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Embedded in Article IV of the Constitution of the Undergraduate Council is a provision that allows for “any question” to be voted on as a referendum if supported by at least 10 percent of the student population in a preliminary petition. If approved in an election in which the majority of undergraduates cast a ballot, that referendum proposal becomes the official position of the UC.
In recent decades, the referendum process has been evoked in varying forms by undergraduates advocating for changes in student government representation, term-bill fees, and the final exam schedule, among other issues.
Last fall, after five years without any referenda, three student groups with three distinct policy aims rediscovered this method of activism and turned to the UC to provide a clarification of the referendum process. From these discussions emerged referendum questions advocating for divestment of the University’s endowment from fossil fuels, a revision of the College’s sexual assault policy, and the creation of a social choice fund. All three referenda passed with the support of an overwhelming majority of student voters in the UC presidential election.
But in the year that followed, this initial wave of student support has not always been translated into administrative actions.
As students prepare to vote on a referendum question later this month calling for the expansion of gender-neutral housing options, organizers of last year’s referenda acknowledge that the process has its limits. Though activists say the referendum process remains a valuable tool to demonstrate student interest in certain issues and raise awareness on campus about these topics, they say the events of the past year have shown that the process is no panacea.
CHOOSING SOCIAL CHOICE
Among last year’s three referendum proposals, just one—the creation of a social fund—has been enacted by the administration.
The social choice fund referendum, organized by the Responsible Investment at Harvard Coalition, called on the University to allow donors to make contributions that would only be invested in companies that make a “positive social impact.” Less than a month after 80.5 percent of the undergraduates voting in last fall’s UC election supported the referendum question, University President Drew G. Faust announced that Harvard would create a social choice fund, citing appeals from students and alumni.
Samuel F. Wohns ’14, a member of Responsible Investment, said he did not think the referendum alone convinced administrators to establish the fund. He credited his group’s spring 2012 establishment of the Fair Harvard Fund, an initiative pushing for the creation of a social choice fund, as another important contributing factor.
Yet Wohns said that while he thinks the Fair Harvard Fund and other forms of pressure would have eventually persuaded Harvard to establish the fund even without the referendum, he believes the referendum made the process easier.
“I think that that second wave of support and pressure...based on the very widespread, clear demonstration of support from the student body, was one of the critical steps of achieving our campaign goal of getting the University to create a social choice fund,” Wohns said.
Still, Wohns said he was not completely satisfied with the social choice fund’s implementation, saying he was disappointed by the extent to which Harvard administrators have publicized and promoted the fund. The referendum process should not be seen as a “be all and end all,” he added.
“Use [the referendum process] as an opportunity to get out the vote, to contact as many students as possible, and to really mobilize campus,” Wohns said. “But recognize that the University is in no way obligated to follow the will of the student body, that it is a powerful and important but limited tool for advocacy on campus.”
THE REJECTED REFERENDUM
Supporters of fossil fuel divestment have seen just how “limited” referendum results can be in pushing the University to change its practices.
Since the divestment referendum was approved with the support of 72 percent of student voters last fall, the University has come out against divestment from fossil fuels several times. Most recently, Faust reaffirmed the University’s rejection of divestment in a letter addressed to the Harvard community in early October.
Despite the University’s firm anti-divestment position, divestment advocates say they are not demoralized.
“[The referendum] showed that [this movement] is not just a few crazy people; this is something that most of the students are really interested in and is a mainstream [issue],” said Harold N. Eyster ’16, a member of divestment advocacy group Divest Harvard.
The greatest benefit from the referendum vote, according to Eyster, was its success in encouraging more students to join the cause on campus and to “galvanize” students across the country to start similar movements on their campuses.
“A lot of the people working directly on our campaign who are an integral part of it right now were alerted to it by the referendum,” Eyster said. “It helped to alert them that [this movement] exists and that it’s something that a lot of other students think is really important.”
Eyster said that although Harvard’s continued rejections of divestment might appear as “blocks” to the movement, he believes the University’s continued engagement with the issue allows the group to keep the conversation going.
For example, the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility has met with divestment activists and UC leadership three times since last November. According to UC President Tara Raghuveer ’14, the dialogue in these meetings has gotten “more and more productive.”
“The encouraging thing, and something that I find curious about the case of divestment in particular is that the members of the CCSR don’t have to meet with undergraduates,” Raghuveer said. “These are very smart, very important people and they have taken their time out of their visits to campus, now repeatedly, to meet with the undergraduates who are organizing this campaign.”
ASSAULT POLICY IN LIMBO
The advocates pushing for a revision of the College’s sexual assault policy have also seen that student support can only go so far in convincing administrators to change course.
Last fall, the referendum asking College administrators to reexamine their sexual assault policies passed with the highest level of support–85 percent–among the three referenda. Yet that referendum has yet to generate any policy changes–a disparity that Raghuveer said she finds concerning.
“I think it’s an important, interesting, and troubling observation that the issue that was the most popular—that is the closest to Harvard undergraduates—has received less support, less engagement, and less active response than the other two issues that are University-wide issues that are further from students,” Raghuveer said.
Even before students finished voting on the issue during last year’s UC presidential election, then-Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds told The Crimson that the College’s sexual assault policy was unlikely to change in the near future.
Still, after the referendum passed, Hammonds commissioned a working group to study the College’s existing sexual assault resources and any potential improvements that could be made. The working group met from last December until the end of the spring semester before writing a report during the summer recommending improvements, according to activist Pearl Bhatnagar ’14.
Meanwhile, Mia Karvonides, the University’s recently appointed Title IX Coordinator, has sanctioned a separate working group at the University level to develop recommendations for changes to sexual misconduct policies and procedures across all Harvard schools.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, Karvonides wrote that the working group is “moving towards the end of this process” and that the Harvard community could expect to see results in the coming months.
But Bhatnagar, who is a lead organizer for the Our Harvard Can Do Better campaign, which organized the referendum, said she is concerned about the way administrators have approached the issue of sexual assault policy reform.
For one, she said, the working group was not charged with examining two proposals that were enumerated in the original referendum—endorsing the concept of “affirmative consent” to sex and clarifying the definition of “mental incapacitation” that would make a person unable to consent to sex.
Bhatnagar also said that the sexual assault policy discussion has been complicated by the recent departures of several administrators involved in those conversations. She pointed to Hammonds’s resignation as Dean of the College over the summer, and Sarah Rankin’s departure as director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response this fall to become the Title IX Investigator at MIT.
“With the point people no longer in their posts, we have to rebuild relationships,” Bhatnagar said.
Bhatnagar said that although she has yet to see any changes to the College’s sexual assault policy, she still believes the referendum was productive. “The referendum was a clear way of showing...that the student body wanted to revisit the procedures around sexual assault,” she said.
According to Bhatnagar, the referendum offered a “great building point” for the sexual assault reform campaign to conduct more research into student perspectives and necessary steps to change the policy.
Still, she said that research has shown that in working with Harvard’s intricate bureaucracy, merely holding a referendum vote is not enough to convince administrators to change their position. “Once you do get students to vote on your referenda there are a host of other steps that need to be taken by the activists involved that may not be clear given the decentralized nature of Harvard University,” Bhatnagar said.
—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.
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