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Fighting the Right Fight

By Pratyusha Yalamanchi

For most of my time at Harvard, the word "administration" represented an amorphous body of nameless people who make decisions that affect me without consulting me. I had no idea where they worked, let alone to whom I could go to with my concerns.  After three years on the Undergraduate Council, the dust had settled a little: I knew where University Hall was, had a few uneventful conversations at the Office of Student Life, and could attach some names and faces to titles.

One year ago, I ran for UC Vice-President as part of a ticket to "build community at Harvard by advocating for student voices and financing the undergraduate experience." What UC President Danny  P. Bicknell ’13 and I wanted to do was bridge the communication gap between students and the administration, hoping to  leave UC office with a Harvard administration more transparent and accessible than it was when we were elected. In conversations around campus, one perpetual question remained unanswered; how can students effect change and be engaged with campus issues if they simply don't understand or have access to the governance structures at the College and University level?

As we traded in life as students to living in University Hall (there were days when I literally camped out in the lobby area between meetings) to make our vision a reality, Danny and I realized that the struggle for effective student advocacy was two-fold: It required understanding the complexities of Harvard's decentralized governance structure as well as establishing opportunities for direct dialogue between students of all levels of engagement and the administration. So that's what we did.

To increase the administration’s accessibility and transparency, Danny and I have spent the past year working with the Associate Dean of the College Joan Rouse to create a public organization chart of Harvard's governance structure. A significant part of the student advocacy struggle is simply finding the relevant administrator. Navigate Harvard is an online organization chart of Harvard College Administration and relevant bodies available to students so they can directly contact the relevant administrators to address issues of concern and create avenues for student advocacy.

To provide opportunities for student voices to be heard and to foster direct dialogue between students and administrators, we've developed an online petition tool WetheCrimson. Undergraduate students can create petitions on issues relevant to the campus and other students can "like" or sign the petition with the understanding that the three petitions with the highest number of likes each month will receive a direct response from the Dean of Harvard College, Evelyn Hammonds, and an opportunity to meet to discuss the initiative in person.

In order to facilitate multiple avenues of structured dialogue between students of all levels of engagement and administrators, we have also developed opportunities for in person dialogue with various administrators. We recently held a joint Undergraduate Council and Harvard Graduate Council meeting with President Drew Faust to discuss university-wide student advocacy. We also held a Governance Panel, the first open college-wide discussion with panelists representing all of the major College decision-makers to elucidate governance at Harvard for UC representatives and other students. If you simply want to know that the deans are people too, you can have lunch with them through the UC Meet the Dean Luncheon Series, upcoming faculty-administration book talks, or fireside chats with Dean Hammonds.

When I first joined the UC, only the President and Vice-President interacted with administrators. Danny and I did not want that to be our legacy. Relevant administrators now come into UC General Meetings on Sunday to discuss issues such as mental health, safety, and sexual assault policy so that the entire Council understands how to go about representing constituents and effective advocacy. UC committees now directly meet with the relevant Deans—the Education Committee just had a two-hour meeting with the Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris—so that representatives can directly brainstorm opportunities for improving student life and affect realistic change.

As you are inundated with UC President/VP campaigning this week, please consider what you are looking for in campus leadership. Elections are always surrounded by the tension between pragmatic solutions and revolutionary ideas, but effective advocacy works within the system while simultaneously critiquing it. The UC President and Vice-President’s success is directly tied to the UC’s ability to understand the issues of undergraduates and thereby influence the College's decision making-process.

A year of numerous daily meetings, task forces, working groups, 50-plus page reports, and lengthy discussions have developed a greater degree of transparency and accessibility of Harvard governance for students, opened multiple avenues of direct communication, and strengthened bonds between UC representatives, leadership, and the administration. It is the responsibility of the next UC President and Vice-President to allow students to capitalize on these resources and inspire confidence in the UC for undergraduates.

University Hall has opened its doors. It's your turn to enter.

Pratyusha Yalamanchi13, a human evolutionary biology concentrator in Dunster House, is Vice-President of the Undergraduate Council.

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