Really? More Referenda?

UC Meeting
The Undergraduate Council met earlier this month in the Smith Campus Center.

When undergraduates vote in the Undergraduate Council presidential election this week, they can also vote on two referenda: a submission by Divest Harvard calling on the University to disclose its holdings in the fossil fuels industry, commit to divestment, and reinvest more sustainably by Earth Day 2020, and a submission proposing to extend the closing times of breakfast and dinner by half an hour in Harvard University Dining Services facilities.

So what of these two referenda? To the first we say, “Ay!” We have previously called for Harvard to “disclose, divest, and reinvest.” As such, we support the referendum submitted by Divest Harvard and hope, perhaps vainly, that the University take this call seriously. As for extending mealtimes and proportionally increasing payment for HUDS employees, we believe that the issue cannot be constructively addressed by a mere referendum, which does not deal with the logistics of implementation.

But regardless of our specific takes on these referenda, we are skeptical of using UC referendum as a platform for change in the first place. Over the years, variations of the divest referendum have been proposed and passed by a wide margin. In 2012, 72 percent of the student body voted in favour of a divestment referendum, and last year, 71.5 percent of the student body once again voted in favour of a divestment referendum. Neither, evidently, has made much change.

As the current UC cabinet ends its tenure, this divestment referendum will no doubt join the ranks of other overwhelmingly passed, but not realized goals: saving “Harvard Time” and extending Thanksgiving Break in 2017, and repealing sanctions on single gender social organizations in 2016. Moreover, by associating itself with the, to say the least, ineffectual UC referendum process, the Divest Harvard campaign has reduced its activism to a level occupied by banning student meetings during breakfasts, making the Harvard Turkey the official mascot of the University, and transforming the Pusey Library into a social space.


Though some may still see the UC referendum as a platform for gauging student opinion, the low turnouts in UC elections offers a contradictory picture. While presidential elections normally receive more attention and higher voter turnouts than midterm elections, in which “literally no one voted in the Quincy midterm elections” one year, the recent elections have not seen high turnouts that provide a convincing mandate: Last year, only 2,792 students voted, itself a significant increase from the year prior in which only 2,074 students voted.

To be sure, previous referenda have admittedly been a microphone, if a perhaps somewhat redundant one, for student causes — as in a 2007 referendum that jumped on the bandwagon calling for fall final exams to be held before winter break. The UC, albeit one of more than a decade ago, deserves credit for that. But the fact remains that UC referenda should inspire little confidence. If we were Divest Harvard, we’d steer clear. But, sure, referendize, if you really want to.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.