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Undergraduate Council

Body Moves Back to Basics, but Bores Members

By Jeffrey C. Wu

When Warren G. Harding ran for president in 1920, he was able to capitalize on the domestic turbulence caused by the Great War and its after-math with a humble promise of a return to "normalcy."

Seventy years later, a young, ambitious member of Harvard's student government delivered a similar pledge and--like the businesslike Ohio senator--he rode it into office.

One semester after the Undergraduate Council was torn by a bitter controversy over the Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC) which resonated nationally, Guhan Subramanian '91-'92 took the helm of the body at the beginning of its eighth year promising to return to the basics of student service.

And true to expectations, the council avoided major controversy. It put the ROTC debate behind it by forging a cautious, compromise position in October and commenced to organize a couple of moderately successful concerts.

Subramanian was so successful in steering the council clear of conflict, in fact, that representatives by the end of the year simply stopped coming to meetings.

As apathy reigned, the council struggled to attain a quorum at each of its last four meetings, and debate arose over procedural questions as Subramanian used some little known tactics to keep council business moving.

Burden of History

Last year, the Undergraduate Council, under the activist leadership of Council Chair Kenneth E. Lee '89, moving away from its traditional focus on student services and social events, took a series of ideological stands on political issues such as the all-male final clubs and the drive to unionize Harvard's clerical and technical workers.

But two drastic misjudgments at year's end--which resulted in a polarization of the campus on the issue of Harvard's affiliation the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and a $25,000 loss on a folk-rock concert--pushed the succeeding assembly back to firmer, and, in the minds of many, more boring grounds.

The previous spring, Lee's council passed a resolution calling on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) to work toward bringing ROTC back to campus after a 20-year absence.

ROTC had left Harvard in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.

A week of stormy rallies led the council to repeal the motion on the grounds that an on-campus ROTC would violate University and council rules forbidding affiliation with groups that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The military does not allow gays and lesbians to serve in its ranks.

Trying to put the issue behind it and develop a coherent position on ROTC, Subramanian's council this fall organized a campus forum, and then, after a heated two-hour debate, passed a resolution calling on FAS to work toward the return of ROTC to campus if the military abolishes its discriminatory practices.

Although the council dealt with the issue, some student activists felt it had moved too hastily.

"I was a little disappointed with the kind of hands-offness of [the way the council handled the ROTC debate]," says Jarrett T. barrios '90, who is co-chair of Harvard's Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students' Association. "Nobody wanted to deal with it. They were kind of avoiding it."

Rock and Roll

The previous spring Lee's council had secured a costly performance by folk-rock star Suzanne Vega--and lost around $25,000 on the poorly-attended affaire.

In reaction, at the beginning of this year, Subramanian won the right to chair the council on a platform that opposed large concerts. Many other representatives also won their seats on promises that fiscal responsibility would return to the council.

And so, wary of taking any chances, the body failed to seize opportunities this fall to secure low-cost shows by popular music groups such as Squeeze and the B-52s.

During the winter, however, the council took a small gamble on a $10,000 comedy performance by deadpan comic Steven Wright, which members and students generally agree was a success.

The Wright performance bolstered the council's confidence and the council's social committee subsequently hired reggae artist Ziggy Marley to perform in May.

"The Steven Wright thing worked, and that made everyone think the Ziggy Marley thing might work too," says social committee member Wayne W.' Yu '92. "We were really gun shy at the beginning of the year."

The Marley performance was a moderate success. Little money was lost and the council was able to regain some of its credibility in the music industry.

But both concerts were booked and debated early in the year and so by the spring, the concert debate--always a lively one since the Vega concert-- could not be counted on to attract the body's membership to meetings.

Randomization Turmoil

The council's other preoccupation of the year involved changes to the lottery system by which first-year students enter the houses.

Spurred by studies which showed an alarming lack of diversity among the houses, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 brought back the previous year's proposal introducing a more random element into house selection.

Lee's council had managed to fend off the changes for a year by convincing house masters to oppose Jewett's randomization plan. But armed with new statistics, Jewett returned this year with a scheme that would assign half the upcoming class to random houses.

But the council, led by James M. Harmon '93--who proposed a plan of "controlled choice"--was able to forge a compromise with Jewett and the house masters.

"The council doesn't really negotiate effectively with the administration--they don't hold any cards--but they can come up with a student opinion," says Harmon, who calls the randomization compromise the "biggest victory of the year."

But many continue to criticize Harmon's plan, which has students randomly assigned among one of four houses they select, as merely politically expedient, and not the best alternative.

"We should have looked for a system that promoted the most student choice but instead we looked for a system that was most acceptable to the [house] masters and Dean Jewett," says the council's Residential Chair Daniel H. Tabak '92 who authored a rival plan the council dismissed.

But the debates on the structure of the housing lottery were also first-semester debates, and the specter of housing lottery battles several years down the road were not nearly enough to maintain attendance at the council's meetings.

No Quorum Blues

Much of the council's spring session was spent battling absenteeism--often unsuccessfully. The body failed to muster enough members to gain a quorum in any of the final four weeks of the year--although some council officers continue to maintain that by ejecting eight representatives who had not been showing up for meetings they had obtained the necessary quorums.

"I guess a lot of what we do is really boring," says former Council Vice Chair Noam Bramson '90-'91. "[But] that sort of stuff has to get done."

According to Bramson, this was a stabilizing year in the council's history and the lack of attendance is a natural, inevitable part of student government at Harvard and other colleges.

"The council putters along," Bramson says. "it handles small things well, it handles big things sometimes well, sometimes badly."

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