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Harvard’s Paternalistic Power Grab

The Committee on Student Life, a secretive body that lacks even a web page, is considering seizing control of the admissions process for extracurricular groups. This proposal has the support of Undergraduate Council President Sruthi Palaniappan ’20. Comping did not even appear on Palaniappan’s 31-point platform, but the administration has been toying with overseeing the College’s “comp” process for some time. As far back as 2017, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s sanctions Implementation Committee suggested that “the practices and culture of comping should be examined … [by the] Committee on Student Life.” Last summer, Khurana appointed Kate Colleran to oversee “policy implementation, assessment, and engagement culture” for student organizations.

Students have every principled and practical reason to oppose this administrative power grab. Harvard claims that its mission is to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” But the administration often treats students like children. Our student body includes the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate and entrepreneurs bringing the fight against cancer to the poorest countries in the world. But still, we are denied opportunities if our deans do not approve of our social groups. We must secure tutor permission to have friends over on a Friday night. This proposed policy of evaluating comps takes Harvard’s paternalism to a new and dangerous level. In the name of inclusivity, UC Vice President Julia M. Huesa ’20 said the College may reserve the right to determine whether each comp process is “adding value or contributing to the experience or the educational mission of the College.”

Let us be clear about what that means. The Committee of Student Life and not the debate team would determine how to select debaters. The Committee of Student Life and not theater groups would have the final say on what constitutes an appropriate audition. The Committee of Student Life and not literary magazines would decide the way to pick good writers. All 500-plus student groups would potentially subject every detail of their comp to scrutiny by an unaccountable committee. I need hardly elaborate on the message that sends about Harvard’s trust in its students.

I carry no water for arbitrary exclusivity. I am a member of zero organizations on campus. I was cut by the Fly Club and have been rejected by almost every extracurricular to which I applied. But we should honestly face the practical consequences of this attempt to foster inclusion by fiat. The Crimson Key Society, famous for its social comp, could cease to exist immediately. These groups may not be missed. But other groups — groups which enrich thousands of student experiences — may soon follow. The Asian American Brotherhood, which has an intense and selective comp, builds community among mostly Asian-American men. The Harvard College Consulting Group has a notably low acceptance rate as it selects members it can depend on while working with real-world clients. Eleganza selects attractive models after a competitive audition, while bringing the diverse student body together and raising thousands for charity. Under the proposed audit policy, these groups may disappear in their current form. If the impacts on student life prove devastating, perhaps Khurana will again suggest we read Chaucer.

If Palaniappan and Huesa want to fight exclusivity, they should clean their own stables first. The UC chooses its members by vote — the ultimate popularity contest. Two-thirds of first-years who ran for the UC last fall were not elected and were therefore excluded from any participation in student government. With elections just weeks into the year, first-years with experience running for office had an “unfair” advantage. Ending the UC’s exclusivity would be easy: Replace it with a Student Assembly, allowing any undergraduate to attend its sessions and vote. Abolish the presidency and pick a communal, rotating executive by lottery. Doing so would give many more people the chance to lead the student body, regardless of arbitrary social status. By advocating these changes, Palaniappan and Huesa would make a powerful statement against exclusivity. But if they are unwilling to accept more inclusive standards themselves, they should not ask administrators to impose those standards on others.

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In his installation address, University President Lawrence S. Bacow bravely said that “we must strive to model the behavior we would hope to see elsewhere.” He also said that we “scour the world for students… prepared to demonstrate brilliance… [on] performance stages, and out in the community.” Surely, it is not modelling pluralism and tolerance to condescendingly micromanage student groups trying to demonstrate brilliance on performing stages and in the community. Surely, when he goes home to Michigan, Bacow does not want to have to explain to the people of Pontiac why Harvard students cannot be trusted to run theater auditions on their own. Surely, when we welcome German Chancellor Angela Merkel to speak to our common values at Commencement, Bacow should be able to look her in the eye and tell her than we are upholding those values in Harvard Yard.

The University recently launched the Inclusion and Belonging Pulse Survey, telling us that “your experience matters.” If Bacow truly believes that our experience matters, he will stop University Hall from meddling with extracurriculars, the heart of undergraduate student life.

Philip O. Balson ’19 is a History concentrator in Dunster House.

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