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Hitting Home



HEY, Hey, Ho, Ho! Racism, sexism and homophobia have got to go!

Abandoning the shanties and the foreign affairs of the past few years, Harvard students last year turned their attention inward. Instead of rallying against the unfairness of the world, they found injustice enough in the Yard.

Three thousand students signed a pro-neutrality position paper for the clerical and technical workers union, hundreds of students sported anti-homophobia buttons, and almost every dinner table on campus became the site for debates about final club sexism.

Why were students involved in this supposed era of apathy? Because last year's activism hit home in a way divestment activism never could.

Stocks, intangible bits of Harvard's unfathomable wealth, occupy a distant realm for students preoccupied with classes, activites and social life. But the administration, elitism and prejudice on campus influence our daily lives.

Harvard may follow a relatively democratic admissions policy, but students found that democracy fails to extend far beyond their acceptance letter. Once here, students are confronted with a web of prep school ties and exclusive social clubs.

And so students who never before attended a divestment rally, last year felt no compunction about taking a stand against sexism or racism or anti-gay discrimination. At times, it was like sticking up for a friend.

Much of the inspiration for this democratization came from women and minority staff members who, after being shut out of the University power structure for so long, began to rise up last year, demanding across-the-board fair treatment, from secretarial union representation to discrimination lawsuits.

ONE senior took the final steps to end sexism in the final clubs, filing a descrimination complaint with the state against the Fly Club. Fellow students supported her cause, creating Stop Withholding Access Today (SWAT) to help fund and carry on the suit after she graduated.

The University had cut ties to the clubs in 1984, but this failed to address the real problem of exclusion, leaving the clubs right in the geographic center of campus as a major force in social life. Officially, Harvard can take no blame for the sexism, but neither can it take credit for its end.

The Minority Students Alliance compiled a report criticizing the University for failing to aggressively recruit minority faculty. Black law students held a 24-hours sit-in at the dean's office to protest inaction on minority faculty hiring.

Undergraduates went beyond the conventional concerns in their defense of equal treatment and nonprejudicial attitudes. Last spring students organized a Defeat Homophobia group and sponsored discussions on discrimination and harrassment during Gay/Lesbian Awareness Days. Students also created an AIDS education outreach service.

As support staff organized for a union, students joined in the cause, doing union paperwork, holding rallies and tabling in the dining halls for student support. At a meeting with President Bok, students presented a petition with 3000 signatures and the endorsement of 21 campus organizations demanding administration neutrality.

ALTHOUGH these organizations focus on diverse issues, their complaints have a common orientation--fairness--and a common target--elitism. But they lack a unified spokesman. The Undergraduate Council, which funds these groups, would seem to make a helpful advocate: the nominal undergraduate representative would seem to be the natural leader for efforts for student justice. But last year students found that the council would not champion their cause. Instead of battling sexism in the final clubs, the council balked and seemed more interested in equitably representing the students who buy into elitism here, than backing institutions open to all of its constituents. Yet diverse group membership is a much better reflection of what the Harvard of 1988 stands for than are clubs based on wealth and private school connections.

But throughout the year, the council showed that it was more inclined to whisper than shout on behalf of its constituents' concerns. It abandoned its efforts on behalf of junior faculty tenure. It stood by as the College tightened its alcohol policy in the face of vehement student opposition. It rejected a proposal to back administration neutrality in the union election and only asked administrators not to unduly pressure employees to vote no--which is an illegal tactic anyway.

Council leaders said the council should stick to the role it could best fill--social leadership. But instead of spearheading a drive to improve quality of life, the council showed its maddening inability to do anything that the student body wanted.

Three times the council attempted to line up a spring concert, and three times it failed. If Harvard can pull in visiting scholars and speakers who students have actually heard of and the Hasty Pudding can attract top Hollywood talent to award each year, the least the student body can expect is a few rock concerts from known groups.

The council's agenda must be overhauled in order to effectively guard student interests and back student efforts. As a nominal representative, the council has an entree to meetings with top administrators; but because the council sought to avoid taking stands on controversial political issues, these meetings have effectively relegated important issues to Yard protests. In order for these contacts to be effective, the council must show that it is actually acting on the student's mandate. If the council is to be a catalyst, rather than a hindrance for change, members should be elected more for their platforms than for their popularity.

To extend the democracy of a diverse campus and to energize the half-dead social life, the college needs to move swiftly. One key proposal is a student center with room for campus organizations, bands, pubs, and gathering--open to all students. The center would boost campus cohesion and activity, just as house life has fragmented it. While the houses offer an important range of artistic and tutorial services, a campus-wide student center would provide benefits they cannot offer. As student tuitions continue to rise beyond inflation to fund the growing budget, now is a key time to accommodate student interests in spending that budget.

Concerns for democracy go beyond an opened and improved social life. The administration must recognize that the diverse student body it admits has needs that have not been addressed by the traditional hierarchy. In a tenured faculty of 7 percent women and 6 percent minorities, role models for a majority of the student body are few and far between.

The administration did react to new student groups--by forming committees to respond to them. The minority student report spurred administrators to appoint a panel to bolster recruitment efforts. The University also formed a committee to address gay rights issues.

But these were mere tiptoed steps toward reform. They also represent a way for the administration to put off action in favor of yet more years of study and vague goals. The Law School protest was met with a vow to "continue to give high priority to minority hiring" and promises to consider ways to encourage minorities to teach law--no concrete actions. The problems are clear--there are not enough women and minorities being hired and there is not a conducive climate towards keeping them here. It's up to the University to stop pontificating from on high and take direct action.

And there needs to be more direct dialogue between administrators and students. Officials rarely met with the student groups issuing complaints last year; they simply responded in terse, written statements when student goups, such as the Minority Students Alliance, asked them to listen. This is no way to conduct relations and certainly no way to democratically accommodate and act on student concerns.

The Corporation refused a council request to annual meetings with students. The request certainly was not much to ask; the refusal shows how adamantly opposed to dialogue the administration is. As a reflection of the white male Corporation that runs this school, this attitude makes sense. But now students are showing that they expect more. And having deigned to admit a diverse student body, Harvard has a responsibility to accommodation its concerns.

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