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"We, the undergraduates of Harvard and Radcliffe colleges, are an important part of the University community, and are therefore entitled to an active role in deciding its policies and priorities."
--Preamble to the Constitution of the Harvard/Radcliffe Undergraduate Council
Okay, I'll admit it. Not only was I on the Undergraduate Council last year, but I also spent half my summer interning in Congress--all the while making the inevitable comparisons between the two institutions.
On Capitol Hill, correspondence with constituents often thousands of miles away is continuous and serious. Scores of letters, phone calls, faxes and e-mail messages land in each office each day.
This summer, my representative, Charles E. Schumer '71, was briefed on the amount of correspondence for and against every major issue and read dozens of letters each week. On many key issues, the constituents had the final say. On the Defense of Marriage Act, for example, the socially liberal Schumer waited to examine the tally of constituent calls before finally deciding to vote yes.
Here at Harvard, most of the contact Undergraduate Council representatives have with their constituents, who live only steps away, ends on election day. Most representatives vote and choose issues to work on according to their personal beliefs and interests--or their personal conceptions about what Harvard students think and want. Few reps, including myself, got a good handle on their constituents views about grant money distribution, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) policy or whether last fall's Gala Ball was a great success or a collossal failure.
Last September, I went door-to-door for several days, campaigning and finding out what issues residents of Straus, Matthews and Massachusetts Halls cared about. Since many of them were concerned about randomization--and although I personally was undecided on its merit--I worked in the fall term discussing protests and petitions against randomization, and I tried to arrange an information session with Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 on the topic.
As the year went on, however, and despite a weekly e-mail update I sent to 75 of my constituents, I gradually lost touch. No one showed up at my office hours, and so I stopped holding them. No one replied to my e-mails (except those that regarded band selection for Springfest), so I stopped expecting any feedback. No more than two or three students showed up to observe council meetings over the entire year, and so I stopped thinking that we had an audience any bigger than the council itself.
Some contend that the Undergraduate Council is not legitimate because not enough students run in elections, or because not enough students vote. I disagree. The council is not legitimate because it has not really represented Harvard students. A democratic election is merely the first step to ensure that representatives share the same goals as their constituents. If the link between representative and constituent is weak, however, the council degenerates into an elected club, not a representative government.
Yes, council reps must be held accountable for not spending enough time talking to students in dining halls and in dormitories. But in any kind of democracy, the ultimate responsibility for effective government is held by the people. It is up to each and every Harvard student, not up to Robert M. Hyman '98 or Dean Lewis, to make the council more representative and to make Harvard a better place.
Why is any of this important? For two reasons: money and voice. Aside from fundraising, most if not all of the money used by Harvard organizations this semester will come from the Undergraduate Council. The council gets the money directly from us, the students, through the $20 fee attached to our term bills. All too often, however, council reps act as though they are working with play money, that can be carelessly thrown at concert promoters or at poorly-planned social events. Let's seek the greatest possible financial accountability with our own funds.
And there are important funding issues to be decided. Should the council decide to play Ticketmaster and bring big-name bands to the Bright Hockey Center at the cost of decreasing the funding levels of student groups? I think the answer is no. Last year, the council was split on this issue. Each of us had an opinion, and we didn't really know what the student body thought.
But in the end, the Undergraduate Council holds something even more important than my money, because the right to claim the dollars represents my voice. Whenever it issues a proclamation or sponsors a rally, the council carries the voices of the Harvard-Radcliffe student body along with it. Many people and many institutions--from committees at this University to governments around the world--consider the council's word representative of the word of Harvard students generally. So long as this the case, I have a principled stake in ensuring that the council actually does represent me.
Last Year, without consulting any of my constituents on the issue, I voted to condemn the administration for violating its non-discrimination policy by allowing ROTC to hold its annual commissioning ceremony in Harvard Yard. I thought moving ROTC ceremonies off campus to respect the rights of gay and lesbian graduates was more important than the symbolic value of being commissioned within the Yard. What do you think?
Although I am not running for an Undergraduate Council seat this semester, I hardly expect my involvement in student government to cease. If it did, I would not consider myself a good enough member of this community. My representatives will claim to vote in my interest week after week this year. If they do, I want to let them know and commend them for it. If, instead, they vote to allocate thousands of dollars to a concert while doing nothing to get the Malkin Athletic Complex renovated or to get 24-hour, universal card-key access, they're going to hear it from me.
The fact is, according to Article IV, Section 1, of the council's constitution, any undergraduate may do everything a representative does in any Sunday council meeting except vote and make motions. That means that not only can I show up Sunday nights to hear how my reps claim to be representing me, but I can speak for myself, for the record, as well. I can remind the council myself that the advising system needs serious attention and that Karaoke Night in Loker Commons last year was not worth the money.
This is no time to be silent or to whine in private and in vain. While administrators randomize the houses and ignore student input in the selection of deans, we cannot sit idle and let the Undergraduate Council remain impotent. We must not only elect leaders who care about students' rights; we must also demand those rights ourselves by keeping in touch with our representatives, by observing or participating at least a few meetings per year, by remaining informed about campus issues and by pressuring the administration directly through letters and phone calls.
Last year the council turned a corner toward this legitimacy with open popular elections, democratic internal reforms and resolutions addressing weighty issues such as divestment, gender equality and financial aid.
But with inadequate backing from the student body, having the right agenda does no good. So take some responsibility, folks. Listen to the campaigners this week, but listen even more carefully starting next week. That's when the real fight begins: the fight to make Harvard a better place. Only with our attention and our energy can the Undergraduate Council do any real good.
Geoffrey C. Upton '99 was an Undergraduate Council representative for the Southwest Yard district last year.
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