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IF THIS year's election of student members to the board of directors of the Harvard Cooperative Society is any indication, democracy in America is in sad shape. The Coop sent some 25,000 ballots to students at Harvard and MIT; about 5 to 10 percent are expected to be sent back. Student members of the Coop--roughly analogous to shareholders in a corporation--must vote on the basis of a small pamphlet containing condensed resumes of each of the candidates. Nary an issue is mentioned.
Yet the Coop does face real challenges that any involved stockholder would want to know about--issues on which a real corporate election would be based. Should the Coop continue to expand, or roll back its investment strategy and increase rebates? Is the Coop solely a business, or does it have an extra responsibility to students and staff of Harvard and MIT? These general priorities are tested in the basic decisions made by members of the board.
SO why is the election such a joke? It isn't because--as some suspect--student directors have little power. In fact, students comprise 11 of the 23 members of the board of directors and represent two of the four stockholders of the corporation. According to the Coop's by-laws, any seven directors can call a meeting and constitute a quorum. A renegade group of seven student directors could thus shake things up quite a bit if they so chose.
The reason so few people care about who is elected is that nobody can discern any real differences between the candidates. True, some may be experts in fencing; others may play electric guitar. Discussion of issues is basiclly limited to the question of who can emphasize "a commitment to quality" more times in campaign posters.
The underlying problem is that the election process is devoid of accountability. Even if candidates made real promises, it would be impossible to check whether they ever followed through on them. It is impossible to check whether the candidates even attended any meetings, much less find out how they voted. Such information is not made available, according to the assistant to the Coop's president.
Board meetings are closed to Coop members, as are the minutes of those meetings. Agendas to the meetings are not made public, nor does the Coop hold an annual meeting--a standard in the corporate world.
THE way to make the Coop elections more than an extra line on someone's bloated resume is for the Coop to incorporate basic accountability procedures into its governance structure. This need not mean that all board meetings and board minutes be open to students. Total disclosure of strategic decisions would hurt the Coop's ability to remain competitive. Yet there should be an established procedure for students to obtain the non-confidential proceedings of board meetings. Yale's cooperative society has such a procedure.
According to Richard Ballard, President of the Yale Coop, students at Yale can also receive the agendas of board meetings, and can attend an annual meeting to ask questions of the board as a whole. Harvard's Coop would do well to imitate both practices. For a bare minimum of accountability, the attendance of members at board meetings should be made public.
We asked candidates for Coop Board to submit a short statement detailing their reasons for running for the position and their stance on making the Coop's directors more accountable to their constituents. The following candidates expressed a commitment to making the Coop's governance more open: Alex Edelstein, Gordon M. Fauth, Jr., Carey M. Knight, Beth Noveck, Pieter M. Pil, Gina Raimondo and Conrad Yun. Of the candidates who responded, only Jed Arkin specifically said that Coop elections should not be more issue-oriented. We did not receive responses from Paul E. Dans and Sarah A.L. Tabler. The following candidates could not be reached: John L. Kimble, Alberto M. Modiano, Kevin P. Mohan and Pawan G. Patil. Patil, who was elected to the board last year, could not be reached because he abdicated his Coop position to spend a year abroad.
We don't know all the answers to the Coop's problems. In fact, nobody really even knows the details of the problems. Stockholders in other businesses would never allow their boards of directors to operate in complete secrecy and their stockholder elections to be decided solely by the candidates' resumes. It's time for the Harvard Cooperative Society's members to take a lesson from stockholders in corporate America and demand a more accountable board. Students should vote by April 20. Those who lost their ballots can obtain new ones at the Coop.
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