To the Editors of The Crimson:
A distracted Crimson reporter bumped into us outside the Coop this past June, just after the end of classes, and while I gazed in a shop window he talked with former Undergraduate Council Chair Rob Rhew for a few minutes. After the reporter had left, Rob came up to me and asked the if I had heard any of the conversation. I hadn't.
"I was talking to that guy and then he says, 'Gee, you guys weren't so lame this year.'"
"What did you say back?"
"I said, 'Uh, thanks, I think.' What am I supposed to say?"
What exactly is the Council supposed to say? If we work diligently but silently, the campus's ignorance of our activities invites ignorant Crimson editorials. If we, for once, mention the prospect of more attention to self-publicity, we seem to incur the wrath of acerbic Crimson editors all the same. We're damned if we publicize ourself, damned if we don't.
It's become somewhat of a joke at meetings to mention Crimson commentaries on the UC. Some meetings begin with a laugh, a strained one though, at excerpts read from some article or editorial covering the previous week's meeting. Some chalkboard scraping misquotation is related. A front page article dancingly sidesteps most of a debate, reporting just enough of it to create the opinion in the readers' minds that "Yeah, these guys really are lame."
And, God, it's frustrating. Here are 88 undergraduates who spend hours every week meeting with each other, talking, bargaining, even arguing with the administration, and spending their time trying to make Harvard a better place for students. That's what motivates Undergraduate Council representatives: exasperation with something about Harvard. Everybody has grumblings about Harvard: the UC is composed of people who want to do something about it.
We are faced with an administration which in the past has not had the quality of undergraduate life at the forefront of its attention. While other colleges fiscally support student groups, at Harvard, it is left up to the students not just to run the show but to rent the theater. Just about every student organization is funded by the UC, which in turn gets its money from students. Those students who don't pay term bill fees just wind up hurting the organizations they belong to. The U.C. is not only the centralized monetary fund for student groups, but one of the few, if not the only, means of directly voicing student concerns to the administration. The Harvard bureaucracy has its own inertia. Outdated policies do not change by themselves, but only through concerns raised by students, especially ones on the UC. The calendar reform and the abolishment of the Q.R.R. computer requirement last year are cases in point.
The stereotype of the UC member is that of a gov-jock (never mind the fact that the former Chair was an E.P.S. major) anxious to forge his political career to the senate as soon as possible. The typical UC representative is according to Michael Grunwald's Oct. 18 opinion piece, a power-hungry student just looking for some piquant victual to place on his c.v. Members fitting this description are the ones most likely to resign.
There are much easier ways to pad one's resume at Harvard than by being a UC member, easier ways than spending two or three hours every Sunday debating the week's resolutions, an hour during the week at the member's subcommittee meeting, an hour every week at office hours in the UC office, and even more hours to plan events, talk to the administration, and realize all the projects the representative is working on. This last time commitment invariably turns out to be the greatest.
When I think of all the hours John Hsu and I put into trying to increase campus security and organizing the Freshman Concentration Fair (an enormous success for the UC and the roughly 500 freshmen who attended, which the Crimson deigned not to mention), the dozens of hours Malcolm Heinecke put into organizing the Levinson Award Dinner, the effort and time David Duncan, Rob Rhew, Hillary Anger, the entire finance committee (I could go on and list every single UC member) spent on their projects, I really regret how difficult it is for Harvard's student government to publicize all it accomplishes. We do publish the UC newsletter at the end of the Independent every other week, but the newsletter barely counters all the bad press given by the Crimson; nor does it counter the general torpor or ambivalence surrounding students' opinions of their government.
The motivation for this time commitment is not some hope of personal gain or even good publicity, especially not that, but a belief that these hours are well spent and actually accomplish something good and tangible. How many people know that the UC was responsible for acquiring the microwaves in all the dining halls, for summer storage, for the used book sale every spring and fall with Phillips Brooks House, for all the social events, for increasing the amount of lighting at night in the yard as well as in the Cambridge Common? David Battat '91 met with the Cambridge City Council a few years ago and took several council members around the Common one night to show them just how dark and unsafe it actually was, whereupon the city of Cambridge installed new lighting everywhere and razed all the bushes where muggers could hide.
How many students know how earnestly handicapped and disabled students' rights have been fought for, how library hours have been extended, how the schedule has been reformed to allow students a longer intersession, how the shuttlebus was kept running when the administration deemed it supererogatory on winter weekends and nights, how core courses have been redesigned due to concern voiced by UC members who sit on the core course committees, how almost $70,000 worth of grants are allocated each year to student organizations? Here's a question: how many students even know who their UC representatives are?
Of course it is the UC member's responsibility to inform his constituents of current projects and events. There is, however, only so much an individual member can do to publicize. What students can do is find out who their UC representatives are. Check the UC bulletin in your house. Talk to your representatives. Stop by the UC office (Canaday B basement). Make sure you vote for somebody you think will do a good job, and if you're really exasperated at some part of Harvard, run for office yourself and do something about it. Just don't expect too much acknowledgement if you do run; that's not the motivation.
It's not much of a compliment to be told that all the time and effort you and friends of yours spent for the good of your community isn't "so lame this year." Nor does it help to have people like Michael Grunwald write opinion pieces entitled "Lame, Lame, Lame," spewing the hackneyed anti-UC party-line, before even two UC meetings of the new year have taken place. To tell the truth, I think people must be bored by now of all the same old UC-bashing Crimson editorials. The Crimson would have much more original editorials if, for once, it decided to look at the facts about the UC.
The UC will go on, good publicity or not. Just as long as students stay involved and continue to benefit from the de facto good accomplished by student government, UC members will have motivation enough. David Lefer '93 Chair UC Ad Hoc Committee on Security