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Raise the Council Fee

By Harry R. Lewis

Should the $20 Undergraduate Council fee be increased so it can return more money to the support of student groups? I have been on the fence about this question for more than a year, but I have concluded that the answer is yes. I'm not sure exactly how large the increase should be, and I'd like to find a less cumbersome process for changing it in the future, but those are details. The fee should go up. To explain the dilemma about this and why I have come out as I have, I need to give some background.

First, for this discussion I am concerned only about the part of the fee that gets returned to student groups, rather than used for council operations, social affairs and so on. I don't have a view at present as to whether the amount being used for those other ends is right or not.

The $20 fee was set in 1988, and there have been both inflation and an increase in the number of student groups since then, so there is no question that the present fee is not adequate to meet the same needs it met 11 years ago. Nor is there any question in my mind that the money returned to student groups is (for the most part) well spent and broadly advantageous to the student community. The question is not whether more money should be spent, but how much, and where it should come from.

On this score I have been of two minds. On the one hand, I hate to see an extra $20 fee on the bottom of a term bill already in the tens of thousands of dollars. Over the years we've dropped most of the "a la carte" items of a Harvard education and other differences among student term bills (there used to be a lot of special charges for taking certain courses, for example). We've actually eliminated several small charges over the past five years by folding them into the general costs of going to college here. It seems petty and annoying to see this one charge still broken out; the person paying it (typically a parent) might reasonably say, "For heavens' sake, just tell me what it costs to go to Harvard and stop the nickling and diming."

It's not true that this fee constitutes the only source of support for student groups. There are grant programs from many sources within Harvard--through the Office for the Arts, through the Harvard Foundation, through the President's Public Service Fund, through the Student Activities Fund administered by Dean Illingworth and, starting next year when the separate RUS fee disappears, through the Ann Radcliffe Trust. There are also salaries and expenses for undergraduate activities that are paid directly by the College. Why shouldn't the College just take over the whole job of funding student groups?

For two main reasons: student autonomy and student control. On the one hand, students can choose not to pay the council fee, and they can, through exercise of that option, voice any discontent they may feel about the way those funds are distributed. On the other hand, with the freedom to opt out of paying the fee at all comes the freedom of the student body, through its elected representatives, to control how the funds are to be spent. Several of the other processes I have mentioned include significant student input, but ultimately are under institutional control and oversight in a way that the council fee is not. It was, in fact, one of the victories of my generation of students to be able to be able to control some of the allocation of its own money; now that my generation is in charge, today's students should not cede this freedom back to the University administration! Of course, it goes without saying that the University will not simply hand over money to the council to distribute as it wishes, giving students no choice as to whether to buy into this process and the University no right to oversee it. No student should want things to work that way either.

Against this line of reasoning comes the argument that Harvard is arbitrarily rich and should pay out more without charging students more. This is not the place for an extended analysis of how Harvard prioritizes various current needs and its obligation to pass a healthy institution along to future generations. I would only note here that as to direct expenditures on behalf of students, financial aid--which is money directly into the pockets of many of our students--has in recent years been the number one priority. A bit more than a year ago the financial aid budget was increased by $9 million per year, including not just the new students but all currently enrolled financial aid students as well; though there were other worthy student needs to be considered, I am certain this was the right way to spend this large sum of money. This allocation supports the basic financial balance: Harvard provides the core education, curricular and extracurricular; Harvard also provides a generous and uniform level of financial aid support, based solely on financial need but enabling different students to direct their expenditures and savings differently; and we put on the term bill a separate, optional fee which the elected student government will use to fund student groups, in addition to the support we already provide student groups through other channels. There are other ways to do things, but it's not obvious to me that any are, all things considered, superior to the present system.

Harry R. Lewis '68 is the dean of Harvard College.

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