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The Worst of Two Worlds: Responsibility Without Authority

UC Meeting
Sruthi Palaniappan '20 and Julia M. L. Huesa '20 are the president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council.

When we were elected last semester to serve as president and vice president of the Undergraduate Council — an election that, like many UC presidential elections, is highly visible and garners far greater turnout than House or Yard elections — we had high aspirations to positively impact undergraduate student life through a series of legislative and non-legislative initiatives.

Today, those aspirations are under threat.

About three weeks ago, a fellow representative brought to our attention that the UC Constitution does not explicitly denote membership to the president and vice president. Despite this ambiguity, the Council had allowed their membership for the past 40 years. When we discovered this vagueness, we promptly submitted a constitutional amendment that would clarify the roles of the president and vice president as members of the Undergraduate Council, maintaining the precedent of the past four decades. In the end, 80 percent of the 34 UC representatives present at the Council’s last general meeting of the semester voted in favor of our amendment.

However, another procedural complication rendered our vote invalid. Six UC representatives opposed to our amendment abstained, invalidating the vote due to a provision that requires at least two-thirds of all UC representatives to vote “yes” or “no” to pass a constitutional amendment. Due to the power this small group held to invalidate this vote, as of now, the president and vice president are not considered members of the Council, inhibiting, among other things, their ability to vote and sponsor legislation.

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Without the ability to sponsor legislation, the president and vice president have virtually no means by which to advance the platform on which they ran and were elected by a plurality of the student body. Without an ability to introduce or vote on legislation, the voices of all students who voted on and believed in the elected president and vice president — the representatives with the most visibility and accountability to the student body — are effectively silenced in the Council’s decisions. Without the ability to influence any of the decisions of the UC, why would administrators like University President Lawrence S. Bacow, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, or Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana make the time to meet with the UC president and vice president?

The UC president and vice president now have responsibility without authority. They are held accountable for all actions of the Council, but lack the ability to sway decision-making or effectively carry out their vision.

The UC president and vice president have no power to veto legislation, nor can they issue executive orders — virtually nullifying any form of “executive power” traditionally awarded to the executive branch. Because they lack “executive power” to begin with, to strip them of their ability to vote or sponsor legislation renders them merely figureheads within the legislative context of the Council. As the president and vice president are the only student representatives elected through a student body-wide election, they carry a distinct obligation to promote and sponsor legislation intended to benefit the entire undergraduate population. This perspective is what allows the president and vice president to add unique value to the Council’s collective work. They are not at odds with the rest of the Council but rather unified around the interest of serving students. Halting their participation through voting or sponsorship of legislation in the Council sets UC in conflict with its own mission to represent and support the undergraduate student population.

In the past, the president and vice president have voted on and sponsored important and beneficial legislation. This includes 2016 President and Vice President Shaiba Rather ’17 and Danny V. Banks’ ’17 “Grant for an Open Harvard College,” which to this day funds large-scale student events that address one of our compelling interests: mental health, financial accessibility, sexual assault prevention and response, social spaces, and race relations. Over the past three years, this grant has funded over 50 large-scale events and initiatives like the Harvard Student Art Show, summer storage subsidies for students in renovated houses, Your Mental Health Matters Week, the Latina Empowerment and Development Conference and student projects over Wintersession 2018-19. Our predecessors Catherine L. Zhang ’19 and Nicholas D. Boucher ’19 started Harvard Conversations, a program that has continued past their tenure to connect students and faculty for small, informal dinner conversations. Even in our first semester, we passed legislation for the Social Inclusion Grant, which aims to make organizing inclusive social events more accessible to students. We also piloted a class-wide event for the Class of 2020 in which 400 juniors attended, the success of which speaks to the need for expanded class-wide programming for sophomores and juniors. The ability of the UC’s leaders to vote on and sponsor legislation has produced substantial improvements to undergraduate student life. But future improvements have now been made substantially more difficult.

As student leaders working every day to improve the Harvard community, we never dreamed that our roles would be stripped of membership on the very Council where the president and vice president have been voting and sponsoring legislation since its founding, 40 years ago.

The Harvard Undergraduate Council and Harvard College student body at-large now need to grapple with the question of whether stripping the president and vice president of their voting rights or ability to sponsor legislation actually helps make the Council more effective or representative in its service to the student body.

Julia M. L. Huesa ’20 is the current Undergraduate Council Vice President and a Social Studies concentrator in Lowell House. Sruthi Palaniappan ’20 is the current Undergraduate Council President and a Government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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