This semester, I was elected to the Undergraduate Council. After I had been on the UC for several months, my roommate one day casually remarked in passing: “The UC is so lame.” I was very much taken aback. Here was someone who was aware of the many hours I devote to UC meetings and various UC projects, yet her perception of the UC still remained unchanged. It made me realize how ingrained this notion is in our school's psyche. Our default view is that the UC is a joke.
You know what I mean. You’ve heard your friends call the Undergraduate Council self-interested and egocentric. You’ve heard them make jokes about its inefficacy, about how its members join not to change things on campus but to pad their resumes and boost their soon-to-be fledgling political careers.
And honestly, I used to think the UC was lame, too.
But now I strongly object. The UC is not a joke, and it's a shame if we let it be one.
The main issue is that many students simply don't know what the UC does. UC reps gather every Sunday for two hours to debate legislation. Many more hours are spent in committees, sub-committees, and meetings with deans and student groups. This past semester, the UC brought table numbers back to Annenberg, piloted a CharlieCard integration, increased funding for club sports, provided tickets for students to see Jason Derulo and the Dalai Lama, and took stances on Q Guide difficulty scores, unwarranted video-monitoring, and smaller section sizes. I may be biased, but this is substantial progress for a group that not only must work in line with Harvard’s administration but also suffers from a lack of stable institutional memory, as the council is wiped clean and reelected every year.
We may have our fair share of egotists (after all, we are representatives of the Harvard student body). But the majority of reps I know actively enjoy devoting their time to improving their immediate community. The lively debate I witness every Sunday night is testimony to how much reps care about thoughtfully speaking out for their peers.
Perhaps I've gone over to the dark side and let all the power and hot air fill my head. Fair enough. But I would like to point out that the notion of the UC as a joke is not an isolated trend. It’s exemplary of a larger cultural and political problem. In the recent midterm election, only 36.4 percent of eligible American voters actually voted—the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. I shudder to imagine what the voting percentage was among Harvard students, and the myriad of excuses that go along with non-voting.
Voter apathy and disengagement are broader institutional problems that I can’t tackle here. Instead, I urge students to think deeply about the dangers of political alienation, especially as the UC presidential race gets underway. Let’s ditch the pervasive idea that “my vote does not matter” or “whoever wins does not matter.” It matters. It matters because the UC is responsible for allocating a budget of about $450,000, which students pay into via their term-bills. It affects the way meetings are run, how agendas are set, and what stances are taken. It affects whether well-intentioned reps are given the support they need to pursue their projects. Most importantly, it affects the type of person who might run in the future.
In the coming week, you will be bombarded by slogans and attempts at humor (a byproduct of the Sam and Gus era). You will walk by tacky flyers plastered throughout your entryway and the Science Center. You will see a rebirth of Facebook profile pictures as they're edited to match campaign color schemes. This is all simply a reflection of the media manipulation and marketing already rampant in American politics. Don’t fall for it.
Instead, demand more out of your candidates. Attend the IOP and Crimson debates. Grill them with the hard questions, make them squirm. Ask yourself: Who would be the best student voice at a board meeting chaired by President Faust and other deans? Whom can I rely on to be the face of Harvard College, representing me and my fellow students?
Then vote. And after voting, keep applying the pressure. Ask your elected reps: “What are you doing for me today?” and keep pressing until you get a satisfactory response.
If being at Harvard is about learning to be a citizen and an active participant in your community, then it shouldn't start when you enter the real world. It starts here, and it starts now.
Phebe J. Hong ’16 lives in Eliot House. She serves on the Harvard Undergraduate Council.