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I spent the better part of three years as a reporter for The Crimson covering the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). I could not have asked for a better assignment—the PSLM beat was controversial and exciting. Few remained neutral regarding Harvard’s sweatshop policy or the prospect of a campus living wage. As a group, PSLM members could be high-minded, engaged, passionate and inspiring. But, like people in any organization, they could also be misguided, stubborn and whiny.
Say what you will about PSLM, however, they have been the most significant and effective student group on the Harvard campus in at least a decade. Harvard is a very different place now from what it was four years ago. The wages of Harvard employees are higher. Students understand the concept of a living wage. Rallies in Harvard Yard are now commonplace, not anomalous.
PSLM was able to effect real change because it was annoying and loud. The group’s members forced administrators to listen to them by rallying, circulating petitions, educating the student body and engaging faculty members. Everyone on campus—administrators, faculty and students—now knows what PSLM’s goals and concerns are, even if they do not agree with them.
PSLM had to be annoying and loud because there are no institutional mechanisms for Harvard students to influence University policy in any meaningful sense. Harvard does not like to listen to students, and usually it does not have to. The instruments of power at Harvard are shrouded in secrecy and closed to students. The Harvard Corporation, the clandestine cabal responsible for ruling the University, operates entirely without student input. The Administrative Board judges students’ disciplinary matters and metes out punishments with no opportunity for legal review and no regard for due process. The Freshman Dean’s Office rules the Yard with an iron fist. No students served on the committee that appointed Lawrence H. Summers the 27th president of Harvard.
Students have no influence over faculty or dean appointments, no opportunity to influence (or even understand) the tenure review process, and no mechanism for ensuring that their voices are heard at the decision-making level. Student government at Harvard is largely relegated to providing student services (Springfest, FlyBy, UC boxes), instead of exerting meaningful influence over real student concerns.
Harvard is an autocracy. Usually it is a benevolent autocracy, but any governing system without accountability has the potential for danger. University policy is not always in students’ best interests and does not always accurately reflect student concerns.
The Core Curriculum, while noble in intent, does not work. It forces students to take bloated, watered-down lecture courses instead of providing a true introduction to diverse fields and it prevents students from pursuing their genuine academic interests.
The College recently abdicated responsibility for judging rape cases before the Ad Board. Given the Ad Board’s horrific track record on issues pertaining to sexual assault and inherently flawed judicial process, this change might not be a bad thing. But the College failed to replace the Ad Board with a more comprehensive support system, making Harvard an even more difficult place for victims of sexual assault.
The Harvard Corporation, Harvard’s ruling body of seven, includes only one woman and one African-American. The incoming Class of 2006, in contrast, will have close to a 50 percent female and 30 percent minority enrollment. Harvard’s faculty also falls far short of adequately representing the makeup of the student body that it instructs, with far fewer women and minorities in positions of authority.
The University is currently planning a major expansion into Allston, a move that will shape Harvard’s future for the next century and beyond. Students have no say in this process. No students serve on the planning committees or have access to their proceedings. The administration has made no attempt to solicit student input.
The official cost for attending Harvard next year will be $36,000. Over the past generation, tuition increases have far outpaced inflation. Twenty years ago, Harvard’s tuition, adjusted for inflation, was half of the current cost. The recent tuition hikes have come despite the University’s $19 billion endowment, which has multiplied sixfold in the last two decades.
All of these concerns are real, they are important, and they affect students. Students have an interest in how they are addressed and student input should matter.
Ironically, it was Henry Rosovsky, the first Jewish member of the Harvard Corporation, who dismissed Harvard students’ concerns by declaring that students are here for four years, faculty for life and the University forever. That creed continues to guide Harvard’s interactions with its students. And it is true, of course. But it should not serve as an excuse for the University to remain autocratic and the student body to remain complacent.
Harvard is the premier university on the planet. It has the most august faculty, unparalleled academic resources and the most intellectually active student body. Harvard provides its students with opportunities to be had nowhere else.
But Harvard can be even better. If students voice their concerns, and if the University listens, Harvard will improve. The University is more progressive on labor issues and a better place for workers now than it was four years ago. PSLM envisioned a better Harvard and its members fought relentlessly to pursue their goals. By being active, they forced the administration to listen and inspired real change at Harvard.
It should not be this hard. Currently students have no formal means to influence University policy. Their only recourse is to rally, demonstrate, petition and yell.
So be active. Rally for more space for student groups, a fair and accountable Ad Board, a diverse faculty and lower tuition. Rally for your concerns, whatever they may be. But most importantly, rally to make the University listen to its students. Fight for your voice to be heard. Harvard may be here forever, but the University will be a better place if it listens to you for the brief time that you are here.
Robert K. Silverman ’02, a history concentrator in Winthrop House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2001.
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