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Students Should Be Heard



In the 12 December issue ("Students Should Shut Up", column, Dec, 12, 1995), you ran a column which said that students should remain silent on Harvard administrative matters, because 1)Harvard students are not mature enough to make such decisions and 2)Harvard is not a democracy.

I disagree in part with these premises. Harvard students must handle the responsibilities of paying for their educations; the loans that must be handled are about as complex as those for other types of loans, and the responsibilities are nearly the same. In any college, the maturity needed to handle the course work and to succeed belies the lack of maturity assumed by an "in loco parentis" policy.

Not all policy decisions at Harvard between the school and students are antagonistic. Students are not ignorant of the political requirements for Harvard policy, and Harvard is not ignorant of students' needs. However, in the cases of policies where the positions of students and the administration of Harvard are orthogonal, and where there seems to be no rationale for the differences between policies, such as the yearly schedule and dormitory randomization, Harvard has a tendency to ignore opposing views. Harvard is not a democracy. While it is unpalatable that students have very little say in the constraints of an undergraduate education which will likely cost between $5,000 and $27,000 per year, it is how things are.

Harvard has the ability to neglect student opinions because of three factors. Students coming to Harvard made their choices for many reasons, the dominant being the opportunities offered by Harvard. Harvard's attention to student input is not relevant to most incoming students, and information on it may be hard to gather. College choice is apt to be "sticky": transfers are available only in the first and second year of college, and are hard to manage. Thus college choices tend to be irreversible, and the competition between schools is not expected to behave as a free market after the senior year of high school. Finally, much of Harvard's funding comes from indirect costs on research grants by the federal government; the primary criterion for such funding is the effectiveness of research, not the responsiveness of a school to the opinions of its undergraduates.

However, students input should be relevant to public service at Harvard. Harvard may engage in public service for altruistic reasons. It may also conduct public service to gain legitimacy in the community. Such legitimacy gives Harvard more room to negotiate settlements with the community in matters where Harvard and the community disagree. In order for one to be a legitimate member of the community, one has certain responsibilities. For Harvard, these responsibilities involve primarily its public service programs.

While Harvard administrators facilitate the connections between the student servers and the community, they cannot perform the actual services. Harvard may pay people to participate in public service, but in the case of Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), that is not done (people are paid to facilitate and organize public service). Without student labor, community service on Harvard's behalf would almost completely cease. Without Harvard's facilitation, public service would carry on in a less effective form, but would remain intact.

Since Harvard's legitimacy in the community depends upon the existence of Harvard-sponsored public service, and since student labor is a precondition for the existence of such service, Harvard has a responsibility to give a substantive voice to students and organizations involved in public service.

Now, it does not appear as if those responsible for public service at Harvard (Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 and others) intend to give student and organizations in public service a substantive voice. The rationale both for PBHA's rejections of Assistant Dean for Public Service Judith H. Kidd and the reasons for Harvard hiring her are unclear; thus it remains unclear what the differences between Harvard and PBHA are, and whether the differences are tractable.

There are a few options open to the Harvard community to advance a voice in public service. Discussions with the Harvard administrators responsible may help although precedents do not appear favorable. Other possibilities exist for changing the system for public service decisions. Volunteering outside of Harvard may be on alternative; this action would deprive Harvard of the legitimacy gained by its sponsorship of public service. Such an action might also make public service less effective, and might hurt the intended recipients of services. In addition, the variety of volunteer services and the scope of such activities would likely increase.

Asking Harvard alumni to withhold donations is another possible response. If legitimacy in the larger community is not seen by Harvard as valuable, then the withholding of donations by alumni might be a more effective response.

Widespread publicity of Harvard's actions in media with a national scope, such as newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post and the LA Times) and television might be effective, both by influencing alumni and by making Harvard's need for external legitimacy more acute. The willingness of alumni to act on PBHA's behalf is uncertain. There may also be other actions that would be effective in giving involved students partial power in public service decisions.

Harvard's facilitation of public service through its reputation gives it rights in determining the direction in which it needs to move to gain legitimacy and rights in protecting its reputation. However, since students are the primary donors of public service, they may have insight into how public service might be carried out effectively, and may have direct understanding of how their actions affect Harvard's legitimacy as a member of the larger community. By virtue of their knowledge and their labor, students are owed a substantive voice in the determination of public service policy. --Robert Bird   The writer is a Research Assistant in Chemistry.

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