Harvard's Troubled Democracy

As democracy blossoms around the world, Harvard seems to be experiencing a nasty winter of somebody's discontent. Is it too hyperbolic to say that democracy has failed at Harvard?

The recent elections for our much-criticized student government (a.k.a. the Undergraduate Council) are definitely troubling. Without concocting some imaginative and entertaining scandal scenario, we merely refer to the numbers.

The council's 88 open positions were sought by only 99 students. In Dudley, Dunster, Mather, North, Quincy and Winthrop Houses, there were fewer candidates than positions available. In Currier, Eliot and Kirkland, the number of candidates equaled the number of slots available. Even the southwest district of the Yard (Massachusetts, Matthews and Straus Halls), whose eager first-years should not have been infected by Harvard's political malaise, presented voters with the same dilemma. An election without choice is no election at all.

The election commission, recognizing this problem, even extended the application deadline for a full day. The pathetic result: 99 candidates instead of 91.

So what's going on here? "A lot of representatives were disaffected last spring," said John Mann '92-'94, who had served as an executive of the council last year. "Most of us were working hard on well-attended, quality events and not getting any credit for it because of [scandals]." This is probably as good an explanation as any. After all, only 25 members of last-year's council are running for re-election.


Clearly, something must be done. And it appears that some council members might be on the right track. Last week, the Movement to Reform the Undergraduate Council (MRUC) was formed by incumbents Rudd W. Coffey '97 and David V. Bonfili '96. And though the group's membership calls into question its commitment to its stated goals (members include veteran scandal-mongers Joshua D. Liston '95 and Randall A. Fine '96), MRUC seeks to improve the election process by adding another set of general elections before second semester. Its hyperbolic flyers encourage students to "Stop the Madness!"

While this change might be in the right spirit, it is probably in the wrong direction. Accountability is certainly important--indeed, it is crucial. But when there is no competition for the elections (and incumbents know this), it doesn't matter how often elections are held. In fact, more elections would probably contribute to the problem, as fewer students would run for the council since their annual terms would be cut in half.

Rather, as far as procedures go, the council should seek to reduce the number of positions available. As most people know, only a few council members do most of the work anyway.

And when four students run for five slots, the election is a joke. By extension, the student government is a joke. However, if four students run for two slots, the competition might force the candidates to appreciate their representative position all the more--at least by the mere fact that their election would not be automatic. Such a change would also make the candidates work harder to meet (and impress) more of their fellow housemates--the students they will supposedly be representing in the coming months.

Further, the council should continue to allow and encourage students to write in candidates. While probably not affecting the outcome, this change would at least add to the appearance of legitimacy. Remember: write-in candidates were disqualified from elections just last year by presidential fiat. With the dearth of candidates this year, six write-in candidates have won positions in the council.

The council's leadership should also investigate seriously the few houses such as Cabot, where there were twice as many candidates as positions available. Perhaps something can be learned from the few stories of relative success.

Of course, the current election process is not the real problem and changing procedures cannot resolve the dismal situation. It is certainly embarrassing that the university which educated the Roosevelts and Kennedys has no legitimate government of its own.

Fundamentally, the council must restore itself through honesty, hard work and solid communication. But, as we all know, that is much easier said than done.