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`Not the Kind of Money We Need': Popular UC Books Program Can't Save Council From Budget Shortfall

By Catherine E. Shoichet, Contributing Writer

The pet project of one Undergraduate Council representative is yielding dividends for a cash-strapped council, but it won't be enough to rescue the group from a chronic budget shortfall.

Since the Sept. 15 launch of the council's revamped 'UC Books' website, the page has received 5,819 unique hits and seen 843 users purchase books through the site.

Despite an effort to expand the number of course books featured through the site, council members estimate that the website may only yield $300 in commissions this semester--far too little to save the council from a painful belt-tightening.

Although the low yield may be attributed to the bankruptcy of council vendor, council members say easing a budget crunch was never UC Book's primary goal.

"Funding the [council] was never the intent of the program," says long-time council representative John Paul Rollert '00-'01. "If we make a little money on the side in commissions, that's great, but the number one goal of UC Books has always been to save students money."

Council members say the UC Books program is a supplement to--not a substitute for--their annual term bill revenue.

"It has the potential to make money, but not the kind of money we need," council President Fentrice D. Driskell '01 explains.

The site's creator agrees.

"I can't imagine it supplanting our term bill revenue," says Paul A. Gusmorino III '02, who helped develop the site and is chair of the council's Student Affairs Committee.

But the site's partnership with the Harvard Coop, some say, opens the possibility for the council's future interaction with corporate sponsors--a potentially profitable venture.

Humble Beginnings

Amidst a campus-wide online book-buying craze, UC Books debuted on an experimental small scale last April, featuring books from Core, government, economics, chemistry, math and computer science courses.

"Last spring, we had no idea where this thing was going," Gusmorino explains.

This fall, Gusmorino expanded the site's database dramatically to include books from 195 courses.

The site uses an algorithm created by Gusmorino to compare textbook prices at various online booksellers and help students locate the best deal.

The expansion in the number of courses made the site more attractive to the whole student body.

"We really covered a large segment of the total enrollment of students," Gusmorino says.

He says the council is exploring ways to increase UC Books' money making potential in the future.

"We're exploring opportunities to provide more services to students through UC Books that will also generate revenue," Gusmorino says. "The money that students are saving on books will go back into the Harvard community. That's kind of an indirect way of getting funding for student groups."

And the site's marketing potential is not limited to Harvard.

Several other universities have expressed interest in the UC Books' "computationally complex" algorithm, Gusmorino says--something which could serve as an "especially enticing" source of revenue for the council.

But the council's partnership with the Harvard Coop this year, which listed Coop prices as a benchmark, allowed students to compare book prices and gave the council a $750 donation to promote the alliance.

The partnership has opened the door to a previously unexplored avenue: corporate partnerships.

"When you can actually give some sort of tangible reason for people in the business community to support the Undergraduate Council, that's the greatest potential for fundraising," says former council Treasurer Sterling P.A. Darling '01 says.

Close relationships with the business world, however, also merit a degree of caution according to current council Treasurer Justin A. Barkley '02.

"Just like [the University] doesn't want students running businesses out of their dorm rooms, they don't like us making business relationships with organizations," he says.

Goals of Expansion

With the fall semester book-buying boom drawing to a close, council members are looking at ways to improve the service for the spring semester.

"We want to increase [UC Book's] versatility to allow you not only to purchase Harvard books, but any book," says Jared Morgenstern '03, a council member and computer science concentrator who is helping improve the site.

Gusmorino also hopes the site will become "a centralized course shopping tool" where students can access the CUE guide, course homepages and department pages through one interface.

Additional development of the UC Books program may also target professors.

"We're working to pursue administrative opportunities to institutionalize the reading list collection process," Gusmorino says.

Under the current system, professors must fill out a separate form each time they wish to make their reading list available at local bookstores and campus libraries. The Undergraduate Council hopes to streamline the process by creating a universal form.

And with the Undergraduate Council elections fast approaching, the development of the UC Books program may take on greater significance.

Gusmorino is expected to run for council president this year and many council members see his work with UC Books as a major selling point for his candidacy.

"It is arguably the most successful program I have seen the [council] carry out during my four years involved with the council," Rollert says.

"Paul is an amazing guy," Morgenstern says. "I think one of his major publicity things was UC Books. It's the biggest thing in terms of how many students it touched."

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