TO BE OR NOT TO BE political; that was the question that dominated discussion for more than a half an hour at a recent Undergraduate Council meeting. The eventual answer--an ambivalent "no"--came only after a dazzling display of acrobatic contortions by Harvard's student government.
The burning issue that prompted the council to wrestle with its role for the umpteenth time in its brief history was a letter to undergraduates, on council stationary, endorsing the Endowment for Divestiture.
Former council Chairman Brian R. Melendez '86 wrote the letter during his term in office, spent $162 of the council's money on it, but never got around to distributing it. The new council Chairman, Brian C. Offutt '87, balked at affixing his official signature to a blatantly partisan statement on a divisive issue. Offutt submitted the dispute to the full council on Nov. 3, and his argument carried the day.
The Endowment is an upstart alternative to the traditional class gift fund. It holds contributions to Harvard in escrow until the University divests of its holdings in companies that do business in South Africa or the United Nations lifts its condemnation of apartheid, whichever comes first. If neither happens before the year 2003 rolls around, the Endowment will be distributed to local charities.
The council established the Endowment in April 1983, at which time it also condemned apartheid and called for divestment. The council continues to share its office with the Endowment, and its chairman serves as president of the Endowment ex officio.
"We hope that you will support the Endowment with your commitment to the goal of divestiture, your involvement, and your moral support, if not your contribution as well," Melendez implored in the controversial letter. "Your contribution to the Endowment is a constructive and important gesture to demonstrate your opposition to apartheid and your support for divestiture."
THEREIN LAY THE CRUX of the problem. "I don't want to send this letter," Offutt told the council. "We ought not endorse this type of political activity."
A hearty debate ensued as council members grappled with what, exactly, they ought and ought not do.
"This council has a long-standing tradition of support for divestment," Mather House delegate Steven A. Nussbaum '86 argued. "It's implicit that we've supported people giving to the Endowment. We supported it then [in 1983] and we support it now."
"We are a political body. We have to make political choices," another council member interjected.
Offutt, who has a sound and realistic vision for the council, wasn't converted.
"It would be more appropriate for the officers of the Endowment for Divestiture to make their own solicitation," Offutt insisted.
"Who are the officers of the Endowment for Divestiture?" Someone asked.
"We are," the chairman was forced to confess.
Offutt's wisdom on the council's role was compelling, if inconsistent with its history.