Deregulate Student Life

The OSL must balance Harvard’s interests with student freedom

On Thursday, leaders of academic and pre-professional student organizations were welcomed back to campus by the Office of Student Life with an email detailing University policy on the use of Harvard resources for commercial purposes. In theory, the regulation of the use of University-owned property is a reasonable, common-sense measure that protects Harvard’s name and preserves the integrity of student activities on campus. Harvard has a strong legal incentive both to protect the copyright of its name and keep an eye on what happens in the spaces it owns. But some student leaders were understandably disgruntled by the OSL’s excessive, onerous guidelines.

In the past, we have opined that the OSL too often polices student life rather than serving as a cooperative resource for student organizations. Unfortunately, the office’s recent communiqué is an unwelcome continuation of that trend. The unduly ambitious regulations presented in the OSL’s email are unnecessarily burdensome and difficult for students to work with.

Among the guidelines sent to student leaders is a limitation on the commercial use not only of Harvard’s physical property, but also of freshman and House listservs. No student or student organization is permitted to “represent outside groups or products by...promoting their goods and services through Harvard listservs,” the email writes. Under this policy, students who work as student ambassadors for outside companies will not be allowed to promote the company’s products or services on their House or dorm email lists. Harvard-owned or not, residential listservs are among the most frequent and basic ways in which students communicate with one another on a daily basis. They should not be treated in the same way that physical spaces are, and they certainly should not be subject to heavy-handed regulation simply by virtue of being University-operated. The unreasonable restrictions placed upon residential email lists represents just one of the ways in which the OSL is incognizant of the realities of student life.

While it is understandable that the University is concerned with the use of its name in collaboration with for-profit companies, there are ways to address this concern without restricting the use of Harvard spaces. For instance, the OSL could make explicit that Harvard does not endorse any company with which a student organization collaborates and mandate that students clarify this policy at events where third-party organizations are hosted.

Admittedly, students ideally would not be engaged in the pure promotion of commercial products or brands that are not relevant to academic or pre-professional interests or that are unrelated to a student organization’s mission. But the OSL’s role should be not to steer student life in the direction that the University chooses, but to be an advocate for student-organized activities. We call upon the OSL, once again, to support student life.