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They were responsible for fly-by lunches, Winter break shuttles, and the First-year Formal. They made headlines with debates over divestment and scandals during elections. They alternately satisfied and antagonized the student body.
This year's Undergraduate Council dealt in polarities, swinging from 30-minute meetings over fro-yo to passionate debates about gay rights in the space of two short semesters.
The council was off to a rocky start in September, as President Beth A. Stewart '00 and Vice President Samuel C. Cohen '00 began the second half of their term. Elections for representatives were nullified when uc-vote, the computer program that facilitates elections, broke down for several hours.
The elections were held again a week later, but the delay had taken its toll--only 18 percent of students took the trouble to vote.
With newly elected council members settling into their seats in Sever 113, Stewart dropped the bombshell that would trouble the council for the rest of the year. Stewart and Council Treasurer John A. Burton '01 announced that an account containing $40,000 of forgotten council money had been discovered over the summer.
The money, a surplus that added up to more than a third of the council's budget, consisted of the annual $20 term bill fees collected from students. The budget surplus was eventually allocated in the spring, with $25,000 pledged toward the construction of a student center and the remainder used to set up a fund for student group grants and to purchase a new sound system.
Throughout their term, Stewart and Cohen stayed true to their campaign promise to focus on student services, concentrating on issues like fly-by lunches, universal keycard access and cable in the dorms. But Stewart's sometimes militantly narrow focus cost her some supporters.
In response to a Crimson editorial calling for the council to consider a broader scope of issues, Stewart sent a letter published on September 30.
"You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at Crimson editorial meetings, you want me at that podium, you need me at that podium," she wrote. "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a staff that rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very services I provide, and then questions the fact that I provide them."
But when Stewart ceded her gavel, even she admitted that perhaps the council had taken too narrow a view during her term. She endorsed Seton and Redmond for office, complimenting their larger view of what "student services" include.
Only one bill presented this fall even hinted at real politics--the Hate Crimes Condemnation and Prevention Act, written in reaction to the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard. The legislation, which passed almost unanimously, was a harbinger of things to come.
Finding New Leadership
Presidential elections in December were marked not by computer problems, but scandal--a member of the Election Commission, a group that oversees council elections, resigned.
Margaret L. White '99 left her position on the commission after an e-mail she sent to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship was made public. The message asked students to keep presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls T. Christopher King '01 and Fentrice D. Driskell '01 in their prayers.
King and Driskell renounced any connection to religious groups beyond their personal membership. Their platform calling for increased "community," they said, did not necessarily call for an increased presence of religion on campus. The incident attracted attention from national media to Harvard's highly competitive student body presidential race.
The race for council leadership hosted a large field that included council veterans like Burton and Driskell, as well as novices with no council experience. Noah Z. Seton '00 and Kamil E. Redmond '00 banded together in a surprisng ticket--in past political debates the two had overwhelmingly supported opposite viewpoints. Seton, a former Republican Club president and one of the minds behind fly-by, had been following Stewart's service-oriented lead. Redmond, a self-described "loud progressive," often brought political issues to the council floor.
When Seton and Redmond walked away with the election, many questioned whether they could keep their campaign promises and focus on an "enlarged view" of student services and avoid political conflict.
An Identity Crisis
But as Seton took the presidential podium, it seemed that every council meeting became a tug-of-war between political activism and providing student services--and it was doubtful that the two at the helm had anything to say about it.
A typical week would see bills endorsing the Living Wage Campaign and improved privacy on the Harvard network on one hand, or a proposal to research new designs for the Harvard College Web page and a declaration that students have free speech rights in public arenas on the other.
As a result, debates inevitably turned away from the issues and towards arguments over "the role of the council."
During the debate of the Living Wage Campaign bill, Bradley L. Davis '00 said the issue "does not belong in this body whose purpose is to represent student concerns.... It is not proper for this body to consider questions of justice."
"I think the U.C. sometimes just has to come down to planet Earth," responded Chad A. Wathington '00. "If this is something students care about, this is something we should care about."
The progressivism versus practicality debates not only split the council, but caused some tension between the captain and his lieutenant.
Seton and Redmond's working relationship seemed to be in flux constantly, swinging from a unified front during elections to obvious fractures over political bills--some sponsored by Redmond herself.
"Is the role of the council to deal with fro-yo in Annenberg, or China? With Burma or a student center?" she said at one meeting. "I think the council can do both."
But Seton felt the council could do best by focusing on student services.
"I think we'd serve the students better by...lobbying on specific issues that affect the Harvard life of Harvard students," he wrote in an e-mail message in March.
At the last meeting of the semester, Seton and Redmond both said they had reconciled their differences and their partnership had proved effective.
"It hasn't been the smoothest transition, but I think many of the concerns Noah and I raised and still raise got played out in the forum of the U.C.," Redmond said.
While this past semester's council did not succeed in changing life at Harvard, it hosted several events that will probably set a precedent for future years. In particular, this year's Springfest drew crowds to the Mac Quad for an entire Saturday afternoon while the Violent Femmes jammed, and council members and their constituents bounced down a three-story "Titanic" slide.
It remains to be seen what issues will come to the council floor in September. The student center push, led by Cohen, may again gain momentum and council projects like lowering book prices and investigating advising will likely continue. Political issues will undoubtedly make their way onto the docket as well. Next year's tenor, though, could be swayed by anything from the council membership to world events.
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