The preamble to the constitution of the Harvard Undergraduate Council is nothing if not sincere. “We, the undergraduates of Harvard College, are an important part of the University community, and are therefore entitled to an active role in deciding its policies and priorities,” it begins. Each week, the intricate bureaucracy of committee chairs, presidents, secretaries, and representatives of the Undergraduate Council convenes to fulfill that role.
Though it is difficult to imagine Harvard College lacking a student government, the UC has only been in place since 1982, which is relatively recent compared to peer institutions. “We’re probably the only university that I can think of that has no student government,” student Kenneth R. Moya ’82 told The Crimson that year.
It wasn’t that Harvard students were uninvolved in the minutiae of college legislation. Rather, student involvement was largely fragmented until the early 1980s. Until College Dean John B. Fox ’59 helped create the UC, students worked in tandem with faculty members on three main governing committees: The Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Committee on House Life, and the Committee on Student Services. Within all these groups, student involvement was often difficult to coordinate.
“There was a real interest in having student input into educational issues, into social House life issues, into service areas, and the like. Up until that point, there was no group that really deliberated all of these things,” Molecular and Cellular Biology professor John E. Dowling, a key player in the creation of the modern UC, says.
Dowling, who chaired the exploratory Committee to Review College Governance, sought to improve communication between faculty, students, and administrators over campus issues. A 1981 report of the so-called “Dowling Committee” discussed the “need for improved mechanisms to insure [sic] a strong student voice in decision-making processes within the College, especially those that deal with student life.”
The new Undergraduate Council was structured after the existing Faculty Council. It aimed to consolidate the scattered organizations that had characterized Harvard student government late into its history. In its first months, though, it was criticized by both students and faculty.
Some lamented the lack of reserved representation for minority students. Harvard’s aspiring political wonks griped that the UC’s constitution was narrowly ratified. One Crimson article notes “an unfortunate scheduling problem by which the seventeen members of the Communications and Finance Committee were required to be in two places at once.” The infant UC was under attack.
Perhaps most striking were allegations that the UC actually reduced meaningful student involvement in on-campus politics. Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 observes that UC elections don’t always stir up the pot. “Not all elections have had robust attention,” he says. “I think democracy is a good model, but I admit that voter turnout has sometimes not been particularly strong.”
Joke campaigns on the UC were run long before tomato basil ravioli soup. Dowling mentions that in the UC’s earlier days, students often ran for office on ridiculous platforms. “A benign dictatorship may have been the most effective way to govern at that point,” he jokes.
How does the modern UC live up to its chaotic past? For one, Dingman and Dowling believe that the students who have run for office in the past few years have taken the position much more seriously than their predecessors.
“If you want student governance to have credibility, I think it is important that the Council is made up of people who have landed in those spots because of students’ choices,” Dingman says. “I think it has been a tremendous source of help.”