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Harvard's Tax Hike

The Undergraduate Council should be worried about the results of the termbill referendum

By The Crimson Staff

It has only been a few years since the Harvard Undergraduate Council pulled itself out of useless obscurity by beginning to pass measures on student services instead of sweatshops in the third world. Yet the council already thinks it can handle more than twice the budget it has now—and, somehow, council insiders convinced the student body to go along with the plan in an April referendum. After a contentious campaign, undergraduates voted to increase the Student Activities Fee—an optional termbill charge that makes up the bulk of the council’s revenue—by an unprecedented and excessive 114 percent. Undergraduate voters refused, however, to make the fee mandatory on student termbills.

From the outset, the campaign to raise the termbill fee seemed ill-conceived and hastily thought out. Not a single council presidential candidate, campaigning merely months before the termbill referendum, ever hinted at a fee hike; and the initial proposal lacked any clearly defined plan as to how the council would handle a dramatically increased budget. Nevertheless, Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 and a very devoted group of representatives within his ranks set out on a seemingly surreptitious route of ramming the proposed bill through, without ever consulting the student body.

In a closed March meeting marked by childish bickering and ineffective leadership, the council’s Student Affairs Committee convened and endorsed a bill to increase the fee from its current optional $35 to a compulsory $100. Proponents clearly thought it better not to consult constituents—at least not formally through a student referendum—as they undoubtedly feared an unreceptive student body. If not for the actions of some outspoken and appalled representatives, the move would have tripled the budget of an organization that has yet to prove itself as entirely efficient or in tune with students’ wishes. Luckily, the bill’s opponents convinced the council to temper its impulsive ambitions; they subsequently revised the proposal to a more modest—though not modest enough—$40 increase, and decided to put the proposal up for a vote.

Unfortunately, the result of the student referendum—a “yes” to the fee hike, a “no” to make it mandatory—leaves the council vulnerable to that which it feared most from an optional fee. It runs the risk of more students opting-out; a disproportionate number of students may well become free-riders, refusing to pay the fee but still using council services. Though we are skeptical that the council will have the manpower and the know-how to manage its new budget effectively, we still hope that it has enough student trust to ensure that the free-rider problem doesn’t actually decrease the council’s coffers.

And we are not the only ones with grave concerns about the termbill increase. In the Faculty Council’s final meeting of this academic year, it accepted Mahan’s fee hike—but only after he offered it as a two-part increase to take place over the next couple of years, an option not mentioned on the referendum. Granted, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 vouched for Mahan’s move, saying that it was unlikely that the Faculty Council would have agreed to such an excessive increase. It would seem, however, that this only demonstrates the Faculty’s warranted apprehension towards the council’s impulsiveness.

Virtually all students “Believe in a Better Harvard,” as the fee-hike proponents’ campy campaign urged. From more student group funding to more elaborate social events, undergraduates all believe in a fun, dynamic and eventful Harvard experience. However, a sudden and excessive increase in the council’s budget is not the way to achieve this, and we are worried that the council may have done more to hurt its financial situation than it has helped it.

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