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What exactly do you do during all those marathon five-hour meetings?" I have been asked more than once as an Undergraduate Council representative. Or, "I think the Undergraduate Council is a waste of time. I mean, do you really think you have the power to change anything?"
As we all know, the Undergraduate Council has been long reputed to be an irrelevant institution in the lives of students. As a member of last year's council, I must agree and disagree. The council sponsored a number of fantastic events in the past year, but it also squandered time and credibility playing politics over issues that did not concern student life. The wasted efforts from last year eventually overshadowed the good things the council did accomplish. For the Undergraduate Council to be successful this fall, it needs to avoid politicking and to take actions relevant to the student body.
Readers of The Crimson often observe the many headlines announcing the council's passage of activist legislation, but very rarely do they see those ideas come to fruition. Is it because we are not looking around campus for results, or because The Crimson fails to report the success of these projects. Sometimes, the socially conscious projects that do ocomp aren't noticed, because most students don't care. Other times, the administration so obviously opposes the legislation that the council fights battles it cannot win.
For instance, the Undergraduate Council passed legislation last year requesting that University divest itself of assets in Shell Oil Company, legislation asking the College to officially replace the term "freshman" with the term "first-year," and legislation demanding Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 prevent Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from being commissioned in Harvard Yard during Commencement Week. And what came of all this toil? Absolutely nothing. The University still holds assets in Shell, we still have a "Freshman" Dean's Office, and ROTC students are still being commissioned in the Yard.
These three examples are the tip of the iceberg. I do not contest that these issues are not important to some people, nor do I believe that the council should not represent student issues to the administration. However, the interests represented should have a visible impact on the quality of student life. The Undergraduate Council should make tangible differences on campus that people can see--not actions that affect only those in countries thousands of miles away. The Shell Oil debacle attempted to help the oppressed workers of Nigeria, but ended up only squandering time the council could have used to plan a dance, or sponsor a comedy show. Much irrelevant legislation last year undermined the many positive accomplishments of the council and destroyed its legitimacy before the administration, the faculty and the student body.
But in the midst of the politicking and posturing for last spring's popular election, many unnoticed advancements occurred. The true leaders of the council worked to extend library hours, achieve better lighting in the Yard and maintain flexibility in the upper class house transfer policy. While these student leaders were often not mandated to act by "legislation" from the council, they were the ones who served the needs of the student body. Avoiding the politics of the council floor, they could often be found representing students' interests at various student-faculty committee meetings on athletics, the libraries and house life. They worked hard with faculty and administrators to do things in reality, not just on paper. They are students who do not desire publicity, who do not attend Faculty meetings to make political statements, who do not necessarily care about higher office; these students are the ones who truly care about helping undergraduates.
The council as a whole also undertook many projects that vastly improved student life; shuttle buses to the airport, SpringFest, the Gala Ball, the First-Year Formal, bus trips to Yale for The Game and thousands of dollars in grants to student organizations. These council services and events contributed tremendously to life at Harvard, but the council has the means to accomplish even more. With careful planning, there is no reason that Harvard cannot have more than one major concert a year, many casual dances in Loker Commons and other campus-wide events. And there is simply no excuse for not having the Gala Ball, a smashing success, on a semi-annual if not annual basis. With a little organization, the council could become an institution respected for its consistency and excellence, and maybe even gain the respect of students and faculty.
This is a new year, a new council and a new beginning. Harvard College has a superb first-year community in the Yard and 12 outstanding house communities, but it still lacks the warmth and unity of other universities. The council has the potential to fill that void, help unify our campus and create a college with an all-encompassing, inviting atmosphere.
This week, every undergraduate has had the opportunity to file a petition for office and become a candidate for the Undergraduate Council. The student body needs student leaders willing to make the commitment to serve students and their concerns; representatives with a vision to improve life at the College; and people eager to work with the administration to help make that vision a reality. We do not need any more politicians or social progressives on the Undergraduate Council; we need students who want to make Harvard a more enjoyable place. I urge those students who have the time and the desire to work hard to file for office today. More importantly, I encourage everyone to deliberate carefully and to vote for the best candidates in the weeks to come. It can make a difference.
Justin E. Porter '99 served in the finance and student life committees of the Undergraduate Council last year. He plans to run again this semester as a representative from Pforzheimer House.
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