Ignore the Elephant in the Room

Freezing behind all the empty rain-covered folding chairs this past Friday, I stood watching an inauguration for pretty much the same reason we all were: just to say we’d seen it. Thanks to the cold, the tall trees throughout Tercentenary Theatre shivered and shuddered themselves, letting go of pent-up rain and fall-colored leaves, dropping them… right in my face. Many felt when Undergraduate Council (UC) President Ryan A. Petersen ’08 spoke, he got all up in their face. To me, it was the only thing all day worth the cold.

For the first time, the president of this University is a female and yet, at this historic moment of change, why do we fear more change? Our University is entering a new era, but students throughout the school suddenly become cynical about their own rights, saying “that’s the way it is” and “there’s nothing we can do” or, even worse, “there’s nothing we should do.” In her address, Faust said the very “essence” of this University “is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future—not simply or even primarily to the present.” Our insular, inflexible administration cannot possibly have the foresight to be accountable to the future without hearing from the very people it has chosen to lead that same future.

Faust’s inauguration was without a doubt the best opportunity for us to be heard—the only time when anyone actually listens to the UC president. Regardless of what some may think about his presentation, Petersen boldly, but respectfully, remained faithful to the very students he was elected to represent by the basic core of his argument. With rhetorical flourish, Petersen said: “This process of decisions made behind closed doors, this disempowerment of students, this denial of citizenship must end now!”

As we all well know, the elephant in the room was rather large. The recent controversy over the College ordering the UC to get rid of party grants was on every student’s mind as Petersen, having changed his characteristically tight jeans to slacks, walked up to the podium. The problem with this elephant (besides how it got in this room to begin with) is not whether we are allowed party grants or not. Instead, the problem is the way the College approached us before publicly announced its decision: it didn’t.

Some believe the administration should act as our parental figures, knowing what’s best because we don’t have the foresight or wisdom yet to decide. I disagree. When I once refused to eat broccoli, my mother didn’t say: “eat it because I say so.” Instead, she discussed with me the pros and cons of broccoli-eating. Now I love that delicious fibrous vegetable.

Given my parent’s respect, I was much more inclined to do something I didn’t want because I understood why it was in my better interest. In abruptly and condescendingly telling us what to do, the College is simply inciting student protest and indignation. Instead, the College could have embraced the basic principle this University stands for, teaching students, and respectfully said: “We understand what you’re saying. However, we can’t fund underage drinking. Here’s why.”

Honestly, who really believes we shouldn’t have input in College legislative decisions that affect us? Do administrators really know us better than we know ourselves? We’re selected because Harvard believes we are the best and the brightest. In fact, we’re trusted, and almost expected, by this College to become leaders in the future. Preventing us from attending “closed door” sessions only stifles learning and breeds discontent, hurting both the students and the administration in the process.

Petersen had the conviction not only to express what he believed, but what the entire student body should. His place as our elected representative allows him the privilege of speaking for us. By having the courage to tell our newly elected university president, as she entered the position with the most influence on undergraduates at this College, how we feel, he was not just doing the right thing. He was doing his job. It’s easy to discount an idealistic speech because of the timing or place.

However, declaring that Petersen’s speech was poorly timed is an excuse for ignoring the much bigger issue it brings up: student citizenship. At the very least, do we have a right, as men and women of Harvard, to real representation in issues that affect us? Be courageous like Petersen and say “yes.”

Derek M. Flanzraich ’10 lives in Currier House.