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A Primer on the U.C.

Before You Cast Your Ballot, Recall Recent History

By Evan Pearce and George Wang

Over the past few years, Americans have come to realize that Congress is an institution characterized by gridlock, unresponsiveness to constituent concerns and a lack of accountability. Recent polls show that Congress as a whole is even less popular than President Bill Clinton.

Here at Harvard, we have a government of our own for those of you who are new to the College, our government is known as the Undergraduate Council. Like Congress, the council doesn't seem to care much about what students want. Like Congress, the council doesn't get much done, often because it is mired in scandal. And like Congress, the council is in dire need of reform.

But while some members of Congress have recently been successful in enacting reforms--take for example, Rep. Bill Andrew's bill to prevent House committees from delaying floor votes on bills indefinitely--the only changes in the Undergraduate Council have been for the worse.

Late last year, for example, the council decided to raise by 50 percent the amount it taxes students, to $30. This tax, the council fee, is levied at the beginning of each year on student term bills.

Crimson polls conducted last spring made clear that an overwhelming majority of students--realizing that the council should not be given more money when it does so little with what it has--opposed the fee increase. But, alas, this did not deter the council from passing the tax hike.

The disgust students feel towards the tax is fully justified since most students benefit so little from council spending. Indeed, a Crimson poll found that 45.7 percent of students could not even name two activities sponsored by the council.

Like Congress, the council seems to be effective at just one thing; wasting money. And because it is so good at this, it craves more money to burn.

Another proposed "reform" was the council's attempt to make it more difficult for students to get refunds of their "contribution." Students can currently obtain a refund of most of their contribution by checking off a box on their term bill. But following in the effort to bring the red tape of Washington to Harvard, the council to created a bureaucracy of its own for distributing refunds.

Allowing students the simple option of checking off a box on the term bill was just too simple for the council. Instead, our representatives voted to require all students to navigate through a maze of bureaucracies; the Undergraduate Council, the Term Will office, and the Dean of Students' office. In the words of Vice-President Joshua D. Liston '96, this circuitous refund process was designed solely to make it more difficult" for students to reclaim their dollars.

The final result, as one may have guessed, is that getting a refund has recently become virtually impossible. In fact; council contributions have been as "voluntary" as social security contributions.

After the council voted to increase the council fee and eliminate the option of getting refund on the term bill, students, decided that enough was enough. It was time to stop the madness. Anjalee Davis '96 and many other students across the campus organized a petition drive to hold a referendum on repealing these, and other, council votes.

At first, the council announced that it would indeed follow the mandates of its Constitution and hold a referendum if the petition gathered the requisite number of signatures.

But after over a thousand students signed the petition (almost double the number needed for a referendum), council President Carey Gabay 94 unilaterally ruled four out of five questions "out of order." Gabay did not seem to care about what students wanted. Over a thousand students had expressed their desire for reform by signing the petition, but Gaby insisted on using tricks to prevent a vote on must of the proposals.

Gabay's attempt to quash the referendum failed. Students created a new petition, which Gabay had no choice but to accept. But not without a fight.

Just as Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) had the audacity to use funds collected from the taxpaying citizens of his home state to wage a legal war he himself initiated against the majority of Washington citizens who had voted to install term limits, the council decided to use students' fees to campaign against the initiative started by the students themselves.

When asked about their unresponsiveness, council members defended themselves by asserting it was ridiculous that students be allowed input on issues of "internal management." In other words, the council is the council and should be able to do whatever it pleases.

A college report released two weeks ago, however, reached the opposite conclusion. The report recommended that a committee of students and faculty members work to revamp the council. The report proposed that house committees increase their involvement in council activities. Also, it suggested that non-council members be allowed more input in student-faculty committees which oversee aspects of the college ranging from the core curriculum to college life.

While these proposals would be good first steps, we need to do more. It is time to alter the council's charter on the Harvard campus. Given the council's blatant resistance to input from the very persons it supposedly represents, we need to approach the faculty and ask them to revoke the council's power to take students in any way less than one which is completely voluntary.

Instead of assuming that everyone is going to pore over the term bill to find the council refund box, the council should be required to enclose a cover letter with every term bill explaining their activities and requesting financial support. Students should be presented with the option of checking either a "yes" or "no" box. The council should receive the money only if the student checks the "yes" box. This measure would remove the underhandedness of the current process.

Furthermore, this truly voluntary method would enable us to gain an accurate understanding of how students value council activities. If students really benefit from the services the council provides, they will continue to support it.

Since the council funds several stud net organizations, council members sometimes argue that students do benefit from their fees even though they may not realize it. Students, however, could better target their donations to the organizations they wish to support by giving directly to the organizations themselves instead paying a council fee.

If students decide to express their dissatisfaction with the council by discontinuing their support, then the council will have to make do with less funding next year. Either way, the process will gain what it currently lacks: honesty.

George S. Wang '96 and Evan Pearce '96 are not running for the Undergraduate Council.

Allowing students the simple option of checking off a box on the term bill was just too simple for the council. Instead, our representatives voted to require all students to navigate through a maze of bureaucracies; the Undergraduate Council, the Term Will office, and the Dean of Students' office. In the words of Vice-President Joshua D. Liston '96, this circuitous refund process was designed solely to make it more difficult" for students to reclaim their dollars.

The final result, as one may have guessed, is that getting a refund has recently become virtually impossible. In fact; council contributions have been as "voluntary" as social security contributions.

After the council voted to increase the council fee and eliminate the option of getting refund on the term bill, students, decided that enough was enough. It was time to stop the madness. Anjalee Davis '96 and many other students across the campus organized a petition drive to hold a referendum on repealing these, and other, council votes.

At first, the council announced that it would indeed follow the mandates of its Constitution and hold a referendum if the petition gathered the requisite number of signatures.

But after over a thousand students signed the petition (almost double the number needed for a referendum), council President Carey Gabay 94 unilaterally ruled four out of five questions "out of order." Gabay did not seem to care about what students wanted. Over a thousand students had expressed their desire for reform by signing the petition, but Gaby insisted on using tricks to prevent a vote on must of the proposals.

Gabay's attempt to quash the referendum failed. Students created a new petition, which Gabay had no choice but to accept. But not without a fight.

Just as Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) had the audacity to use funds collected from the taxpaying citizens of his home state to wage a legal war he himself initiated against the majority of Washington citizens who had voted to install term limits, the council decided to use students' fees to campaign against the initiative started by the students themselves.

When asked about their unresponsiveness, council members defended themselves by asserting it was ridiculous that students be allowed input on issues of "internal management." In other words, the council is the council and should be able to do whatever it pleases.

A college report released two weeks ago, however, reached the opposite conclusion. The report recommended that a committee of students and faculty members work to revamp the council. The report proposed that house committees increase their involvement in council activities. Also, it suggested that non-council members be allowed more input in student-faculty committees which oversee aspects of the college ranging from the core curriculum to college life.

While these proposals would be good first steps, we need to do more. It is time to alter the council's charter on the Harvard campus. Given the council's blatant resistance to input from the very persons it supposedly represents, we need to approach the faculty and ask them to revoke the council's power to take students in any way less than one which is completely voluntary.

Instead of assuming that everyone is going to pore over the term bill to find the council refund box, the council should be required to enclose a cover letter with every term bill explaining their activities and requesting financial support. Students should be presented with the option of checking either a "yes" or "no" box. The council should receive the money only if the student checks the "yes" box. This measure would remove the underhandedness of the current process.

Furthermore, this truly voluntary method would enable us to gain an accurate understanding of how students value council activities. If students really benefit from the services the council provides, they will continue to support it.

Since the council funds several stud net organizations, council members sometimes argue that students do benefit from their fees even though they may not realize it. Students, however, could better target their donations to the organizations they wish to support by giving directly to the organizations themselves instead paying a council fee.

If students decide to express their dissatisfaction with the council by discontinuing their support, then the council will have to make do with less funding next year. Either way, the process will gain what it currently lacks: honesty.

George S. Wang '96 and Evan Pearce '96 are not running for the Undergraduate Council.

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