Thirty Years at the Institute

Tomorrow the Student Advisory Committee (SAC) of the Institute of Politics (IOP) will cease to exist. This follows the decision of Sen. David M. Pryor, director of the Institute, to dissolve the current governing structure in the hopes of forming a new, more open body--an admirable move. SAC had long wrestled with the problematic nature of its structure and, like many students, I am pleased by Pryor's move to address them.

Unfortunately, some students used this occasion to exaggerate the disadvantages inherent in the structure of SAC, the body that for over three decades has led student involvement at the IOP. These students made several inaccurate claims about the power and privileges of its members and the process by which it selected them. I hope to clarify these misperceptions about SAC to inform the discussions about future student involvement at the IOP.

Perhaps the most common misconception is that SAC members monopolized decisions about which topics the IOP addressed and what types of programs it offered. In fact, decisions about IOP programming were made not by SAC but by the IOP's eight program committees, whose widely announced weekly meetings were open to all undergraduates. SAC members ideas about IOP programming received no preference; like all students at Harvard, they had to argue their ideas before a committee of their peers.

The focus of SAC's discussions during the past two years was not programming but rather how to make the IOP more inclusive and better distribute its resources to all students. To achieve these goals, SAC voted to dramatically reduce its role at the IOP by halving its own size. It also created a merit-based intermediate level of involvement, the Senior Associate Program, which recognized the leadership non-SAC students provided the Institute. This semester, as this new structure matured, it was these non-SAC members who possessed the most significant responsibilities the IOP offered. A non-SAC student led a study group, and others selected fellows, designed forums and planned conferences. The perception that SAC members monopolized leadership roles at the IOP is simply false.

SAC also formed an outreach task force that surveyed undergraduates for their ideas and invited all student leaders to discuss how the IOP could better serve their organizations. This semester, more than 60 student organizations took advantage of this opportunity. Because of these efforts, our events are more directly correlated to student interests, and attendance at all IOP events has been higher this semester than it was in the past. This is a clear sign SAC's efforts were successful in helping to execute the mission of the Institute.


Another common misperception is that SAC members received special privileges. Although some members of SAC devoted more than 60 hours a week to projects at the IOP, they received no perquisites that were unavailable to other Harvard students. As the student who administered lotteries for IOP events, I can say authoritatively that lotteries operate randomly with one exception: They first selected students who have never attended IOP events. Additionally, the bylaws of SAC prevented its members from participating in some of the IOP's most lucrative programs. As a SAC member, I could not receive an IOP-sponsored internship, internship stipend or work-study job at the IOP. By cutting ourselves out of the only program on campus which provides funds for political internships, SAC members, many of whom spent their summers working unpaid internships, incurred a great financial burden.

Finally, SAC was unfairly criticized for the process by which it selected its new members. Like many Harvard student organizations, SAC admitted new members through an application process rather than elections. All applicants wrote essays and were interviewed by a selection committee that evaluated them with an objective point-based system which considered both their personal merit and larger concerns of diversity and fair representation of gender, race, ideology and interest as well. Like any selection process, especially at Harvard, many qualified applicants were not accepted. These students were understandably disappointed with the outcome of the process, and some advocated for elections as an alternative to the application process.

Within SAC, we frequently debated the competing advantages of elections and applications. SAC consistently voted against elections because it feared they would create an atmosphere in which students became more interested in promoting themselves than the mission of the IOP. We also feared that elections would not ensure fair representation. The leadership of Harvard student organizations has long failed to reflect the diversity of the student body. At a bi-partisan institute dedicated to involving all undergraduates in politics and public service, we felt strongly that SAC should remain mindful of its composition.

With SAC now a part of the IOP's long and distinguished history, the current restructuring of student involvement at the institute provides all Harvard students with an opportunity to evaluate these issues as part of a discussion of how best to distribute the IOPs resources. Given this exciting opportunity, more than 50 students met two weeks ago in an open forum to discuss their ideal IOP. A proposal for a new structure emerged from this meeting. This proposal advocates democratic elections and the maintenance of a form of student leadership. Although the group is excited that elections may produce direct representation and strengthen the IOP community, it agreed that IOP students will need to be especially careful to ensure elections focus on candidates merit and not political skills. I am hopeful and confident that this proposal for the interim student leadership of the IOP, if realized, will produce a system that improves student involvement while taking into account the concerns SAC held during its tenure.

On this final day of SAC, I wish to say that the body, despite its flaws, made valuable contributions to the institute. In the years I served, every student worked tirelessly to fulfill the IOP's mission of inspiring more undergraduates into careers in politics and public service. Although SAC may no longer exist, its contributions to the IOP certainly will.

Robert F. McCarthy '02 is a government concentrator in Mather House. He became a member of the Student Advisory Committee in the spring of 1999 and currently serves as the chair of the Study Groups Committee .

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