Remembering the Student Voice

On Nov. 9, 2000, Senator David Pryor (D-Ark.), Director of the Institute of Politics (IOP), unilaterally dissolved the Student Advisory Committee (SAC). Members were shocked and taken aback by a decision made without prior consultation of the group being evicted. Now, five months later, on the recommendation of the Institute Task Force, there will be a new structure for student involvement at the IOP.

We--Hannah Choi '01, Christopher M. Kirchhoff '01, Dana M. Kupersmith '01, Adam Lauridsen '01, Jacqueline A. Newmyer '01, Aneesh V. Raman '01, S. Albert Wang '01 and Christian J. Westra '01--as graduating seniors and former SAC members, have withheld public comment during the restructuring process with the hope that the Institute could find an improved student role. At this critical point in the transition, our continued desire for the Institute to reach its full potential demands a refocusing on the important issue that inspired the original debate: the purpose of student involvement.

The question of what the student role should be precedes any questions of how the group should be composed. For the past several years, the former Student Advisory Committee spent enormous effort examining how to better integrate students into the decision-making process and pressuring the Institute to establish conclusively the purpose of undergraduate involvement. That question has been left unanswered.

That said, we do commend the work of the Task Force in their efforts to bring about a new structure. Their establishment of a Steering Committee, comprised of students and staff, through which all major programmatic and financial decisions are made, is a long overdue addition to the Institute. It is worth mentioning that many of their other recommendations were addressed by past members of the former SAC. In fact, democratically electing committee chairs was an idea that was debated endlessly over the years. The caveat remains that by instituting constant elections, the Institute could become an increasingly hyper-political and politicized organization, with constant internal campaigning and strategic planning. Such an atmosphere would be corrosive to the Institute and hurts the hopes of attracting the atypical yet politically-interested undergraduate. The purpose of the Institute should be to inspire all undergraduates into public life and careers in politics, not to offer would-be politicos an opportunity to sharpen their stump speeches. We can only hope that does not happen in the years to come.

Towards that end, the Task Force has maintained some self-selection, to include students who do not wish to seek elective office but are interested in politics. Coupled with the decision to preserve the name "Student Advisory Committee," we are left wondering why Pryor employed such an abrupt and dramatic act in November of last year. An attempt should have been made to bring about change through the old framework with mutual discussion. Instead, Pryor has erased a hefty tradition at the Institute and a decades-old legacy, replacing it with a system not drastically different from what was there before.

As the new structure is implemented, we hope that all involved remember that the fundamental issue is not the structure of student involvement, but the substance of the students' role. The presentation made to the Senior Advisory Committee last spring by the former SAC was meant to address that divide.

Hindering any such discussion over the appropriate level of student input is the Institute's inability to offer students a genuine opportunity for leadership. Students can remain unpaid posterers and administrative assistants only for so long. Other Harvard student organizations have always provided undergraduates the opportunity to be independent leaders, hurting the Institute's ability to attract students in past years. As the number of student organizations at Harvard has increased, the number of students who wish to be heavily involved at the Institute has dwindled. The problem is not how to structure the body of students who are involved at the Institute; the problem is how to offer students who will become involved challenging opportunities that will retain their interest and foster true leadership.

The difficulty inherent in maintaining student interest, however, is not an excuse to abandon that project. During the time of restructuring, the IOP's immediate response has been to offer other student groups resources without focusing on providing resources for its own members. This treads a dangerous line. The IOP should not give up its potential to inspire students directly by becoming merely a grant-giving, space-providing foundation. Outreach should be a part but not the whole of the Institute's focus. If the IOP continues to outsource its mission, there will be no need for any in-house student structure or involvement.

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