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Before the Undergraduate Council’s (UC) founding in 1982, one of the crowning achievements of previous student governments at Harvard had been securing free toilet paper for residents of the River Houses. As the College’s first officially recognized and funded student government, the UC exercised powers unknown to its predecessors.
Armed with a term-bill-funded budget and positions on newly-formed student-faculty committees, the nascent UC immediately set to work tackling major issues including the College’s Core curriculum, control of its own budget, and summer storage for undergraduates.
Just as the UC improved upon the short-lived Student Assembly, its immediate precursor, student governance at the College has come a long way since the first batch of UC representatives were elected in the fall of 1982. Since then, the UC has slimmed down, changed its organization, and gained new levels of credibility.
CHANGING OF THE GUARDS
Before the formation of the UC, undergraduate governance was limited to the Student Assembly, founded in 1978 amid a wave of student activism. The body quickly became frustrated by its lack of power, largely because it was not recognized by the College.
John B. Fox Jr. ’59, then-dean of the College, recognized that the Student Assembly was ineffective.
“Undergraduates felt that their voice was not being heard,” Fox said recently.
In response to these complaints, Fox appointed a student-faculty committee to consider possible modifications. The Committee to Review College Governance, chaired by professor of biology John E. Dowling ’57, produced a report in May 1981 that suggested several reforms. The “Dowling Report” proposed the formation of a student council recognized and funded by the College—a first in Harvard history.
Upon release of the report, then-Chairman of the Student Assembly Andrew B. Herrmann ’82 called the proposed government “a vast improvement over the present system.”
The UC became a reality in the fall of 1982. Although the Council was initially similar in size to the Student Assembly, with approximately one representative per 75 students, the UC wielded substantially more power. The Council had a budget of $58,000 in its first year and was allowed to place members on faculty standing committees and student-faculty committees. The UC was also formally recognized by the College, which made it easier for the concerns voiced by students to be heard.
According to current UC President Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, these changes made for a more effective student government.
“All these student-faculty committees and implementation committees allow the UC to bring issues to the table and give us a major way to exercise our influence,” Sundquist said. “The budget helps provide more direct support to students on campus.”
The transformation did not go unnoticed by the student body. In the fall of 1982, more than 200 students competed for 89 UC seats. In contrast, during the Student Assembly’s final semester the previous spring, only a little over half of the assembly’s 90 seats were filled. Attendance was so low at the organization’s last meeting in April that attendees did not meet the quorum necessary for the government to disband itself.
THE CORE OF THE MATTER
In 1978, when the Core system was on the eve of implementation, 2,500 undergraduates signed a petition demanding more student input in the decision process. But ultimately no undergraduates were involved.
Even after the founding of the UC gave students more sway, they did not immediately have a direct role in shaping the Core.
In preparation for a faculty vote to continue the Core curriculum in May 1983, the Undergraduate Council prepared a report that included suggested reforms. The 50-page document was distributed to then-Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky and members of the Faculty Council (the highest governing body of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences).
Christine A. Reuther ’83, then-chairman of the Council’s academic committee, said at the time that the report would most likely not have a significant impact, reflecting the body’s general sense of its limitations.
By contrast, undergraduates today have been able to play a considerably more active role first in influencing the Core and more recently in creating the new General Education curriculum by serving on committees that hold authority over the composition of the curriculum—suggesting the long-term presence of a student voice in discussions of this nature.
POWER OF THE PURSE
Despite the marked improvement demonstrated by the UC’s newfound source of funding, its budget has nevertheless been continually accompanied by periodic disputes with the College over controlling, managing, and spending its money.
The UC funds remained in University hands, as they do today. Michael G. Colantuono ’83, the first UC chairperson, defended the decision to keep the money in University control in order to ease embezzlement fears and cover auditing costs.
But despite Colantuono’s position, on Nov. 14, 1982, the Council voted to transfer its funds to a local bank to earn interest. Although the UC approved the measure 53 to 30, then-Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III told The Crimson, “I have to be frank and say that it won’t happen as I’ve said all along”—marking the first of many times the UC and the administration would butt heads over finances.
“I think the administration had a pretty measured attitude toward us,” Colantuono said recently. “They actively participated with the UC, but the fairly impenetrable wall didn’t budge.”
The tension surrounding financial independence that dominated the inaugural Council remains a central issue 25 years later. In the fall of 2003, the UC created its party fund program to cover the costs of some private parties each weekend, including the reimbursement of alcohol purchases. But this past October, interim Dean of the College David R. Pilbeam sparked another UC funds controversy by announcing that the party grants must end.
As it was in 1982, today’s UC was prepared for a battle to assert authority over its funds, refusing to end the program. In both disputes, the UC turned to their constitution and pointed to the clause, “The Council shall receive term-bill income for its own operations, for grants to undergraduate organizations, and to stimulate social life. The Council shall have final control over this income.”
But like it did in that first battle, this year’s UC gave in to University Hall’s demands and agreed to end the reimbursement of alcohol.
University Hall still manages the current $400,000 UC budget, and even though the UC ostensibly has “final control” of its budget according to its constitution, the College continues to demonstrate its power of oversight.
While the failed Student Assembly was noted for its inefficiency, the inaugural UC was praised for its seriousness. The newly-created Council quickly set out to accomplish tangible goals.
“I think we recognized the need to be more than a debating society,” Colantuono said.
The UC’s first major victory was the March 8, 1983 announcement that unlimited summer storage for undergraduates would continue.
Earlier that year, administrators had threatened to eliminate storage, citing a lack of space due to House renovations. The UC drafted an alternative storage report, disputing the College’s claim that limiting summer storage space was the only solution. At the time, Fox described the UC-led effort as the most impressive piece of student research in more than 15 years.
The College revised its storage policy, simply urging students who lived within 100 miles not to store their belongings but not explicitly limiting anyone from utilizing the storage facilities.
UC representative Gregory S. Lyss ’85 said at the time that this success demonstrated the Council’s ability to “effectively counteract unsavory policies floated by the College.”
Over the years, the UC has set increasingly high goals. Recently, representatives tackled the issue of calendar reform, which had been brewing for over 30 years.
The 2007 Council, led by Ryan A. Petersen ’08, brought the issue of calendar reform to the forefront of its agenda. Most significantly, its proposal sought to push fall semester final exams to before winter break.
In an online student referendum called by Petersen, 84 percent of the 3,467 undergraduate votes cast were in favor of the proposal, and on June 6, Interim President Derek C. Bok announced that a University-wide calendar reform had been approved by Harvard’s governing boards. Petersen told The Crimson last year, “The undergraduates and the Undergraduate Council identified a problem and sought to address it, and the governing boards took our concerns seriously.”
THEN AND NOW
Since its inception, the UC has continued to change with the times.
“As the College has evolved, so too has the UC,” Sundquist said.
Today’s UC has a total of 35 members, including the president and vice president, down from the original 89.
When the UC was founded 25 years ago, a chairperson presided over Council sessions, and he or she was elected by the vote of the UC representatives. But in May 1995, the UC voted to change to a general election for a president and vice president, in which anyone can run and anyone can vote.
“If you’re trying to choose effective leadership for the legislative body, I don’t necessarily think that a president is better,” Colantuono said recently. “But if you’re trying to find someone to stand for the overall student body, then it may be.”
Colantuono added that with the direct election of UC presidents, the election could be more political: “The race can easily become of much more interest to the future senators of America.”
Despite the organizational transformations of the past quarter-century, the function of the UC as an instigator of change has remained remarkably constant. Just as the Council responded to student demands for summer storage then, the recent UC-led effort has paved the way for the University’s calendar of the future.
Fox cited the UC’s longevity as a sign of its success.
“I think it suffers from what all student governments suffer from—namely that students expect it to transform the University,” he said recently. “That’s never going to happen. But it has been very effective, particularly when it addresses things that are immediately relevant to students.”
Twenty-five years after its foundation, the UC continues to evolve, and a new committee, again chaired by Dowling, is currently working on a report to address the strengths and weaknesses of today’s Council. The Committee to Examine the Role of the Student in College Governance, known informally as “Dowling II,” is set to release a report some time next year.
“The College has changed fundamentally,” Dowling said, “and I think it’s time we look at it again and see how we can improve it.”
—Staff writer Sue Lin can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Arianna Markel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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