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Just as he proposed in his February 8 inaugural address, Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 has spent his first semester on the job racking up notable successes as a student advocate and social planner.
But with one of most crucial inaugural promises, Mahan has overtly failed.
“I don’t want to be a front-page president,” he declared at the end of his speech, after pledging not to force any of his seven just-proposed council reforms through the 53-member body. “I welcome productive dissent and thoughtful alternatives,” he added. “We must strive to build a common vision or else we are in for a long and frustrating semester.”
By Mahan’s standard, it has been a long and frustrating semester.
Far from keeping the council unified, Mahan has spent much of his first semester as president dealing with heated opposition on numerous facets of the various issues the council has dealt with. Though nearly every piece of council legislation has been approved overwhelmingly, council meetings have been repeatedly marked by shouting and lost tempers—from the front of the room as well as Mahan’s angry opponents in the back.
Former council member and one-time presidential candidate Joshua A. Barro ’04 says the council’s constant bickering led him to resign his council seat last month. Barro resigned after the student body voted in support of the council’s termbill fee increase, which he had strongly opposed.
“My time on the council this semester, I was fighting with people a lot,” says Barro. “I felt happier once I was no longer on the council.”
The council has become prone to discontent, in large part because of Mahan’s oligarchic style of leadership. While his popular predecessor Rohit Chopra ’04 largely led behind the scenes, building relationships with top College administrators and securing support for council legislation before entering Sever 113 for the council’s Sunday evening meetings, Mahan has worked closely with a small circle of council allies, at the expense of his support among the rest of the council. The creation of his so-called “cabinet,” for example, helped effect Mahan’s stated goal of crafting a more professional council—but brought with it a more professional, ruthless opposition.
As a politician aspiring to be viewed as a strong leader, Mahan has publicly overseen many of the council’s major legislative efforts this semester, far more than Chopra ever did. But while Mahan’s public stances on controversial proposals—from the Student Activities Fee increase to a campus women’s center—have tended to garner the council’s votes, they come at the expense of the body’s prestige.
MAHAN’S OVAL OFFICE
The same inaugural speech in which Mahan called for a termbill fee hike contained a list of four new positions he wanted to create in the council. Aside from the constitutionally mandated secretary and treasurer, and the already-existing parliamentarian and First-Year Social Committee liaison, Mahan decided to create a press secretary, a City of Cambridge liaison, a student organization liaison and a sustainability liaison.
“Where Rohit tried to do everything himself, Matt is much more willing to let other people step in,” council representative Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06 says. “He’s been willing to hand responsibility over to Justin [R. Chapa ’05] in a lot of different ways in order to free himself up and maintain his own sanity.”
Chapa, a Mahan confidante whom the new president appointed press secretary at the council’s second meeting of the semester, has shown both the benefits and the risks of operating a council through the efforts of a few “White House” staffers. As press secretary, Chapa has issued the occasional press release and has coordinated the council’s efforts to communicate with undergraduates at large over House e-mail lists. At the same time, however, he has generated resentment among council members for exerting influence he does not officially have.
The council passed a bill sponsored by Chapa and Vice President Michael R. Blickstead ’05 on March 21, called the Keg Return Service Act, which provided funding for the council to return students’ kegs to the Blanchard’s liquor store in Allston on a series of Sunday afternoons, starting on April 11—which happened to be the day of Easter. Blickstead wrote to UC-general, the council’s open e-mail list, on the evening of April 11, after the keg return service had not taken place, that he, Mahan and Chapa “decided that it would not be appropriate to start this service on Easter Sunday.”
While Mahan was criticized over UC-general for making an executive decision in violation of council legislation, and without notifying or consulting the council, he also had to deal with criticism for including Chapa—whose only elected position was as one of three representatives from Pforzheimer House—among the council’s executive officers.
“It appears that you and Mike decided that you would run this project instead of operating it through [the Campus Life Committee], the committee under whose purview it falls,” Barro wrote to Mahan over the list. “You criticized Rohit for ‘micromanaging’ the Council during the campaign, so why are you micromanaging this project?”
One decision made about a Sunday afternoon keg return was hardly the only time Mahan took criticism for allowing a select group of advisers to publicly lead the council. Mahan’s signature issue this semester, the proposed increase in the Student Activities Fee to $75 from its previous $35, brought out vocal dissent within the council and from the student body at large. And Mahan’s executive decision-making hardly garnered him widespread support.
THE MALLEABLE CABINET
The bitter campaign over the campus-wide referendum to increase the termbill fee exemplified the problems that arose when council decision-making was concentrated in the hands of Mahan and his allies—who apparently did not even recognize the disproportionate level of influence they were exerting.
“Matt made very few unilateral decisions,” says Russell M. Anello ’04, one of the sponsors of the council bill that brought about the undergraduate referendum. “I was involved in most of them, Matt Glazer was involved. A lot of them had four or five people.”
Four or five people may have been enough consultation for Mahan, but the process of decision by informal committee failed when the rest of the council became involved.
Mahan’s lack of consultation with the council at large became most obvious when Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 told him that despite the student body’s 53 percent support for a $40 increase in the Student Activities Fee, “it was unlikely that the [Faculty] Council would approve an increase to $75 immediately,” as Gross puts it in an e-mail. Mahan decided to win over the 18-professor body by asking for an increase in two stages—to $60 for the 2004-2005 academic year and to the full $75 the next year.
“That came out of a lot of conversations with a number of people—with about six or seven different UC people who were involved in getting it passed, with students who had e-mailed me and with the administrators and notably Dean Gross—I really just thought that spreading it over two years was the most prudent approach for students,” Mahan says. “That really was a kind of executive decision—a decision that was part of the...carrying out of the will of the student body, which is what I do on a daily basis.”
Though the referendum students approved ended on May 1, and the Faculty Council did not meet to discuss the fee increase until its Wednesday afternoon meeting on May 12, Mahan only announced his executive decision over House e-mail lists—and even then only on the night of May 11—and, despite having presided over a council meeting on May 9, never officially informed the council. Angered at having been left in the dark, council members complained over UC-general. By the time of the Faculty Council meeting, the list had seen 18 heated messages, including three defenses from Mahan, exchanged on the topic.
The three council members from Lowell House, Chadbourne, Polly W. Klyce ’06 and council Finance Committee Chair Teo P. Nicolais ’06, expressed their indignation in messages over UC-general and the Lowell House open e-mail list, but did not stop there. After calling the office of Secretary of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) John B. Fox Jr. ’59 early Wednesday and asking—but not receiving—permission to observe Mahan’s presentation to the Faculty Council, Chadbourne, Klyce and Nicolais showed up at the Faculty Room, on the second floor of University Hall that afternoon.
“From the very beginning...I wanted a smaller increase,” says Nicolais. “I think 60 was absolutely the right number.”
While one delegation member says the three showed up in order to intimidate Mahan, Nicolais says they only wanted to observe his presentation on behalf of the students, who they felt were in the dark.
“We wanted to be sure that what was being told to the student body was the same thing that was being told to the Faculty Council,” Nicolais says. “Faced with a $60 [fee] or no increase, $60 was absolutely the right way to go. But it wasn’t the right way to go about it. This was not a problem he had just learned of.”
Mahan says he first learned of the delegation’s plans to attend the meeting in an e-mail from Fox, who did not know which council members planned to attend, but expressed hope “that only yourself will appear for this afternoon’s meeting.”
“Literally, right as we’re supposed to go in [to the meeting] the three members of the Lowell House delegation walked up,” Mahan says. “I think it was just a little discourteous....You have to have some kind of coordination if you’re going to be professional as a body.”
Fox kept the three members of the Lowell delegation out of the meeting, Mahan gave his presentation and the Faculty Council approved the incremental Student Activities Fee hike—but not before Mahan felt compelled to apologize to Fox and Gross for three members of his council having shown up unexpectedly in front of 18 leading professors and top FAS and College administrators.
Mahan ally Matthew J. Glazer ’06, chair of the Council’s Student Affairs Committee, recognizes that Mahan’s modus operandi this semester has been imperfect, but says Mahan has recognized the importance of making council members feel included in crucial decision-making.
“At the end of the year he acknowledged this and said he did skip things in the decision-making process,” Glazer says. “I don’t think he’s doing these things with any malintent. He’s doing what he thinks is best, but sometimes maybe he should include more people in carrying out decisions of the council.”
THE SEDITION ACT?
Vocal dissent under the Mahan administration has hardly been limited to major council reforms. Issues ranging from awarding student groups money for “recycling and minimizing waste” to council support for gender-neutral bathrooms have generated heated opposition at council meetings this semester.
Mahan says he is pleased to hear representatives’ myriad opinions on the council’s contentious issues.
“Mike and I have definitely strived to embrace dialogue, especially at Executive Board, which is more off-the-record and we don’t have a reporter there,” Mahan says. “We definitely have tried to encourage people on the council to speak their minds, to voice their concerns, to have real arguments. I think it’s been very productive.”
Whatever Mahan’s true intent, he has not convinced his council of his willingness to hear their opinions. Council Secretary Jason L. Lurie ’05, a frequent Mahan critic, says dissent should be met with reasoned response and not the defensive e-mails Mahan often sends after being disputed with over the list.
“Matt says, ‘Why are you trying to embarrass me?...You could’ve just asked me [personally],’” Lurie says. “I think that overly defensiveness is there. It doesn’t look presidential.”
Council members’ opposition to Mahan-supported legislation has come not just over e-mail and in speeches on the council floor, but also through the extensive use of parliamentary maneuvering during council meetings.
At the end of an April 7 debate on the termbill fee hike, Mahan expressed his frustration with council members’ incessant motions to adjourn and demands for roll-call votes on nearly every amendment—even though, in his inaugural address, Mahan suggested that the council consider mandating roll-call votes universally.
“All of this petty bullshit and damn motions are ridiculous,” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe it.”
Barro says that Mahan’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent has forced council members to resort to petty disputes and repeated motions.
“The leadership doesn’t seem to value dissenting opinions in meetings so they don’t structure them to listen appropriately to them. So people in the minority—we had to assert more procedural rules guaranteeing us the right to express our views and have our amendments heard,” Barro says. “You heard less dissent during Rohit’s administration because there was less dissent.”
The contentious procedural battles, of course, come across differently depending on the side one tends to take in council. Nicolais, who supports Mahan far more frequently than does Barro, is not convinced that parliamentary strategy has such noble ends.
“More often than not it was used to stall than it was to really protect the rights of the minority,” Nicolais says. “We’ve had a lot of contentious issues.”
Lurie attributes some of the council’s anger with Mahan’s leadership to the president’s personal involvement with many of the council’s major debates.
“Rohit was a judge and he...got rid of the lawyers. He was always very careful to look impartial and stay impartial,” Lurie says. “Matt is one of the lawyers...He’s an advocate for issues for one side or another.”
Mahan’s support for contentious viewpoints and the constant parliamentary maneuvering his term has seen have, in a stark change from Chopra’s administration, forced the council to deal publicly with its unending political squabbles.
“You just don’t really realize—all of a sudden you’re responsible for all of the...relationship issues and the bickering and the public face of the UC,” Mahan says of his role as president.
THE VERY PUBLIC FACE
While Mahan’s council has been productive and visible both in its advocacy before the administration and in its implementation of student programs, the council’s public airing of its dirty laundry this semester has put Mahan in the public eye in much more of a political light than he hoped at his inauguration. Mahan concedes that he has not avoided the spotlight, but says that his efforts to have the cabinet help him lead the council have been effective.
“What I really meant by that was the fact that I wanted to spread ownership in the organization and I wanted to get more people involved...and I think that is something that we’ve succeeded at but in subtle ways,” he says.
Although Mahan has included a coterie of other representatives in the council leadership this semester, spreading responsibility did not ultimately equate to leaving the spotlight himself—or to forgetting about his public appearance.
“At the beginning he said he wasn’t going to be one of those presidents who spent his time agonizing over how The Crimson was going to portray him and I think the converse has shown to be the case,” Chadbourne says. “I think he’s just trying to focus attention towards the hard work and the noble aims of himself and the council members.”
Mahan has openly admitted that Crimson coverage of council matters affected his decisions. The entire controversy surrounding his decision to phase in the termbill increase could potentially have been avoided had he not based his judgments on anticipated Crimson coverage.
“We told the campus because we didn’t want the Crimson to paint this as a big loss for the UC or something ridiculous like that if we said that a two-year phase made sense in a closed door meeting and then that was the public result,” Mahan wrote to UC-general in defense of deciding to propose a phased-in fee increase after consultation with only a few council members.
But if Mahan continues to take controversial and public stances while consulting only his top cabinet officials, his second semester as president could be as frustrating as his first.
“The reality is that the buck does stop at you,” Mahan says. “To some extent you can’t avoid being out front and being a visible person.”
—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at email@example.com.
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