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Three students had an instrumental role in the selection of Shirley M. Tilghman as president of Princeton University last year.
For more than 25 years, students have had full votes on Yale University’s disciplinary board.
And student council presidents at Swarthmore sit in at meetings of the college’s highest governing body.
But a Harvard acceptance letter does not bring with it the same degree of entry into the University’s decision-making committees.
Compared to many of Harvard’s peer schools, students at the College simply have less of a chance to sit alongside the highest ranks of professors and administrators as they decide the University’s future.
Searching for a Say
During the announcement of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ selection last spring, a group of students stood outside Loeb House protesting what they called the secretive search process by which Summers had been selected.
But at schools such as Yale, Princeton and Swarthmore students regularly sit on search committees for administrators.
Three students sat on Princeton’s presidential search committee last year.
One undergraduate and one graduate student were selected because they served on student government and the third student was selected from a pool of about 100 applicants who submitted essays.
“The administration made an effort to contact us about what we wanted to see in a president. Students were very excited to be involved in the selection process,” says Princeton Undergraduate Student Government representative Michael Kimberly.
But Harvard has been more reluctant to involve students in the formal committees that select high-ranking administrators.
No students were on the search committee that selected Summers. And while Undergraduate Council members applauded Summers for inviting a student committee to submit a report with their wishes for the new Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) dean this spring, they questioned to what extent their suggestions would be taken into account.
According to Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, students at Harvard are slowly becoming more involved in the University’s decision-making through searches for House Masters and tutors.
Lewis says he has found the student voice particularly helpful in search committees.
“Students are very perceptive here when they talk to candidates. Sometimes they’ll come back with observations about them that others wouldn’t notice,” Lewis says.
Council member Rohit Chopra ’04 says increased student involvement in searches for House Masters and tutors should translate into all searches being conducted with student input.
And students at Harvard say that until they are included in actual search committees for high-ranking officials, their suggestions run the risk of being ignored.
Ethan Y. Yeh ’03, who has been active in the movement for ethnic studies and served on the student committee to advise Summers on the FAS dean search, says he “can’t tell to what extent” the student committee’s report affected the final dean pick.
“I don’t even think it’s necessary for students to be on the decision-making body right away,” Yeh says. “But we should know what’s going on and we should really be asked us for our comment. We need to know how these decisions are being made.”
Paul A. Gusmorino ’02, a former council president, says students should be involved in a more meaningful fashion.
“It needs to be more than just having tea with the person after they’ve been selected,” Gusmorino says. “Students can help gather as much information as possible for a decision. It makes students feel that they have more involvement, which is a benefit to the University as well.”
Students campaigning for issues from a living wage to ethnic studies have also recently targeted the Harvard Corporation as a body they call both too secretive and too powerful. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, meets every third week and has six members. When members leave, their successors are selected only by the other members of the board.
At Yale, however, alums elect six of the Yale corporation’s 18 members.
Princeton has a young alumni trustee who is elected for a four-year term on that school’s equivalent of the Corporation. Elections for the trustee spot “are a big deal,” says Nina Langsam, a representative on Princeton’s Undergraduate Government.
And at Swarthmore, the student council presidents are allowed to sit in as observers at meetings of the college’s Board of Managers—which Swarthmore student council co-president Matt Rubin calls “a generous gesture.”
Furthermore, students campaigning for a living wage at Swarthmore say they have been asked to make presentations to the Board of Managers on several occasions.
“We really have fallen behind other universities, which is especially curious considering the competency and thoughtfulness of the student body,” says Stephen N. Smith ’02, a member of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) and a four-year representative on the Undergraduate Council.
Discipline and Punish
Whether or not students should be included on college disciplinary boards provides a more complex question.
Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, for example, have student representatives on their disciplinary boards, while Harvard does not.
Yale’s Executive Committee, which serves the same purpose as Harvard’s Ad Board for discipline issues, includes three undergraduates as full members.
Lewis says, however, that students could face conflicts of interest and would not make good Ad Board members.
“It’s actually very hard for students to have enough distance and enough perspective to make judgments on the academic and disciplinary issues the Ad Board has to take up,” Lewis says.
Nana Akua Asafu-Agyei, a Yale student who serves on the Executive Committee, says that while students are, indeed, sometimes closer to cases than the faculty, they can also bring a better understanding of the surrounding context.
“A student could know that something is being said all over campus, while a professor could be shocked by something that never was done when they were in college,” Asafu-Agyei says.
Paige Herwig, another student on the Executive Committee, says that students’ understanding of issues has affected the outcome in certain incidents. But she says students rarely vote as a bloc and are often split on decisions.
“My experience of deliberating with the adults on the committee was wonderful—I felt like my opinion was taken seriously, treated with respect, and valued,” she says.
Chopra says that at least in cases concerning academic dishonesty, the student voice would be a valuable one.
“I think Harvard has made a big mistake by excluding students from policies of discipline in the academic community,” Chopra says. “It would makes students happier and make the process better for everyone on the board as well.”
Councils and Committees
They may not be on search committees or the Ad Board, but Harvard’s Undergraduate Council members say the council allows them to be involved in the College’s decisions.
But the council lags behind its peer bodies, many of which have entrenched institutional relationships with administrators.
Rubin, the Swarthmore student council co-president, says he meets with the college’s president once a week. Yale’s council President Andrew Allison says he has bi-monthly meetings with Yale President Richard C. Levin.
At Princeton, the student government, administration and faculty hold monthly college-wide council meetings.
But Council President Sujean S. Lee ’03 met one-on-one with Summers only once this semester, in the same way most students meet him—at his office hours.
Harvard students cite three student-faculty committees—on college life, house life and undergraduate education—as ways for students to enact change.
As chair of the council’s Student Affairs Committee, Chopra appoints many of the representatives to these committees. And he says they are “absolutely the most effective” way for student voice to be heard.
Council members say that changes this year in study abroad opportunities, later party hours, reduction in Core Curriculum requirements and later key card access are all a result of these committees.
Yale, in particular, prides itself on the importance and efficacy of its standing committees, more than 25 of which include students.
And Yale also has a Dean’s Advisory Committee—an all-student panel to advise on general policy matters that Yale College Council treasurer Lindsay Parker calls “the best committee that everybody wants to be on.”
Yale’s administration emphasizes the value of student representation.
“I can hardly think of an issue on which student opinion hasn’t mattered (which is not necessarily the same as having prevailed),” Yale College Dean Joe Gordon writes in an e-mail.
Gordon cites the addition of Hindi to the curriculum as well as the suspension of classes on Martin Luther King Day as two examples of structural changes brought about by students.
Not serving on committees does not necessarily exclude student voice from decision-making processes. But some say the administration only works with students because the council avoids potentially controversial issues and focuses instead on less meaty affairs, such as Summers’ co-sponsoring of Springfest.
Students at some of Harvard’s peer schools say that one way for students’ voices to be heard is for the student government to team up with students lobbying for different issues—a collaboration that does not often happen at Harvard.
“The UC needs to be able to creatively engage student groups that are lobbying for certain issues,” Smith says. “Then you’d have a school where students could really make a difference.”
Student leaders at other schools say this sort of collaboration has already begun at their campuses.
Swarthmore, for one, has a student council that is trying to move from student services to involvement in the university’s decision-making.
“In my time as president we’ve been more involved in shaping university policy,” Rubin says. “I think that everyday services and comforts are privilege that students have to begin with. There are larger concerns that need advocacy.”
Cathy Neal, an undergraduate involved in Swarthmore’s living wage campaign, cites as one example how student activists and council members worked together to support a policy that would allow students who are caught using drugs to continue to receive financial aid.
Swarthmore students also say working with the student council gives them clout with the administration they might not have on their own.
At Brown, outgoing student council president Roderick Echols says collaboration across student groups has been key to the push for need-blind admissions.
The policy, long demanded by campus activists, was finally realized this year under Brown University President Ruth Simmons, who was inaugurated the same weekend as Summers.
“Change happened because students spoke as one voice,” Echols says. “They said ‘why don’t we just collaborate, for once in our lives, and come up with a vision?’ and [Simmons] accepted it.”
The ‘No’ Instinct
Of course, students lobbying for issues similar to those of PSLM are generally dissatisfied with the administrative structure. But Harvard students describe the administrative response to their demands as even more negative than activist students at other schools.
“In meetings with administrators, the most popular answer I’ve heard is ‘no’, while ‘absolutely not’ is a close second,” says PSLM member Benjamin L. McKean ’02.
In contrast, Sam Blair, a member of Swarthmore’s living wage campaign, says that although his group’s demands aren’t often met, “we rarely get an outright no.”
“In my experience, the administration has taken us seriously, if not immediately, once they realize that a significant number of students are concerned,” Swarthmore living wage campaign member Nate Wessler agrees.
Brown students also say administrators rarely deny their requests outright—which does not necessarily mean their concerns are taken more seriously.
“Rather than being antagonistic, they’re giving us a hug and a pat on the head and then not budging,” says Brown undergraduate Peter Asen, describing the reaction of administrators during the push for graduate student unionization.
Much of the atmosphere at Harvard, students say, comes from the University’s age, size and prestige.
“There’s an implicit ‘if you don’t like it here, you can go somewhere else,’” says PSLM member Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04.
Gusmorino notes that Harvard’s large size, as well as its position of prominence, makes it intrinsically more resistant to change. He says Harvard does not have the push some smaller schools do to take risks and increase student voice.
“Harvard has less to gain,” Gusmorino says.
—Staff writer Sarah M. Seltzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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