To the Editors of The Crimson:
Your editorial on this year's Coop director elections contains some reasonable proposals, as well as some errors.
I agree completely with your premise that a pamphlet full of bloated resumes is a poor way to choose elected officials. I've tried in my campaign posters and door-to-door leaflets, as well as in the position paper I submitted to The Crimson, to offer a little more substance to my candidacy, and describe some of the work I've done in my first term.
The board has talked about the possibility of changing the format and allowing students to put position papers in the balloting-materials. The biggest problem is that non-incumbent candidates have little opportunity to familiarize themselves with Coop operations. Because the Coop is a profit-oriented organization, and faces extensive competition, it must keep much of its operating strategy, such as profit margins, expansion and markdowns confidential, or risk losing some of its competitive strength. So, first-time candidates have little opportunity to gain real understanding of the Coop's mechanisms, constraints, and abilities. This handicaps their ability to compose lucid, meaningful position papers. In addition, there are few means for voters to verify the claims of incumbents. The present system doesn't offer the voter much utility, but it does keep these factors from giving unfair advantages either to incumbents or first-term candidates.
I agree with you that accountability is necessary to lend credence to this electoral procedure. But I disagree with your contention that accountability will dissolve the massive apathy students demonstrate toward the Coop's internal affairs. Early in my term, I made two efforts to offer accountability: I offered to provide information on Coop affairs to the Undergraduate Council and I instigated an open forum for the specific purpose of providing board access to students and other Coop members. Both endeavors failed. The UC was uninterested, and hardly anyone came to the forum. In addition, I have had my telephone number published at the Coop, in both The Crimson and The Independent, and on all my campaign literature. In all cases, I've invited and encouraged students to call with their concerns or questions. Once again, the response has been extremely poor.
Would your proposed Annual Meeting fair [sic] any better? The consensus among the board is that it would likewise be scantily attended. I brought up the issue at the April 11th meeting, and the chairman, Professor Milton Brown, stated that the Coop had offered meetings for the membership, and that at the last one, only two members had shown up. Now, I'd be happy to meet with any two students who had a concern, and I think the other undergraduate directors would also be willing. But other board members are reluctant to commit to this kind of situation, mainly just because they're busy people. (Bill Dixon is senior vice president at MIT, Sally Zeckhauser is Harvard's vice president for administration, and so on.) If I could guarantee that even 50 students would show up, they'd be more than happy to have an annual meeting. Until that time comes, annual reports are available from the Coop cashiers, and our phone numbers are posted at the cashier's office.
I believe you are dead on target in your claim that the attendance records of incumbents should be public information. Of course, pure attendance alone won't gauge the contribution of a representative, but it does provide at least a partial measure. I'll seek approval at the next board meeting to release attendance to The Crimson. Although the information will come too late for this election, the precedent might make the procedure easier for next year.
I have doubts whether members would find our sparse agenda sheets of much use, since they're little more than lists of topics, but I'll seek approval to release them, as well.
In your conclusion, you state "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." This is wrong on two counts:
1) The Coop, as I have explained, does not operate in complete secrecy. Like other corporations, we publish an annual report. Much of our financial operations and policy decisions are therefore of public record. Actually, by publishing telephone numbers of directors in The Crimson, the Coop is operating with less secrecy than most corporations.
2) Actually, almost all corporations hold stockholder elections solely based on candidate resumes. Look at the "Notice of Annual Meeting" for Heinz, or Apple Computer, or Gillette. Resumes of nominated directors are always given, along with stock holdings. Most slates of directors run unopposed and are elected with unanimity. I have never seen a director candidate of an American corporation offer anything more, with the sole exception of rare proxy-battle situations such as the recent Lockheed/NL conflict. The amount of issue-based campaigning in Coop elections, weak though it is, is more than 99 percent of corporate elections.
Should anyone have any questions or concerns about the Harvard Coop, please call me at 493-3121. Alex Edelstein Director, Harvard Cooperative Society