We Still Believe

Two and a half years ago, then Undergraduate Council (UC) President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 led the campaign to “Believe in a Better Harvard” and increase the UC’s student activities fee from $35 to $75. Since the controversial hike passed, reports of botched operations, missing checks, and high-profile failures have left many disillusioned with the Council and desperate for serious reform.

And after months of tumult, the Council decided in June to decrease its size and membership by a third, eliminating the Campus Life Committee (CLC) and retaining its two historically successful branches: the Student Advocacy Committee (SAC) and the Finance Committee (FiCom). Two, rather than three, elected representatives per house means a more selective and passionate membership is serving the 25th Undergraduate Council—Mather House even held a debate for its leading candidates. And, probably most importantly, with approximately $30,000 freed from CLC expenditures that the Council will no longer provide, FiCom will theoretically be able to increase its limited budget. In all, this year’s UC is poised in position of unusual strength and confidence.

Yet undergraduates’ anti-UC sentiment seems to have hardly dampened, and many students have already called for the UC fee to be partially refunded. For some, it is a matter of deception: the 2004 fee hike was presented as a way to fund more student groups and more campus-wide events organized by the CLC. With CLC dissolved, they argue that the UC neither needs nor has a right to the money. For others, any UC fee is absurd: students should choose themselves which student groups receive their $75 and leave SAC to haggle with Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 over the Curricular Review.

Given that an overwhelming majority of events on campus are organized and funded by student groups, the UC has rightly decided to concentrate its funds on student group operations rather than the failed all-campus events of the past. But the 25th Council’s budget should not be hamstrung because the 22nd campaigned on its desire to fund more all-campus events; the UC has every right to redistribute its budget in the way that it feels that will be most effective to serve the student body.

The underlying question, however, is whether the UC can achieve a “Better Harvard” by simply giving funding to student groups. In 2004, the opposition to the hike compared the UC’s optimistic hope to “believing in the Tooth Fairy.”

But, as most students find out soon upon arrival at Harvard, student groups endowed with pillow money—from this newspaper to The Lampoon to Final Clubs—are the organizations with the greatest institutional strength, security, and draw. Without that legacy of luxury, an overwhelming majority of the 300 or so student groups at Harvard are forced to depend on the strained process of UC grants to remain functional; in total, groups received $208,282.91 last year, a paltry half of the $551,599.33 requested.

Some might point to a $27,000 ski trip request in order to discredit that number, but for the most part according to Finance Committee Chair Lori M. Adelman ’08, requests are merited and within reason. “Very rarely does a student group ever apply for funding that in an ideal world they shouldn’t receive,” Adelman said. “Our policies in funding, such as our decision not to fund fees for visiting speakers, are products of budget constraints. We have to prioritize to make the most benefit out of our money.” And rather than echo the common complaint that the UC has no philosophy behind its funding choices, we believe that indiscriminate, non-preferential funding is itself a philosophy—and the fairest method of supporting all groups on campus.

In one of the last UC meetings of the year, two girls cried in front of the Council over the UC’s inability to sufficiently fund their group. The influence of student groups on Harvard undergraduates—and the thousands of non-students whom those groups affect—should not be underestimated. Criticizing the UC for funneling this year’s extra money to needy student groups—assuming that is, indeed, what the UC plans to do with the additional CLC cash—is not only premature, but also completely out of touch with students’ experiences on campus.

Those who would prefer that students be given the power to allocate their individual fee are deeply naive. Under this proposal, students would choose in September where to send their money, spending it as indiscriminately as freshmen pen their email addresses down at the Activities Fair. Undoubtedly, some student groups would be swamped with money, like the Harvard Canadian Club with over 150 registered members, that they had no intention to spend, while others would be left in the dust.

But even worse, the change would restrict the open and ever-changing culture of student activities, burdening groups with uncomfortable decisions about criteria for involvement: Would groups require that members give money? Would events only be open to donors? Would students, if they do not finish a comp, be refunded money? The current system levels the playing field and opens the door to the entrepreneurs who want to personally contribute to the campus; students can opt in or opt out of the fee depending on their whims or financial status, but none will be turned away from a UC-funded event because of that fact. The termination or even the minimization of FiCom would threaten the variety and multitude of activities that makes Harvard what it is; the growth of FiCom’s budget can only improve on the status quo.

Although the current system is far from perfect, we are confident that the Finance Committee—hopefully with an additional $30,000 at its disposal—will be able to do an even better job supporting the Harvard campus by funding student groups. Whether its Santa Claus, John Haddock, or the Tooth Fairy who writes the check, $30,000 can make even Harvard-sized dreams come true.

Andrew D. Fine ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Nadia O. Gaber ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House.