At the Undergraduate Council meeting last Sunday, council President Rohit Chopra ’04 repeated the demand of student activists across campus: “Policy discussions that affect students ought to involve students.” The specific target of last week’s demand, the Administrative Board, has long been shrouded in mystery—its decision-making process is unknown to the Harvard College students who are most affected by it.
Yet what troubles the Ad Board is not a lack of student participation. Student grief at the institution is clearly directed—and justifiably so—at its notorious lack of transparency of process. Such intense secrecy has rendered students unable to propose meaningful suggestions to improve the board’s procedures—indeed, the mystery of the Ad Board operations has rendered even the council ignorant of the board’s workings.
The Ad Board is currently reviewing, at Chopra’s request, the potential of student membership on the Board, but Assistant Dean of the College and secretary of the Ad Board John T. O’Keefe has said directly, “I don’t think it’s the board’s top priority.” Indeed, O’Keefe is correct that such a superficial change is not a top priority; rather, a sweeping cultural change to the very nature of the Ad Board is.
Students need to know how the Ad Board makes its disciplinary judgments. A demonstration of the Board’s judicial mechanism, including a mock demonstration of the process, would hugely benefit students at the College by offering an opportunity to observe all members of the Ad Board sit down, hear fake evidence and then issue a ruling in a manner that is realistic to the board’s actual proceedings.
Preempting the more important issue of transparency of process with student participation would not best serve the College. It would be a placebo solution to placate complainants—it does not go far enough to address the opaque decision-making of the board.
Along with transparency, fairness in the decisions of the Ad Board is paramount—the move to a single fact finder for cases of sexual assault last year was an improvement in this realm. But judgment by a defendant’s peers may not produce more fairness in the Ad Board process. Adding token students to a board of dozens of administrators might bring to a quaint advisory capacity that helps the Ad Board nail down the reality of student life at Harvard, but their position as peers of defendants—rife with the potential of conflicts of interest and breeches of confidentiality—is disconcerting. The Ad Board is a gravely serious institution, so much so that it cannot be left to students who exist on the same social plane as the accused.
The Ad Board’s ability to dispense proper verdicts does not hinge on whether token students have membership within it. True change would be to demonstrate the true nature of the Ad Board’s processes—making salient reforms that remove its shroud of mystery.
Dissent: Students Are A Good Start
When students don’t trust students, it is no wonder that the administration is reluctant to do the same. The same Staff that has consistently advocated for student representation in the Curricular Review and on the Leaning Committee is foolish to treat discipline as a sacred cow too sensitive for student input. Discipline is too sensitive an issue to leave students out.
According to the Handbook for Students, “By design, the members and permanent guests of the Board occupy positions well-suited to understand a student’s petition in light of the College’s standards and rules.” Who is better suited to help them understand student petitions than students themselves? Student perspectives can provide the context that even senior tutors and freshman deans—often separated from an undergraduate perspective by more than a decade—may not always understand.
Students will be just as fair-minded and confidential as administrators, and it is paternalistic to think otherwise. When conflicts of interest arise for students on the board, they will recuse themselves from deliberation, as administrators do.
The Staff is right that token student representation on the board is not enough to open a black box that has been sealed shut for 113 years. But it would be a symbolic victory and would signal the College’s desire to be as open-minded as Harvard Law School—not to mention Yale, MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago and University of California at Berkeley—which have already recognized the value of student representation on their disciplinary boards.
—Blake Jennelle ’04, Judd B. Kessler ’04 and Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero ’04