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Each September, just a few weeks after some 1,600 freshmen descend upon the Yard, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council conducts its fall election. The Yard transforms into a battleground as first-years don their formal attire for the first time and begin campaigning. Some go door to door to share with potential voters their grandiose visions of better Annenberg food; others hang posters with the obligatory rhyming slogan; many do both. You will know them when you see them and, undoubtedly, this year will be no different.
The election, which fills the vacant seats of UC representatives, gives freshmen their first chance to participate in student government at the collegiate level. And participate they do: This year, freshmen comprise more than half of the 86 candidates. These 46 freshman hopefuls—representing an increase from 43 last fall—vie for a mere 12 seats. Energized by the prospect of serving on the University-sanctioned student council, the freshmen are not fazed but emboldened by the steep competition. In addition to showcasing the admirable civic involvement of the freshman class, however, the passion with which these eager first-years bid for the UC spots also reveals the less palatable reality that upperclassmen are simply disenchanted with their student government.
Remarkable as the freshman turnout for the election may seem, it is no less routine than the increasingly meager upperclassman interest in serving on the UC. This year is no exception, with three-quarters of the student body accounting for less than half of the candidate pool. In fact, the apparent lack of upperclassman interest is so pronounced that five seats—reserved for various upperclassman Houses—could actually be left vacant. That a student’s interest in becoming a UC representative so precipitously drops from one year to the next cannot be explained away with a dissection of the freshman psyche. Rather, it is clear that the actual work of the UC—however necessary and noble—is falling short of student expectations, resulting in a systemic disillusionment among upperclassmen.
This disillusionment stems from the misalignment between students’ vision of the UC and the UC’s actual scope. Although the UC does perform several vital, bureaucratic functions—like distributing grants and allowing students to reserve rooms—it has little influence over the kinds of important College policy issues that one associates with the notion of governance. Of course, this does not mean that the UC does not try to have a significant impact on student experience; rather, it can, and frequently does, advocate on behalf of the student body. But the reality remains that, no matter how well intentioned and diligent the UC representatives are, the institution is simply not equipped with the tools or authority to implement the change it advocates.
It is no wonder, then, why upperclassmen show such apathy toward the UC. And it is not just the current crop, either. The ambitious freshmen of the Class of 2017 will return next fall as sophomores. Some will seek reelection in their new upperclassman House; some will not run, citing one of myriad complaints with the system; and some will forget entirely until the polls open. As the UC candidates from the Class of 2018 swarm the yard, each campaigning for one of the envied 12 freshman spots, the Class of 2017 will approach the elections with less fanfare, understanding well the limits of a relatively tough, dry, and thankless job.
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