Candidates, Set Your Sights High

The UC needs to step up its advocacy on the issues that really matter

National elections may be over, but Harvard undergraduates have a another ballot to cast: the Undergraduate Council’s (UC) presidential campaigns will begin when the campus returns from Thanksgiving break. In the last year, the UC has been restructured and substantially improved. Without the Campus Life Committee, UC money has been redirected to House Committees—whose budgets have increased from $3,500 to $4,500 per term—and to student groups, while campus-wide social events have been placed in more capable hands.

This new, streamlined UC now needs to find a way to do more. We challenge this year’s candidates to find a ways to broaden the UC’s vision for student advocacy in order to address the big picture issues that most tangibly effect students’ daily lives, including ensuring that the College does not rest on its laurels with respect to social life improvements and making the realities of a Harvard undergraduate education worthy of its reputation.

Debates on student life issues should be led by the UC. Two years ago, the UC loudly advocated for a 24-hour library. We now have not only a 24/5 library, but the hugely successful Lamont Café. In the spring, we will also (hopefully) have a brand new pub in Loker. We hope that these projects will be the beginning, rather than the end, of the administration’s investment in campus life. With the departure of former University President Lawrence H. Summers and former Deputy Dean of the College Patricia O’Brien, the strongest supporters of these initiatives in the administration, the UC needs to make its voice heard so that student life concerns are not ignored by a largely disinterested University Hall.

Plans for the Allston expansion are being set, and the UC should be pushing for student interests at the forefront of the discussion. New Houses should be placed as close as possible to the existing River Houses. A student center should be built sooner rather than later, and it needs to be centrally located. In the meantime, social space on the current campus should be expanded and renovated.

The UC should also be putting pressure on the University to address faculty accountability and pedagogy. A position paper “On Better Teaching and Learning” was passed in March, focusing on shortcomings in the teaching fellows (TF) program. The UC has not spoken up on the issue since, and has not addressed the more important question of faculty teaching. CUE evaluations should be published for all faculty members, a system of peer faculty teaching evaluations should be developed, and tenure decisions should take into account teaching abilities as well as research. These improvements are essential to keeping Harvard at the forefront of higher education and are of profound importance to students. The UC should be leading the push for change, but right now, it is essentially silent on the matter.

Part of the problem is the UC’s tactics: position papers may be a start, but they do not accomplish much in themselves. In spite of numerous such papers, TFs have not noticeably improved from past years, and coursepacks—a perennial favorite in all campaigns—are still unduly expensive. And TFs and coursepacks are among the smaller items the UC needs to tackle. The new leaders of the UC need to find more effective and innovative means of advocacy.

The UC’s response to the gift account tax, which has been levied on student group gift accounts this year suggests that the UC may have more than position papers in its advocacy toolkit. The Student Group Tax Repeal Act was passed earlier this month. A week later, the UC organized a protest with students groups outside the Nov. 14 Faculty meeting, which earned them a meeting with Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. The initiative ultimately fell short, but it represented a step beyond the perfunctory position paper, which often falls on deaf ears. More steps like this need to be taken. The UC could make much more extensive use of petitions, op-eds, or discussion forums to draw attention to advocacy issues. If position papers are met with indifference, as they so often are, then the UC needs a bolder and more diversified strategy.

The UC is the student voice to the administration. The leaders of the UC must ensure that the Council addresses the most important issues on campus and that students’ concerns receive attention. Even though the campus views the UC as its “student government,” no one questions that administrators are the only people who can implement change at Harvard. Essentially, this sometimes-forgotten fact leaves the UC in the position of a “pressure group” more than a “government.”

The only way for the UC to spark change, then, is to apply pressure to the administration and directly to faculty members in any manner possible. The UC has a critical role not only in “student life” in the vein of the fun czar, but also in “student life” in the sense of our undergraduate education. We expect the candidates for president and vice president to address these twin responsibilities seriously and hopefully with some exciting new ideas.

Fixing Harvard, not the UC, should be the focus of this campaign season.