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The spring has been slow in coming this year, and April has felt more like November. Not only is the weather chilly, but the campus is beset with a flurry of campaigning. Next week, a historic first: the student body will elect the president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council.
When the student government was created a few decades ago, some argued that it should not exist at all. Many, most notable among them Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, felt that more money should flow to the house committees. These opponents believed that Harvard needed to revive house life rather than pump funds into an artificially-created central government.
By now, the council has become a reality of life at Harvard and an organization that is here to stay. Fortunately, under President Robert M. Hyman '98, the council has moved beyond its scandal-ridden past and become more relevant to students and their concerns. Next week's elections are a critical step in giving the council legitimacy as a student voice. Until we have a popularly-elected president, we can hardly claim the council as our legitimate government.
What kind of government do we want and who should lead it? The battle lines have been drawn. The 11 candidates for president have plastered the campus and covered chalkboards with their names and slogans. But behind all the hype, a real battle for the soul of the council rages on. As one candidate for vice president has posed the problem, should the council focus on student services or political activism?
The answer is that such a dichotomy is untenable. The council's function is to represent students, nothing more, nothing less. That means fighting for longer library hours, sponsoring shuttle buses and purchasing change machines. But equally important is making sure that the University doesn't contract with human rights violators and that students have real power regarding administration decisions that affect them. How do you achieve the proper balance? Here are a few suggestions:
Don't waste time on the Gala Ball. The council should not focus most of its energy, as some suggest, on social programs. Annual events like Springfest are great if they don't devour all of the council's time. But the council must be more than a glorified dance committee. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if the council's trend towards increasing legitimacy and relevance was halted in favor of more concerts and formals.
Fight for student input. It is outrageous how many decisions get made at Harvard without even token student consultation. For instance, no student sits on the committee that chooses the Commencement speaker. Students have few opportunities for formal involvement in University decisions. The Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility is one of the few important committees that has a permanent undergraduate seat. We cannot be a part of the process of running this University unless we are formally included.
Keep up those grants. The more students see the council as a resource for their interests, the more powerful it will become. Council grants for student projects keep this campus interesting. We should strengthen and empower students through existing interests. The council will fail if it becomes another competing extracurricular activity.
Don't underestimate your importance. Hyman told me that as the council raised issues of student aid and voter registration this winter, he was contacted by the White House. They were interested in working with Harvard students on these issues. A day in the life of the president of the council might well include phone calls from Time magazine, Harvard administrators and concerned off-campus activists. In short, council executives are very important people. If they talk sense, people will listen. Though the council may spend a majority of its time fighting for wrist pads and computers, its raison d'etre is its unique ability to represent students on all issues. We need services, but we need a voice at Harvard and beyond. Hats off to the candidate with that philosophy. He or she will most definitely get my vote.
Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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