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After reading a report earlier this month that Harvard administrators were considering moving the Quad dormitories to Allston, Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 dashed off a letter to one of his friends—Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan.
Chopra warned Sullivan of the economic consequences should the hundreds of Quad residents be relocated from Cambridge. Sullivan said he wanted to talk, and the two are planning to sit down in the next few weeks.
Chopra is not afraid to be combative with those in power, and he will pit his friends in City Hall against his friends in University Hall if he feels it’s in the student interest.
Chopra’s list of contacts is impressive for someone who has only been at Harvard for three years, and administrators are learning that there is little they can do without having to deal with Chopra’s influence around the community.
In the eight months he has served as council president, Chopra has made the often overlooked council a force to be reckoned with in University Hall.
While former council president Paul A. Gusmorino ’02 raised the council’s profile two years ago by building consensus among deans behind the scenes and gently pushing his initiatives, Chopra prefers to see himself as “fighting” for the students he represents.
“There’s no advantage to being a pushover,” Chopra says.
Chopra’s most fiery run-in with the administration to date pitted him against Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby over the issue of preregistration last spring.
The council took an adamant stance against preregistration, which, if implemented, would have dramatically altered shopping period.
“I think that there is a general misunderstanding about the needs of students here,” Chopra says. “What we need is more counseling, more support.”
Kirby was presented with a petition signed by 1,200 students opposed to the plan, and the petition organizers voiced their concerns to the Faculty Council during a meeting.
“I think that the Faculty really does care about students but a kind of adversarial relationship is necessary,” Chopra explains.
Last year, Chopra also battled with former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 over whether House Committees should be able to host their formals and other events in local clubs.
“We yell at each other all the time,” Chopra said last spring about his relationship with Lewis. “He’s a worthy adversary.”
Although the council’s work with new Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 has been amiable, the council has had to adjust to working with a fresh face, Chopra says.
“Whenever a new person comes in, you have to make yourself a visible force in the decision-making process. Otherwise, they’re never going to see you as a person who should be involved,” Chopra says.
“We don’t always agree,” Gross writes in an e-mail. “Chopra isn’t hesitant to push hard, at the margins of the possible.”
Chopra’s close interaction with the Faculty has helped him in his relentless pursuit of student services, according to many council members.
“He is very big on personal, one-on-one contact with the decision-makers in the administration. We know who to go to about each issue,” says council Vice President Jessica R. Stannard-Friel ’04.
Chopra’s ties to faculty developed over his two-and-a-half years of work on the council’s Student Affairs Committee (SAC), according to Stannard-Friel.
Chopra offered advice to University President Lawrence H. Summers on the naming of a new dean of the Faculty in 2002 and served on multiple student-Faculty committees during his years on SAC.
Chopra corresponds daily by e-mail with many top administrators, including Gross.
Indeed, Gross and other Faculty members seem not only to like Chopra, but also to respect him as an authoritative voice for student concerns.
“I have an excellent working relationship with him” and “a great deal of respect for his opinions on questions of student life,” Gross writes in an e-mail.
Kirby, or “Bill” to Chopra, calls him “a good and forthright proponent of the issues that matter most to the U.C.”
Last year, Chopra forged an even closer relationship with Lewis, who served as the council’s faculty advisor during his deanship. Lewis was something of a mentor to Chopra, and worked unofficially with him to help guide specific projects.
Council members say that Lewis was instrumental in their effort to more directly affect student life and that he was willing to deal with small issues, like later keycard access to Houses and extended party hours. Both of these initiatives would probably not have materialized without the help of Lewis, Chopra says.
His work with Lewis has left Chopra with a web of faculty contacts and an intimate knowledge of the workings of the administration.
“He is remarkably well informed about the administration of the College and the University; this insight gives him extra leverage,” Gross writes.
Last spring, Chopra led the council through a whirlwind of legislation on issues ranging from preregistration to parties, but left some on the council feeling left out of the process.
Among other victories, the council secured extended keycard access to Houses and took a vocal and highly visible stand against the administration’s plan to implement preregistration.
The council also successfully negotiated with administrators to host its first event featuring alcohol in over five years.
The council introduced a series of smaller events that brought in hundreds of students, such as movie screenings in the Science Center and student band nights in Loker Commons.
In council meetings, Chopra showed little tolerance for efforts to prolong or delay.
On more than one occasion, he offered a comprehensive “mega-motion” to resolve several concerns at once, bending parliamentary procedure but saving precious minutes.
One of the most polarizing council debates of the semester concerned the allocation of grant monies for student groups. The question pitted members of the council’s Finance Committee (FiCom) against one another. After watching the two opposing sides argue their way to impasse, Chopra offered his own compromise solution, mixing elements of both plans.
“I’ve never been on FiCom, but I think it can work out,” Chopra said, then paused. “I’m sure it can work out.”
From Chopra’s assertiveness may stem a tendency to encroach into others’ areas—and Chopra has occasionally been criticized for micromanagement.
“He cares that the work gets done right and watches to see if you’re getting the job done,” Joshua A. Barro ’05 said.
While council members say Chopra likes to personally shape everything the council does on a daily basis, Chopra also said he’s taken time recently to step back and think of broader issues affecting undergraduates at Harvard.
Mental health awareness, Chopra says, will be one of his priorities as he finishes his term.
The faculty, he says, may risk pushing students too hard by focusing more on academics than extracurriculars.
“There’s a general sense that the campus isn’t fun, that people aren’t happy,” he says. “Pushing everyone even harder isn’t going to produce better Harvard graduates.”
Some of Chopra’s concerns may be driven by his personal experience as council president, a job that he says often occupies him for forty hours per week and leaves him exhausted. Taking an active role in debates over preregistration and more recently in the decision to convert parts of the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic Center into a dance center, Chopra says, has been stressful—so much so that he sometimes wants to leave Harvard altogether.
Chopra said he is “very seriously” considering taking next semester off and says he needs “distance” from the school whose recent direction he has played a large part in shaping.
“I have a very strong love-hate relationship with the institution. I wouldn’t have done all that I’ve done if I didn’t both love and hate it,” he said.
—Staff writer Ebonie D. Hazle can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer William B. Higgins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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