What the UC Needs

Eric P. Newcomer

The Undergraduate Council has never been the most popular organization on campus. As president, it is hard to deny that most students view the UC with suspicion and doubt, for the council has often appeared more self-important than productive. But as the elected student government, the UC has always held a great deal of potential. Created by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the UC’s responsibility is to advocate for students in a complex and decentralized Harvard administration. Even though the mission of the council is straightforward, it has never been easily accomplished. The UC has become a whipping post for students frustrated by the lack of student input in college and university wide decisions. While fingers often point to a hyper-political council or an opaque administration, the council will continue to fall short of its potential until students choose to empower the UC once again.

This semester, the UC took a series of steps to reconnect with the student body. With a new communications committee, we have spent a semester trying to inform students about how we work, and how they can get involved. Students came together to improve UC funding, provide new student services, work towards an ethnic studies secondary field, advocate for student social space, and protest budget cuts. When it was announced that the campus would close for five weeks in January next year, we had over 100 students ask how they could respond or change the decision.

When the UC explored the possibility of fundraising for a student center, students came to the general meeting and debated passionately for two hours for and against the proposal. When students became involved in these issues, UC members became better representatives. They could actively point to the opinions of the students who had elected them, and our council debates became longer and more nuanced as we began to consider the opinions of people outside of the room. The UC membership naturally expanded and evolved from a self-selecting governing body to a more inclusive group of concerned students.

While the UC has taken important measures to create a more inclusive council, there is still work to be done. The UC is too often defined by the personalities that lead it, and over the years, a select few have dominated the council agenda and discussion. As president, I will continue to push the UC beyond its history, and make council operations and advocacy accessible to any student that is concerned about student life. You should never have to be a UC insider to work for students, and I remain committed to the vision of an inclusive and accessible UC. This semester, the council passed major constitutional reforms to remove our own bureaucratic barriers. The new reforms will improve communication, management, and efficiency within the council, but the UC will only reach its full potential by bringing students back into the process.

The UC has always been what students make it. Initiatives like calendar reform would never have been possible without the help of students, nor would academic changes like ethnic studies be realized without a coalition of students supporting it. No government can function without an active constituency, and the successes and failures of UC initiatives most often reflect the numbers of non-UC members supporting them. Whether it is participating in a UC meeting, serving on a student-faculty committee, or writing to your UC representative, the UC will only continue to improve if we hear from the people we represent.

On May 19, 150 students joined together to rally against the exclusion of student opinion in the first round of budget cuts. Leading up to the rally, students submitted over 70 pages of feedback on the budget process to the UC website. This input will guide the UC leadership over the summer, and has allowed the UC to gain a better grasp on student opinion. However, students must not lose interest in the budget process—for as Harvard reshapes and restructures, student opinion must be heard. We must build on the energy from the rally, and while it is the UC’s job to provide students the forums and opportunities to get involved, these efforts will not succeed unless we have students willing to participate. The UC cannot respond to the budget crisis alone, and I hope that in the next semester students will continue to join forces with the UC and the administration in the tenuous process of cutting back.

In the next year, the UC needs more student support than ever before. We need students to push for more involvement in the budget process, we need students to call for reforms to the Ad Board, and we need students to work with us to give student voice a permanent and substantive role in the College’s decision-making processes. There is no greater time to get involved with student government than the greatest budget crisis in Harvard’s history, and there is no greater time to show the administration that students are ready to increase their involvement in the College. As the UC sheds its old ways, it still has the opportunity to be an active voice for students, but even as we evolve as a council, we will only be effective if students are prepared to get involved and work for the issues that matter the most.

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