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What does ‘Defund the UC’ Actually Mean?

By Emmett de Kanter, Contributing Opinion Writer
Emmett de Kanter ’24 is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the Vice President-elect of the Undergraduate Council.

Five hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money — at least if you avoid making unfortunate comparisons with weightier sums like the Harvard endowment or El Jefe’s presumable nightly sales revenue. At the start of each school year, Harvard adds a $200 student activities fee to our tuition. This money is collected by the administration, and $500,000 of it is given to the Undergraduate Council to be spent on behalf of the student body. Whether or not you agree with the quantity that is asked or even the fundamental logic behind it, it is hard not to get excited about the possibilities so much money represents.

Fundamentally, the Undergraduate Council is elected by the student body to spend our money to improve campus life and effectively advocate for our interests with Harvard administrators. These are not easy tasks, but they are relatively straightforward directives compared to the kinds of challenges facing real governments and other organizations tackling larger social issues.

When my friend Michael Y. Cheng ’22 and I decided to run for UC President and Vice President, we did it out of a sense that our student government has been diluted by unnecessary bureaucracy and politics. As a UC outsider, I was shocked when Mike slammed his personal copy of the UC’s 21,612-word Constitution on my desk during a conversation about his frustration with the organization. My surprise was two-fold: First, I had no idea why Mike would carry something like that around with him, nor from where he had produced the enormous document. Second, I couldn’t imagine why an organization responsible for improving student life and advocating for our interests with Harvard’s administration would need a document the length of a minor novel to regulate its actions.

At my first UC meeting, I was blown away by the amount of time and energy lost negotiating red tape and complex political relationships. Three hours were spent wading through an agenda that had been projected to take one hour, and by the end a member was in tears following an intense debate on complicated constitutional changes. I left the meeting upset, saddened to see people who are hardworking and passionate about making Harvard better being held back by a broken system. I was angry at what I saw as distractions from the basic tasks of student government and frustrated by the allegations of UC financial mismanagement.

Faced with structural inadequacies such as those that plague the UC, dramatic reform seems the only viable option. When Mike and I campaigned under the (admittedly provocative) slogan “Defund the UC,” we weren’t advocating for the end of student activity funding or the end of student government. Rather, we were calling for the establishment of a new student government that more effectively advocates for students, free of the UC’s bureaucratic inefficiencies.

After being inaugurated on Dec. 5, our first task is organizing a constitutional convention composed of Harvard students who want to build a student government that works. The convention’s goal is to write a constitution for a new student government to replace the UC. While Mike and I will participate in the Convention as facilitators, decisions will be left to the will of students at the Convention and the final Constitution will be sent to the student body for ratification by referendum. If our vision for the new government is not seen out through the Convention, so be it; our highest priority is giving Harvard a student government that is more legitimate and effective, and that only happens if students decide what their student government looks like.

A new student government would help address the inefficiencies of the current UC, but we must also allocate energy and resources to better serve Harvard students’ needs. With the money saved by financial reform, we hope to improve campus social life by establishing a Party Committee. The committee would provide resources for students to host social gatherings, making Harvard’s social scene more open. It will partner with House Committees and student groups to throw larger themed events, leveraging the student activities fee into events that are enjoyed by all.

Furthermore, Mike and I will lead advocacy campaigns to save Shopping Week and use civic tech tools, such as Pol.is, to improve our student government’s responsiveness. We will appoint a cabinet of people to work on concrete improvements to campus life — such as improving shuttle wait times and reliability, increasing institutional support for first-generation, low-income students, and bringing tomato basil raviolini soup back to our dining halls.

We deserve a student government that effectively serves us and delivers on the resources we contribute to it. We deserve a social scene that everyone can find a space in, a say in how our money gets spent, and to be well-represented with Harvard’s administration. Given the UC’s failure to meet these standards, I say it’s high time we engage in a proud Boston tradition: revolution.

Emmett de Kanter ’24 is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the Vice President-elect of the Undergraduate Council.

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