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What the PUCC!?


The spring concert has become almost a rite of passage for the Undergraduate Council.

So when PepsiCo made a $15,000 grant to Harvard that ultimately found its way into the council's coffers, many traditionalists wanted to use it to throw the annual campuswide party. But the would-be concert organizers faced one large obstacle: the ever-growing council contingent that is more concerned with social issues than social events.

Members of the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition, or PUCC, have led a large bloc of delegates that is wary of accepting money from PepsiCo, whose overseas investments support a military government in Burma.

The battle has been bitter.

Different committees have used parliamentary maneuvers to chip away at each other's autonomy and power. Council members have fiercely defended their positions in a heated e-mail debate. Weeks of reversals and delay have still failed to produce a decision.

And some council members question how much all this wrangling is really helping students.

The Pepsi debate is something of a microcosm for PUCC's first year of existence on the council.

For the last seven months, the new coalition of socially conscious council members has brought a renewed energy and vigor to the council. In its first semester, the council passed 59 resolutions, the most in any of its previous 27 semesters, and most council members acknowledge that PUCC has played a significant role in this legislative spree.

But other council members say that PUCC's influence has been decidedly negative. They charge that the group's singleminded pursuit of its agenda has divided the council, adding that PUCC's progressive stances have caused the council to lose sight of its primary purpose: making life better for Harvard undergraduates.

And Then There Was PUCC

PUCC's rise in the council was rapid and sudden. The coalition was formed last spring by a group consisting largely of Perspective editors. The group was inspired by a guest commentary in that publication which urged undergraduates to take make the council a locus of student activism.

At the time, PUCC leaders said that the goals of the organization included activism and advocacy of student interests.

"What we have in mind is not a strictly partisan form of activism by any means," PUCC organizer Jedediah S. Purdy '97 told The Crimson last April. "This is certainly not a national leftist agenda. The sort of activism we have in mind is advocacy of student interests.

Garance Franke-Ruta '96, a former council member who helped organize PUCC, says today that the coalition wanted to change not only the council's focus but its culture.

"We needed to be more outspoken, stand up more strongly against a sort of conservative hegemony in the political forum," Franke-Ruta says.

Another PUCC organizer, Julie C. Suk '97, says that the group wanted to facilitate information exchange on campus.

"We wanted to create a dialogue, not just of progressives, but really of the entire campus," Suk says.

At the time, PUCC was received enthusiastically by the council leadership.

"This sounds fantastic," then-Vice President Justin C. Label '97 told The Crimson last April. "It's exactly the kind of thing that is needed to combat the apathy which keeps us from performing to full potential."

In the fall, PUCC began postering the campus for the fall elections, encouraging people to run under its program of increased representation of women and minorities, human-rights issues and council reform.

Although PUCC's election rate was about 10 percent lower than that non-PUCC candidates, the coalition still managed to land 32 seats on the council. And in October's officer elections, PUCC members Lamelle D. Rawlins '99 and Edward B. Smith III '97 were elected secretary and treasurer, respectively.

Effectiveness and Relevance

This fall's council produced the most legislation of any session in history. But PUCC's role in this productivity burst is unclear.

Council President Robert M. Hyman '98-'97 praises PUCC's role in fighting for change, and credits the organization with facilitating a revival of the council.

"I think PUCC has had an extremely beneficial effect as a catalyst for change," Hyman says. "It's part of the rebirth of the council, a result of many dynamic students' work."

And students are beginning to feel the impact of PUCC on the council, says Tobias B. Kasper '97, one of PUCC's leaders on the council.

Kasper mentions the council's support for Phillips Brooks House, ethnic studies courses, anonymous HIV testing at University Health Services and popular election of council officers.

Other PUCC members mention the council's work fighting against federal cuts to student financial aid.

"I think people recognize that a lot of it is due to PUCC," Kasper says. PUCC members applaud themselves for becoming wholeheartedly engaged in the council's business. Indeed, PUCC members were awarded a disproportionate number of awards for perfect attendance last semester, according to Franke-Ruta.

But other council members say they believe that PUCC cannot take all the credit for the council's successes.

"I don't think they've imparted a change on campus," says council member Wesley B. Gilchrist '98, who ran unsuccessfully for council president last month. "It would have happened anyway."

"A lot of people are giving PUCC credit for things they weren't responsible for," he adds.

As examples, Gilchrist cites the Pepsi debate, as well as a council resolution condemning Harvard's investments in Shell Oil. The council objected to the Shell holdings because the corporation's investments support a Nigerian government which has committed numerous human rights abuses.

Gilchrist says those resolutions were more the result of the individual initiative of Student Affairs Chair Marco B. Simons '97, who is a PUCC member.

"I don't think he needed PUCC behind him," Gilchrist says.

Either way, some council members say that PUCC is wasting time debating issues that the student government should not tackle.

"The council is not better in terms of addressing student needs," says council member Elizabeth A. Haynes '98. "When we leave a meeting, we haven't left people who live on this campus any better in terms of their daily lives."

Other council members agree.

"PUCC is the worst thing to happen to the council since the invention of the wheel," says council member Christopher R. McFadden '97, who is a Crimson executive. "It takes the focus away from Harvard students and to more broad issues that don't directly affect students."

Some students unaffiliated with the council agree that PUCC's goal of "relevance" has not yet been achieved.

Most students interviewed say they have not heard of PUCC. And those that do have an opinion say any strides PUCC has made have had little impact on student life.

"It seems like they send a lot of letters to the deans, which I don't know if they have any effect at all," says student Joel J. Radtke '96.

"I don't know if it's wise to run a college like a democracy; they're deluding themselves to think that."

Minority and Female Representation

One of PUCC's goals last fall was to involve more women and minorities on the council. It is still unclear, however, whether any progress was made as a result of PUCC.

The council tackled a number of safety issues this fall, subsidizing the Rape Aggression Defense program (RAD), "Model Mugging" and helping to form HASTE, the Harvard Alliance for Safety Training and Education.

Those measures were achieved by the work of many PUCC members, according to Franke-Ruta.

PUCC's role in the formation of HASTE was particularly remarkable, she says.

"I don't know when the last time the U.C. spawned a new organization was," she says.

Franke-Ruta says the relevance of these safety resolutions to students was demonstrated by the alleged attempted rape of a student on Tuesday night.

"It shows the necessity for the University and for students to pay more attention to safety issues," she says.

Several legislative measures on gender-neutrality have also gone through the council recently.

At the second session of this semester, amendments implementing gender-neutral language in the council's constitution and in official council documents were passed.

And last week, the council passed a resolution calling on the University to change "freshman" to "first-year" in official University use.

But Rawlins, the PUCC member who sponsored all the resolutions, says the council still has a long way to go before women are treated as equal partners.

She condemns the "general ugliness" she says characterized the debate on gender neutrality, an issue she views as a "seemingly simple tool" to make women more comfortable on the council.

And some sources close to PUCC admit that the coalition does not itself reflect the equality it strives to attain for the council.

"I don't feel that most of the men on PUCC are as concerned about equality as they say," says Suk, a PUCC founder who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the council.

She says that most of PUCC's founders were men, and that these men tended to dominate the organization.

"At the time, I sent out e-mail to everyone trying to get more women involved," Suk says. "How could we say we were going to reform the council, if we were that way ourselves?"

Suk says that a major failure of PUCC was that the organization did not succeed in recruiting a lot of women.

Rawlins says that women's roles are a bit confused at this point.

"I am feeling that more and more women are speaking out, but more women are also resigning," says Rawlins. "We need to monitor the situation in the coming semester."

One of PUCC's other major goals was to increase the representation of ethnic minorities on the council.

"It's harder to tell what the next step should be [in improving minority issues]," Kasper says. "We need to be able to address specific concerns, to show that the U.C. can work for them."

Kasper says one area the council could work on is getting more ethnic studies classes into the curriculum.

But he acknowledges that PUCC has not made substantive strides in this area.

All for One and One for All?

Many council members, both members and non-members of PUCC, have criticized the factionalism and infighting they see on the council this year.

The council has lost a sense of community this year, says Gilchrist. Last year, the council had a greater degree of cooperation between its two largest committees, Campus Life and Student Affairs.

"There's a definite lack of community on the council," Gilchrist says. "When it came time to help out with Campus Life, everyone was willing to pitch in. I haven't seen that this year."

Gilchrist also says that the formation of PUCC has led to the escalation of ideological conflicts, divided between PUCC members and the "old guard."

"Last year, you could have conflict with an individual on a one-to-one basis," says Gilchrist. "Now in these conflicts, you feel like you've engaged them all."

Rawlins says that those members who are not affiliated with PUCC are equally at fault for the hostile atmosphere. And she says that only a handful of council members are responsible for the acrimony.

Hyman, however, contends that factionalism has clearly not hurt the council's productivity.

"In the end, the statistics of how much the council has done this year, I think, says the most about factionalism on the council," Hyman says.

Differing Visions

Much of the conflict appears to stem from differing visions of what student government at Harvard should attempt to accomplish, Kasper says.

Indeed, Haynes says that PUCC's aggressive pursuit of its progressive agenda on the Student Affairs Committee (SAC) prompted her to resign as chair and switch to the Campus Life Committee.

"Student Affairs issues are still the things I love most about the council," Haynes says. "But my vision of what SAC should work on was not the vision of the majority of the committee."

She cites academic and student life issues such as calendar reform, move-in and move-out times, Core reform and teaching fellow regulations as measures she would like SAC to work on, rather than on ethical issues.

Indeed, PUCC's stands on divestment are fruitless, according to Label.

"I don't think it should be avoided, but you're probably not going to have a lot of say in what the University does," says the former vice president, who resigned from the council because the council was not tackling academic issues. "Whatever you're going to pass is going to be completely symbolic."

The bulk of human rights work should be left to groups on campus specifically dedicated to those causes, such as Amnesty International, Haynes agrees.

On the flip side, several PUCC members feel that Campus Life Committee issues could also be better addressed by other organizations.

"I can fairly say that most PUCC members are not opposed to Campus Life issues, per se, but most of us don't want to spend all our time debating them," says Kasper.

And Simons says the increase in progressive issues has only expanded the council's role on campus.

Kasper says that the council has an obligation to educate and inform students.

"The council has to take a moral stand," he says. "The campus is seriously lacking in moral leadership."

"Some very vocal percentage of non-PUCC people think we should be only concerned with what goes on in the Yard," he adds. "But there is a role for active student government concerned by university business practices."

The Future

PUCC does not have a concrete agenda for this spring, Kasper says, but will continue to work on initiatives it began in the fall while monitoring other issues on campus.

PUCC will probably not officially sponsor candidates in next month's first-ever College-wide election of the council president and vice president, Kasper says.

All council members say they would like to see a solution to the some of the tensions within the council.

It is essential that council members bridge this gap for the image of the council and the relevance to the students, Gilchrist said.

"When people look at us, we're not two different groups under the same roof, we're one group, under one roof," said Gilchrist.

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