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After Initial Hopes, Council's Census Limps to Conclusion

By David C. Newman, Crimson Staff Writer

About a month ago, a volunteer delivered a copy of the Undergraduate Council's Harvard Census 2000 to the Greenough Hall room of Matthew S. Rozen '03.

Although Rozen filled out the form immediately, he still hasn't handed it in--and he's not alone.

With only 70 of the original 500 surveys in her hands, council President Fentrice D. Driskell '01 has been forced to scale back her once-lofty expectations for the census, a major plank in her campaign platform.

While she is still optimistic, Driskell says the council is now shooting to collect just 200 of the 500 survey forms--down from a goal of 250 just last week.

And with opponents saying that even 250 responses might not be enough to ensure statistical credibility, Driskell and council Vice President John A. Burton '01 have been forced into damage control mode--a familiar position for the duo.

Stumbling out of the Gate

Driskell and Burton had high hopes for their top campaign promise--conducting a survey to diagnose student concerns.

In the short term, they said, census results would be the council's key weapon in forcing administrators to take action on issues ranging from student space to Faculty diversity.

And in the long term, Harvard Census 2000 was meant to begin a council tradition of formally collecting student input at regular intervals--a practice they hoped would fundamentally change the way students and administrators view the council.

Turning Driskell's goal into reality, however, has been an uphill battle from the start.

Problems started at the council level, where Driskell encountered immediate opposition from council conservatives, few of whom shared enthusiasm for the idea of a campus-wide survey.

While they concede that it can't do any harm, they doubt the efficacy of a general survey and have taken every opportunity to let the wind out of Census 2000's sails.

During an April 9 council meeting, Finance Committee Chair John P. Marshall '01--a frequent Driskell opponent--tried to cut the census's proposed $400 funding.

Although the council voted to keep the allocation at $400, it eliminated a clause in the bill that would have allowed members to reduce their number of absences by tabling for the census.

At later meetings, as well as over the council's open e-mail list, members continued to challenge the Driskell-led census work group about its choice of survey questions, in particular its queries on the appropriate role of the council.

Driskell distributed a list of sample question to the council that asked respondents how involved the council should be in "potentially controversial issues affecting students," like sexual assault and campus safety.

But concerned that the question skirted the issue of whether the council should make political statements on topics like gay marriage--as it did last year--a group of conservatives insisted that the council add an additional question.

The survey now asks how involved the council should be in "potentially controversial issues of student concern," such as the living wage campaign.

Despite the modification, Student Affairs Committee (SAC) Chair Michael D. Shumsky '00 says the change doesn't go far enough.

"The real question is, Amadou Diallo or fly-by?" Shumsky says. "Do you want the council to do this, or do you want the council to do that?"

But James C. Coleman '03, a member of the census work group, says he thinks most students understand that the council should deal with both types of issues.

"To set it up as an either-or, as some kind of binary choice, isn't what we want to do," Coleman says.

Logistical Troubles

Getting the council to approve the list of questions was only part of the problem.

Even Driskell admits that the execution of the survey was flawed at best.

With a computer, the council randomly chose 500 students to fill out the census.

On April 18, council members began distributing the forms by dropping them in the door baskets of selected students. They hoped to entice students to participate by advertising the possibility of a $50 prize to one participant.

But some council members say $50 was simply too little incentive.

"In Quincy House, I saw a bunch of them in the trash can by the elevator," Shumsky says. "[Door-dropping] doesn't mean that a roommate isn't going to get there first and throw everything in the door basket away."

Some students say they filled out their census forms but either didn't know where to turn them in or believed that someone would come to collect them.

Many say they simply didn't care very much about the project.

"I didn't really think of it as that important of a thing," says Rozen, who says his completed form is still somewhere in his room.

Council member Daniel E. Fernandez '03, another student randomly picked to take the census, says he filled out his form but didn't hand it in--the council already knows his views, he says.

"The fact that it went out to council members was a little bit troubling," says Fernandez, who is also a Crimson editor. "I want for it to be a success, but my general intuition is that it won't tell us anything we don't already know."

An already low response rate was aggravated when the council turned its attention to planning for Springfest, forcing Driskell to push back the deadline in order to receive at least half of the forms.

But Council Treasurer Sterling P. A. Darling '01says that getting 250 responses is not necessarily anything to brag about.

"Fifty percent is a good number to shoot for, but that's obviously pretty low for what started out as a small sampling," Darling says. "And a 50 percent response gives you a very self-selected group."

Driskell, who says her sociology teaching fellow assured her the census would be scientific enough for what she aims to do, says she isn't all that concerned.

"We're not trying to reverse randomization," she says, referring to the council's informal dining hall survey last year on student's satisfaction with randomization. Targeting specific administration policies, she says, requires a higher degree of statistical accuracy.

Several administrators--including President Neil L. Rudenstine--have already agreed to look at the census results, which Driskell says she and Burton will compile over the summer. But whether Rudenstine and others lend them much weight is less clear.

Shumsky isn't optimistic.

"Whether or not the administration accepts the results is probably going to be a function of the degree to which they agree with them," he says.

Survey Says...

Despite the mounting criticism, Driskell says she believes the results of the census will be jarring to administrators.

On the question about the quality of intercultural interactions, Driskell says she expects to see responses break down along racial lines.

She says she also thinks the census will expose major student concern about the lack of gender, ethnic and racial diversity in the Faculty, as well as deep dissatisfaction with the quality of academic advising and course selection in the Core.

Driskell's biggest dream, she says, is to create a concert commission to bring musical acts to campus--and she hopes that census data will show that students agree with her.

"It'll be a tough fight," she admits, "especially since there are some administrators who don't believe Harvard should subsidize student life."

She also says that first-years' responses to questions about alcohol may also be surprising, and may lend support to her contention that Harvard needs to invest in more social alternatives that do not involve alcohol.

Some council members, however, aren't convinced that the questions on alcohol won't change anything.

"The drinking questions will be used to show the administration that there is too much drinking on campus so they have to crack down harder on bringing alcohol into the dorms and parties," council member John I. Nevin '01 wrote on the council's open e-mail list.

Darling says the council will have trouble deciphering the results, in part because the survey is general rather than specific.

"We're going to see that there is a general concern in a number of different areas," Darling says. "But I doubt that it's going to help the council pick which ones it's going to address."

Driskell says Darling's criticism is valid, but she wonders where opponents like Darling and Shumsky were when the census questions were being drafted.

"It's funny how people have suggestions in retrospect," she says. "Sometimes people on council let petty differences get in the way and don't support projects they should."

Driskell says that dropping the project is not an option, but admits that future council administrations would be smart to learn from her mistakes.

"I still believe in the project," she says. "At the same time, I recognize we can improve in the future."

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