A Shrewd Brinksman

Petersen leads loud, tireless advocacy—without alienating top brass

When Undergraduate Council (UC) President Ryan A. Petersen ’08 wanted to expedite student requests for a new academic calendar this year, he sent a letter to Interim President Derek C. Bok demanding a meeting with the seven-member Harvard Corporation, the University’s reclusive top governing board. (The request was denied.)

When administrators refused to distribute the UC’s calendar proposal to the entire Faculty of Arts and Sciences via e-mail, Petersen submitted an official request asking that the Commission of Inquiry—a relic of Vietnam-era student activism that hadn’t been assembled in nearly 20 years—be convened. (The request was dropped.)

And when the University continued to delay its response to the UC’s calls for moving fall finals to before the December break, Petersen handed out an 11-by-17-inch “Declaration of Grievances” at a UC meeting where representatives discussed lying down on the University Hall steps to disrupt an upcoming Faculty meeting. (The lie-in never happened.)

In his four months as UC president, Petersen has established something of a new paradigm for student leadership and advocacy. Repeatedly raising the stakes and only pulling back when concessions from the University appear imminent, the Quincy House junior has promoted undergraduate interests indefatigably, stridently, and often successfully.


Early one December morning, hours after polls closed in the 2006 UC presidential elections, the newly-anointed head of Harvard’s student government threw a celebratory arm around the shoulder of his poncho-clad running mate, Matthew L. Sundquist ’09.

In photographs of that delirious celebration, Petersen’s elation is evident—the tips of his long, blond, champagne-drenched hair plastered back to a point just above the soaked neon-orange T-shirt gracing his back.

The disheveled feel of those images stands in sharp contrast to the run-up of the election, when campaign manager Tracy E. Nowski ’07 enforced a professional appearance by prohibiting sweatpants and sweatshirts and personally selecting Sundquist’s outfits on some mornings.

But with the election over, action—not appearance—was key.

“I think our clothing was the last thing on our minds,” Petersen recalls of the victory party. “It was a spirited celebration, but also a realization of, ‘We have a lot of work to do.’”

Indeed, the key campaign promises of the Petersen-Sundquist ticket included cheaper course materials, teaching reforms, calendar change, and mental health advocacy.

By January’s end, with the official inauguration still a week away, the pursuit of textbook price reform was already well underway—and under fire. A group of UC representatives, dispatched to the Harvard Coop to collect ISBN information for the database of a UC-endorsed, student-run book-savings Web site, were forced to leave by store employees.

The expulsion led to concerns about the future of the savings scheme. And while 95 percent of the book information would still make its way online, according to Petersen, the incident was an apt precursor to future UC strategies that, while rarely coming off without a hitch, would still find a way to succeed.

“Members of the UC have been frustrated by the difficulty of influencing Harvard’s decisions to be more student-oriented,” Petersen says. “It’s unfortunate that most of the time, the UC has to use campaigns to publicly lobby for issues rather than participating in a decision-making process to benefit students.”


While the archetype of the undergraduate politician often includes a booming voice and conservative dress, Petersen eschews the high school debater aesthetic.

At a recent interview, the UC President wears white shoes fastened with blue shoelaces and anchored by canary yellow soles. His shirt is a vague shade of green, and his trademark “skinny jeans”—ripped in one knee—hug his hips. The get-up is typically outlandish, but, perhaps more importantly, it is reflective of the leadership style that serves Petersen well: wacky but workable.

His speech—delivered in a high-pitched, quavering voice that is distinctly his—is similarly unique, coming in excitable spasms and accompanied by a frenzied hand-wringing in its more passionate moments: when, for instance, he discovers that the new University librarian is a leader in intellectual history—his own area of concentration when he has time to pick up a textbook.

But Petersen’s textbooks tend to remain stiff-spined and clean-margined because he has reading and researching that has nothing to do with a syllabus. Without the president’s near-manic devotion to his job, it would be hard to imagine the UC producing volumes such as the 10,000-word position paper that was released at the beginning of the Council’s “Mental Health Awareness Month” in April.

Laying out the case for a revamped calendar that would include a fall exam period before the winter holidays, a four-week long break between terms, and a spring term exam period that would end a week and a half earlier than at present, the report weighed in at some 20-plus pages and underwent 13 revisions. Meanwhile, Petersen’s schoolwork went neglected.

“When we were working on the calendar stuff, I know that he put off so many things,” Sundquist says. “He put off two papers that were already late and a midterm the next day that he hadn’t studied for while were trying to get the research together for the calendar report.”

Petersen went on to organize a referendum in which 84 percent of the 3,467 undergraduates participating called for the calendar to be changed. Two weeks later, Interim President Derek C. Bok e-mailed the Harvard community to reopen a University-wide conversation on the calendar. A decision on the matter was expected Commencement week.

The calendar campaign illustrates Petersen’s bifurcated method of lobbying the administration: while raising the rhetorical ante in public, he appears to have been successful in cajoling University leaders in private.

“Ryan and his colleagues have presented the case for calendar reform in a most thoughtful and reasonable manner without threatening demonstrations, building take-overs or other pressure tactics of the kind I experienced in the early 1970s,” Bok said in an e-mailed statement. “All my encounters with them have been entirely civil and constructive.”

Next semester, Petersen will be dealing with a new set of administrators, but his plans are no less far-reaching than they were this spring. By the end of December, he says, Petersen would like to see a reformed Administrative Board and, perhaps, the institution of an honor code. He also wants students to sit on the secretive and influential Faculty of Arts and Sciences Resources Committee.

“I think students need to be more involved in decision-making at every level of the University,” he says.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at