A Timorous Beastie

The UC needs to stop fearing its own shadow

We don’t ask very much of the Undergraduate Council (UC). We ask it to pay for our room parties and student group events, but for those of us who are neither club treasurers nor rabid politicos, the UC has a campus presence to match its prestige, which is demure at best.

The reason is obvious. A few major-league screw-ups in recent years have sapped the UC’s credibility to the point that every week without a catastrophe still seems a small victory. To its credit, the UC has moved on from losing thousands on attendee-free booze cruises and concerts to focus on what it apparently does best—very little.

After the Harvard College Dean’s Office airlifted the UC out of its social programming nightmare last spring, furnishing the newly independent College Events Board (CEB) with a handsome budget all its own, the UC was left swimming in its lingering insecurities and its constituents’ cash.

A 2004 increase in the termbill fee, from $35 to $75, was designed to overcome the financial obstacles associated with mounting large campus-wide events, especially concerts with big-name artists. When it became painfully obvious that UC members’ ineptitude, not money, was the real issue, the council rightly jettisoned its social programming function—and a third of its membership—but was left with its termbill windfall intact. As it stands, the UC’s budget exceeds $400,000.

On Sunday night, the UC voted down a proposal to provide free copies of The New York Times in undergraduate dining halls for the balance of the academic year. Both the President’s Office and the Freshman Dean’s Office passed on paying for the papers this year, despite the relatively thrift-friendly price tag ($1,728). The UC was eager to follow suit, even though a trial run of the program earlier this year got rave reviews.

It is the spectre of Snoop Dogg, of Springfest, and of Wyclef Jean that kept the UC from shelling out the cash to pay for your morning paper. And it’s not because of any particular dislike for the daily news, either; the UC is one of the most risk-averse organizations at Harvard.

Rather than take on novel projects itself, the UC has developed a nasty habit of asking the Harvard administration to fund and organize them. In the case of The New York Times, the UC was apparently compelled by the logic that because there is a cost associated with a student service that is evidently desired and appreciated by undergraduates, it falls to the administration to fund it. That doesn’t make much sense coming from an organization that has $400,000 of our money to distribute on our behalf.

Even more disappointing is the distinct scent of pork that permeates the UC’s lack of initiative. According to one UC representative, paying $1,700 for two months’ worth of newspapers for an entire campus, “just took money away from student groups.” Fair enough. Moments after voting down the newspaper initiative, however, the UC approved grants for similar amounts to individual student groups, whose combined impact for the undergraduate population is certain to be less than a stack of free newspapers in dining halls each morning.

Sure, spending $1,700 on newspapers means less money to spend on the Harvard Polo Club—which has $1,000 coming to it from the UC this week—but aren’t dozens of free newspapers in House dining halls worth the sacrifice? The sad fact of the matter is that The New York Times doesn’t endorse a candidate for the UC presidency, while the Asian-American Association, the Radcliffe Union of Students, and the Harvard Republican Club—which combined for almost $1,000 in grants this week alone—do.

Recent history makes the UC’s inaction all the more perplexing. Last November, a small number of representatives jammed through legislation that allowed the UC to fund special shuttles from the Quad to Harvard Square on the morning of the Harvard-Yale football game. Despite resistance from gun-shy representatives, the service operated successfully. In January, the UC voted down a proposal to buy back used PRS clickers and re-sell them at cost, to reduce prices for students who end up in courses that require the expensive devices. A number of frustrated UC representatives ultimately ran the service themselves.

The crucial variable that determines where and when the UC is prepared to act is apparently money. The UC was ecstatic to work with discount textbook retailer to catalogue hundreds of texts for spring semester courses, and didn’t flinch at setting up its new “Teaching Hotline” last month. Neither of these initiatives cost the UC anything, except its members’ time. But when it comes to a buy-back program for PRS clickers, or $1,700 for daily newspapers, the UC comes up empty. With a $400,000 budget, that kind of avarice is uncalled-for, particularly when the UC only has that money in the first place to fund campus-wide activities—which it no longer does at all—not to fund student groups ad infinitum.

The UC’s track record of waste and mismanagement is not something soon to be forgotten. Its present unwillingness to put undergraduates’ money to work for them is, however, the greatest waste of all.

Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.