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Undergraduate Council: Year in Review

By Caleb D. Schwartz
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The melodramatic goings-on of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council often elude the attention of their peers who are not as inclined to campus politics. Of the graduating classes in 2019 and 2020, 43 percent and 31 percent of seniors held no opinion of the former UC Presidents, as compared with 18 percent and 17 percent who had none of Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. This is understandable, as measures that go through Dean Khurana’s office, from the reversal of social club sanctions to spring plans for the College, have tangible, widely-felt impacts on student life. And while the UC may have some of the same potential, its reputation is trapped in a dysfunctional cycle of student disillusionment and detachment and UC infighting.

As they conclude their term, it’s worth reflecting on the tenure of outgoing UC president and vice-president James A. Mathew ’21 and Ifeoma E. “Ify” White-Thorpe ’21. They entered office after a late surge helped on by a viral video and vague promises, and few details followed. This is perhaps the biggest problem for Harvard’s student government: it inspires the faith of only a few students (only a quarter of students voted in the latest UC election) and, in part as a result, only has the power to enact policies that bear on our lives tangentially, if at all. The cycle of disinterest and disempowerment is self-perpetuating. And though the UC website has a section for engagement, it presents itself more as an informational and resource guide than as a platform for genuine listening and interaction.

Despite these challenges, the UC has accomplished some useful things this year. Its low-cost winter and summer storage program was a major relief for some students, and its funding of Headspace subscriptions was a helpful albeit stopgap stand-in for mental health resources. As online classes continued this semester, the UC was vocal in supporting the extension of pass-fail grading, which was ultimately adopted by the College. Their decision to continue meeting into the summer deserves recognition as an admirable demonstration of commitment.

Perhaps most significantly, the UC also deserves credit for its involvement in advocacy: it signed onto an amicus brief supporting Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the summer. The UC took a proactive role in gathering student voices and using its platform to amplify them.

However good these efforts were, the impression that lasted was on balance negative. Looking back at the year, we remember the UC’s endorsement and later repudiation of “Double A” grading, its decision to disburse more than $2,000 for a club of a couple dozen members to buy Patagonia sweaters, and the overall lack of coordination between the council and its president and vice-president. At times like these, we wonder about the utility of our $200 Student Activities Fee. And in another classic reprisal, the UC continued its proud tradition of pursuing internal procedural reforms. The substantive effect of structural expansion instituted to the body’s caucus system remains to be seen.

These headlines grabbed and retained our attention because they justify our and many other students’ disillusionment and detachment from the UC. To change our assumptions the UC still has a lot of work to do.

But that work is not impossible, and we want to see them succeed. In the UC, we deserve a better advocate — one that can come up with thoughtful, targeted policy proposals and engage in sustained discussions, over years, if need be, with the University. Previous UC’s have risen to the task, and thanks to them, we do not have fall exams after winter break, rules about mixed-gender housing, and closed nights at Lamont.

The outgoing president and vice-president ran on the campaign slogan that “Harvard Can’t Wait.” It seems to us, however, that Harvard is still waiting for the advocate it needs.

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.

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