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Harvard at the Trough

By Hannah E. S. wright, Crimson Staff Writer

$1.89 used to just buy you a large cup of Starbucks coffee. Now, it can also buy you a vote for your favorite Undergraduate Council (UC) ticket. That’s the price Travis R. Kavulla ’07 has sent in to, the election trading hub set up by Winthrop’s Aleksei Boiko ’06, among others. The site is intended to match up those who don’t care enough about the UC to cast a ballot with those who care so much that they’re willing to dish out some cash to ensure their candidates win out—just another amusing example of our collective obsession with the free market? I think not.

No, more than an overindulgence of Ec10, this recent complication to the electoral process leaves me worried that far too many students have yet to fulfill their Moral Reasoning Core. In a campaign season dominated by political pandering and personal connections, our ethics don’t seem to count for much.

As the accusations fly, few parties have managed to stay out of the mud.

John F. Voith III ’07 and Tara Gadgil ’07 came into the campaign season on the defensive. Early this fall, someone close to Voith purchased with complete disregard for the ethical, and even legal, implications at stake. Voith and Gadgil undoubtedly deserve credit for returning the site to John S. Haddock ’07 and Annie R. Riley ’07 in a swift manner, and it was possible to imagine an internal snafu led to one insubordinate aide going astray.

But then there was Sunday night’s unfortunate e-mail—another uninitiated move by a Voith-Gadgil staffer—which asked Magnus Grimeland ’07 and Thomas D. Hadfield ’08 to bow out of the race in exchange for compensation of their campaign costs, adoption of their proposals, (unnecessary) reinstatement into the UC, and, of all things, a free lunch.

Grimeland and Hadfield were insulted. And we should be too. If this election is to have any semblance of authenticity, it must not be decided behind closed doors. A ticket should earn our support based not on their ability to convince others not to run, but on their platform and qualifications.

Then again, it’s hard to run on the basis of your platform if you can’t really decide what it is. Yesterday made two unlikely bedfellows, as the Harvard Republican Club and the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Supporters Alliance offered a joint condemnation of Voith-Gadgil for “misleading” (read: contradictory) statements on the future presence of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and military recruiters at Harvard. To quote the statement, this pandering is “both dishonest in principle and harmful in practice.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lest Voith and Gadgil take too much of the heat, the Haddock-Riley campaign seems to be having a bit of trouble in forthrightness as well. In their case, the issue is not about contradiction; they seem to have found the predictable key to nearly every student groups’ heart—more money. But what really hurts is what they’re not saying: if the UC devotes all of its current resources to increased House Committee and student group funding, campus-wide social events will be left without a dime. Unless, of course, University Hall decides to foot the bill or (more likely) to pass it along to students in the form of an increased, and possibly mandatory, termbill.

With the council’s reputation as a hotbed of political machinations, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the only ticket with a straightforward, consistent platform is the comparative outsiders, Grimeland and Hadfield. This refreshing lack of entrenchment almost outweighs their disconcerting dearth of council know-how—if only their proposals were bound by the limits of pragmatic reason.

What has allowed this brouhaha to continue unfettered is that no one is being held accountable. There was a time when the Election Commission (EC) held tickets responsible for their campaign staff’s actions—when saying you, as a candidate, weren’t involved wasn’t enough.

But foisting the blame off on the EC is the easy way out, and it doesn’t account for the platform discrepancies that have become the norm, if not the rule, over the last few election cycles.

At the end of the day, it comes back to us, the students. The campaigns may be rotten, but our behavior hasn’t been much better. A slew of student group endorsements have found their way to friendly ears before they should—showing that we’re far more worried about getting that elusive pat on the back from our friends than supporting the integrity of our institutions. Our general willingness to parrot our favorite candidate’s pledges unquestioned does little service to campus discourse.

The culture of ambition at Harvard can reach levels of extremity that far surpass the boundaries of ethical action. And this culture is one that extends beyond just UC elections.

At a university that prides itself on developing the future leaders of tomorrow, and on a campus where the corruption of CEOs and national politicians evokes dinnertime debate, we should be mindful of what behaviors we endorse. Allowing campaigns to pursue victory “at any cost” will only put the voice of the student body up for sale. Our student government is worth no more than the legitimacy of its leadership; right now that appears to be just shy of two bucks.

Hannah E.S. Wright ’06, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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