We Are Harvard

On May 11, 2009, an announcement from Dean of Faculty Michael D. Smith delivered a stark truth to students—budget cuts had been made to student life, and students had not been included in the process. Within hours, e-mail lists exploded with discussions about shuttles, hot breakfasts, dining-hall workers, House administrators, and the elimination of anonymous HIV testing at UHS. The administration responded to the announcement by holding a series of town -hall meetings across campus. College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds and members of the College administration took questions and tried to comfort students who were concerned about their safety, nutrition, education, and quality of life. However, the town halls came far too late, for the administration spent only four hours listening to student concerns when it should have been listening for the past four months.

An economic crisis provides a unique opportunity for a college to restructure its priorities. In an Undergraduate Council meeting on May 3, Deans Smith and Hammonds reassured the UC that preserving the undergraduate experience was their goal and that, despite cutbacks, the heart of student life would remain intact. But, last Monday, it became clear that administrators and students had different interpretations of the undergraduate experience.

Broad community input prior to the announcement of the first budget cuts would likely have resolved the serious issues that have since arisen. Consultation with House Committees and staff would have revealed the deep impact that cuts to House budgets will have on House life, consultation with Quad students would have revealed the importance of a late night shuttle, and consultation with all students may have provided more innovative solutions to saving money.

While I commend Dean Hammonds for creating working groups with student representatives, I encourage the administration to think more broadly about student participation. Going forward, students are concerned that they will continue to be left out of the process as further cost-saving plans are announced, and the administration must publicly address the widespread belief that, over the summer, numerous additional cuts will be made to staff, faculty, and student life.

In the past week, students have created several websites, feedback forms, and petitions. Now, the administration must follow suit and create a website that makes the budget process transparent. Since all members of the Harvard community must make sacrifices, all members of the community should understand and be fully informed of our financial situation. Like MIT, Harvard should create a website that allows students to see how much we need to save, where the College is thinking of cutting back, and allow undergraduates to rank proposals and see the dollar value that is associated with each plan. In addition, students should be allowed to provide their own creative solutions to budget cuts, for we have the best perspective on where the College could save money while not hurting student life. Also, when plans are being established, few students understand who is responsible for making the decisions. Regular communication from Dean Hammonds could provide students with a greater understanding of when and how financial decisions that affect the college are being made.

While these solutions to lack of open communication between administrators and students would provide short-term relief, the current budget-cut confusion is reflective of a larger and more permanent problem with College governance. For too long, decisions at Harvard have been made behind closed doors, and a lack of student input in major university policies continues to be a problem.

In February, the Dowling Committee made a series of recommendations to reorganize the structure of student-faculty committees by giving them real decision-making power. The reforms would allow the three main college committees to implement proposals that students, faculty, and staff have worked on together. While the school reorganizes its finances, it should also reorganize its bureaucracy. A more inclusive process of decision-making at the college would allow students to have a permanent role in college planning, and, in times of crisis, the administration would not have to completely reinvent a way to communicate with its own students.

If Harvard wants to continue to be a leader in higher education, it must see the financial reorganization as an opportunity to teach students to think critically about making collective sacrifices. We are the reason the College was created, and we deserve to both learn from and contribute to the problem-solving process. This financial crisis is one of the greatest in Harvard’s history, and all voices in the College community must be included in order to preserve Harvard as we know it today and to improve it for the future.

Andrea R. Flores ’10 is a history concentrator in Currier House and president of the Undergraduate Council.