Why Representative Government Doesn't Work for Students

Equality demands tyranny.

If one supposes to truly privilege the vision of the equality of conditions, the existence of a governing class at once turns problematic. If a group of people is to rule by representative government, inequality becomes necessity. Even with the universal franchise, the selection of representatives dictates that some will be deciders and some will be those on whose behalf the decisions are made. Representation demands that a group of peers ennoble one of themselves, and dominate others of their own rank and file.

In a despotic regime, the class of tyrants—a group separate unto themselves—ensures the equality of the ruled. There are no leaders and followers, here. The class of people cannot distinguish among themselves, for they are all kept permanently in a static equality. The unlimited authority of the autocracy consolidates all power onto itself, and the people abjure all claim to it. It may so happen that the despots enforce a state of equal immiseration, or it may be that they produce one of equal good fortunes. In either case, the ruled class, fixed in place under the unyielding hand of the tyrant, is uniform.

This is, of course, no way to run a state.

Eventually citizens’ jealousy of their fellows and its consequent yearning for equality gives way to a demand for enfranchisement, and it is on this principle that modern societies are run. We expect that our legal rulers will, at some final point, draw their ultimate authority from the people, even when it is an authority many times mediated.

But perhaps there is something to be said about tyranny in the running of a university. Not for tyranny’s sake—and not, as perhaps some conservative critics might frame it, for the enlightened administration of a glut of unruly students incapable of self-governance. Instead, perhaps we at Harvard need the unitary power of administrative authority to maintain our equality with each other.

For in a representative scheme of university governance, we must accept the unavoidable fact that we will always create a class of governing students and one of governed students. And no matter how closely the former reports to the latter, no matter how democratic a process leads to the selection of those classes, they will always remain separated. Such division is inherently incompatible with the academic utopia of the undergraduate body, where utter equality of conditions is an imperative.

Thankfully, we have for the past few years elected undergraduate councils that have closely mirrored student sentiment on campus. But the Undergraduate Council (UC) system still puts a handful of students in a privileged state. There will always be only one or two students on committees meeting behind closed doors in University Hall. There will always be a handful of students who know what’s about to happen next in the search for the next dean. There will always be representatives who, noble as they may be in seeking to speak for their constituency at large, will always ultimately act as a single student.

And, given the cauldron of ambition that is Harvard, this is cause for reflection. We have thus far been fortunate enough to elect representatives who have invariably shied away from megalomania. But the UC has still erected a permanent framework of students who are in the know and those who are not.

I am lucky to be in the know. Most of us are not, and, worse, most of us couldn’t care less. To imagine a few members of Harvard’s political elite acting on the behalf of thousands of students who suffer from a poverty of interest is worrisome at best and aristocratic at worst.

So rather than campaigning for the extension of student powers through the UC, any legitimate call for enfranchisement in university governance must operate without mediation. It must operate by direct democracy. If the administration wishes to consult students on matters concerning them—and it would be wise to—it ought to do so by asking every one of them. In the age of universal electronics, it does not sound like a difficult proposition.

Otherwise, the administration’s tyranny of authority remains justified in the crucial byproduct of exact equality of students in the view of the University. Without it, we doom ourselves to a division of dominance, presenting to the administration a few faces where there should be a chorus.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.