's investments in South Africa and its sexual harassment policy and insure a devil's advocate before any vote. This would guarantee more informed decision-making without taxing the energy and time of council committees charged with more specific functions. More importantly, it would allow the council to contribute to campus debates constructively: this year the council simply reacted to controversies based-on superficial summaries by students with a special interest in the issues.

But it will require more than an ad hoc committee or two to move the council into the thick of student life. A decisive shift in the way many council members view themselves is also necessary. The enthusiasm demonstrated by council members for their work was a welcome departure from the lack sadaisical approach taken by their predecessors. But too often this energy was misdirected. The experience of hobnobbing with Harvard administrators makes it both easy and dangerous for students to distance themselves from their peers. Too many council members fell into this trap. The result was a worri-some haughtiness which occasionally caused the council members on student-faculty meetings to close meetings. Administrators similarly sometimes convinced representatives not to disclose topics and College statistics of high general interest which they had jointly discussed. On one occasion, a student committee actually exercised a constitutional clause allowing meetings to be closed under extraordinary circumstances. Finally, in the council's sparsely attended last meeting, the group approved by-laws similarly allowing the council privacy and seclusion--rules, for example, allowing certain of its documents to be classified.

COUNCIL MEMBERS, then, feel too comfortable as official reps, too willing to sacrifice their direct link to students for junior Congressman status. In approving hundreds of incidental by-laws, council members claimed they wanted to give the government some permanency--with rules for everything, the reasoning went, future councils would never have to spend time wondering about the body's original intentions. Yet those intentions seem to be what representatives are willing to forget when they condone closed meetings and spend long hours fiddling in the council office.

Student government has failed here because of a lack of accountability. Student Assemblyites orbited outside the normal undergraduate galaxy, leading to uninformed decisions, an erosion of support and--finally--pathos personified. The Undergraduate Council emerged as a reaction to that. Funded, centralized, linked to Faculty committees and decision-making, it held promise.

That promise was by no means broken this year. But for it to be completely fulfilled, the council must next year assert itself more on student issues, practical and political, after careful research. It must also demonstrate humility by keeping in close contact with undergraduates and striking the aloof clauses that let it operate in private. Maybe then the embarrassing, underlying fact will change: this year, as in years past, only about 20 undergraduates deeply cared about a student government that should be of interest to all.

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