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Elections Spur Reflection: Does the UC Still Matter?

Insiders and outsiders allege estrangement from constituents; say change in tactics needed

For the candidates in this year’s Undergraduate Council presidential elections, it’s a simple, inescapable fact: no student from outside the UC has ever won the Council’s presidency or vice-presidency.

But, for the two outsider tickets running for office this year, there appears to be hope in students’ dissatisfaction with the UC’s status quo—and even with the UC itself.

“Basically we’re of the mind that the UC is only relevant to those who are directly involved with the UC,” says Roy T. Willey IV ’09, who is one of three vying for the presidency this year, together with fellow outsider Frances I. Martel ’09, and the consummate insider, current Council Vice President, Matthew L. Sundquist ’09. “The average student cannot tell you one positive thing the UC has done in the past year.”

Among those on the outside, like Martel and Willey, the UC is often characterized as an aloof body—one that fails to take an immediate, direct, and inclusive approach to improving the lives of students.

Even those who know the council best have reservations about its tendency to become mired in politics and lost in lofty aims, operating too often behind closed doors and through isolated channels deep within University Hall. Such a strategy for advocacy has worked as long as administrators remained amenable to students’ desired change. But with University Hall becoming chillier, some Council members say the UC runs the risk of finding itself both disempowered and estranged from the students it was created to represent.

COOPERATION AT A COST

If you ask current UC President Ryan A. Petersen ’08 about the council’s significance, he quickly points to last year’s overhaul of the academic calendar. For him, the move by Interim University President Derek C. Bok marked the long-awaited fulfillment of a key campaign promise.

Certified for implementation in fall 2009, the reform—which will move exams before winter break and give students more time off for the holidays—followed an extensive advocacy campaign. In the run-up to the decision, advocacy efforts included everything from a UC-authored 10,000-word position paper that included a newly proposed calendar to a UC-run referendum in which 84 percent of the more than 3,000 undergraduate participants voted their approval to the proposition.

When Bok sent a campus-wide e-mail to solicit thoughts on reform, making it clear that he would move on the calendar issue, Petersen was quick to credit the council’s efforts.

“Many of you saw Derek Bok’s e-mail,” he told the council in May. “Congratulations—I think it would not have happened without the Undergraduate Council pushing on him.”

But Bok himself does not characterize the moving force behind his decision quite so simply, viewing the final decision as a serendipitous meshing of student and administrative agendas—and declining to give the UC much credit for the change.

“Frankly, I am not clear in my mind exactly what led to what,” he wrote in an e-mail this week to the Crimson. “All I can say is that the combination of support by the deans and by the students led me to consider moving on the issue, and the views of the deans were more important because of the fact that they represented a broader constituency within the University.”

This dynamic of change stemming not from independent student action but from an alignment of the goals of student representatives and official administrators, marks a trend in the UC’s advocacy technique over the past few years. But while the meeting of the minds between the UC and University Hall has been fruitful—with calendar change its culmination—it has also come at a price that may damage both the UC’s influence and its continued relevance to its constituents.

INSIDE MEN

If the UC had to appoint an official historian, it would likely be the chairman of its Student Affairs Committee, Michael R. Ragalie ’09. He has spent countless hours sifting through the Quad-based collection of binders that the UC calls an archive, and speaks of “the dark ages of the UC”—1989 through about 1995, according to Ragalie—as if they belonged in a textbook.

For the past few years, Ragalie says, the UC has won victories for students by currying the favor of administrators in private.

“We’ve sort of hitched our wagon to the College administration and not relied on the legislative process, so our successes were because we’d become friends with the deans in University, and said ‘Listen, this is something that would be great to do,’” Ragalie says.

Such a convenient insider strategy, Ragalie says, took away from the UC’s focus on more formal legislative venues, such as the various student-faculty committees. These committees—had they been properly cultivated—might have been helpful in negotiating events this semester, when liability concerns led a cautious College administration to focus on what Ragalie calls “buttoning down the hatches,” discontinuing the UC’s popular party grant fund this semester, which paid for alcohol at student dorm parties that often drew undergraduates under 21.

The insider approach may have also led UC representatives to become too comfortable working in small meetings behind closed doors, and away from the eyes and accountability of their constituents.

“The UC’s a political organization and the people in the UC are trying to please their constituents,” Ragalie says. “I think there’s a lot to be said for pleasing your constituents when there’s less of an opportunity to call you out on what you’re doing.”

SERVICE SHIRKING

The remove of the UC from its constituents has not gone unnoticed by those who have seen the Council work first-hand.

“The UC itself has been focusing a lot less on direct action,” says Matthew R. Greenfield ’08, who spent three years on the council. “I don’t think UC reps are compelled really anymore by small action and by really direct local services to their constituents.”

“I remember a lot of UC reps offering to go across the River and get Harvard-Yale tickets for their constituents,” Greenfield continued. “And that kind of direct service, which was never formal, but cultural, is missing.”

Greenfield said that he believed that the cultural change on the council might have stemmed from the 2006 decision to abolish the Campus Life Committee, a key branch of the UC that had been engaged in planning campus-wide social events and services.

The demise of that committee, noted Greenfield, would make other bodies—such as the College Events Board, House Committees, and the Harvard Concert Commission—more appealing than the UC to students wishing to provide services to their peers.

Also detracting from the closeness of the UC’s relationship to students has been the College’s decision this fall to prohibit the UC from reimbursing the purchase of alcohol for dorm parties.

“The party fund was a good example of the UC doing something that mattered to students on a daily basis,” said former UC Finance Committee Chair Alexander N. “Zander” Li ’08, who noted that while the UC maintains the meaningful function of funding student groups, even that service is occasionally compromised by political considerations.

“The UC is never going to contest certain student groups for money, and those student groups are largely the student groups that make endorsements for the presidential elections,” Li said. “No FiCom member or UC member is going to want to get into a funding fight with the Harvard Democrats or the Harvard Republicans, or the BGLTSA or the BSA.”

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

For the council, this year’s negotiations over the future of the party fund were an uncomfortable reminder of the limits of the UC’s reach—which, in the final analysis, is inevitably shorter than that of administrators.

“If the UC wants ‘X’ by a vote of 99 to 1, and the administration wants ‘not X,’ then the Undergraduate Council is constitutionally not in the position to make ‘X’ happen,” said former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68.

But Ragalie said the UC has not done enough lately to maximize its constitutional powers, particularly those vested in the three student-faculty committees that were established along with the UC to provide a meeting point for student interests and representatives of the faculty.

Meanwhile, he says, the administration has taken steps to bypass the authority that the committees—and by extension, the students on them—might enjoy.

A case in point, according to Ragalie, is the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE)—a body that includes five students and five members of the Faculty Council, the 18-professor governing board of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The arrangement used to allow students to have a say in what sorts of issues were funneled directly to the Faculty.

More recently, however, many of the important roles and reviews that might have been handled by the CUE have been usurped by another body—the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), which until 2005 included no students and now—as Petersen dismissively notes—retains only two undergraduates together with 18 high-ranking deans and administrators.

Students are not the only ones to have questioned the propriety of the EPC. Since its establishment in 1992 by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Jeremy R. Knowles, the EPC—which was never ratified by the Faculty—has drawn criticism for the power that it commands despite its murky status relative to the rest of the FAS’s governance structures.

“[The EPC] is an appointed committee and it’s very powerful,” says Lewis, recalling the EPC’s first charge—a review of undergraduate concentrations. Lewis said he had never felt comfortable that the EPC reviewed concentrations without the authority of the Faculty behind it.

It was Petersen who, at a May meeting of the Faculty, spoke on behalf of students opposing a new student handbook regulation to make student group leaders liable for disciplinary review because of alcohol abuse at their parties. Petersen insisted that the regulation was developed by a “secretive process,” in an ad hoc Committee on Social Clubs whose workings were kept from students. He was rebuffed, with the Faculty voting to approve the new rules.

For his part, Ragalie says that the best way for the UC to recover its influence will be to bring such decision-making back to the student-faculty committees where he believes it was originally intended to take place, and where undergraduates can have a significant voice in the process.

“It’s not going to be pleasant, because I don’t think the administration wants to see these committees revived,” Ragalie says. But, he adds, if the UC shies away from confronting the administration by attempting to preserve benign relations with administrators that have characterized the past few years, the result might be even more undesirable.

“The other side of the coin is that if the UC does not step up to the challenge and continues to follow the administration’s lead—I think that will result in losing even more legitimacy and that will result in an even more atrophied Undergraduate Council than we have right now,” Ragalie says.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard.edu.
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