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Op Eds

Vote Yes For Change: A New Action-Oriented Student Association

By LyLena D. Estabine, Shruti Gautam, and Ben A. Ray, Contributing Opinion Writers

The Harvard Undergraduate Council was originally established, as many things are at Harvard, through a committee process approved by the administration and instituted through faculty legislation in 1982. While a referendum was held for students to vote on the UC’s creation, it was bankrolled by an administration-funded publicity drive. In the 40 years since then, it has achieved progress in some areas. In recent years, however, the UC has been the source of more grief and embarrassment than school pride.

Frustrations with the system have been widely felt throughout the student body, with only 17 percent of Harvard seniors approving of their UC President and Vice-President in 2021. These frustrations are enhanced by the fact that the UC is funded by part of the $200 student activities fee undergraduates pay each year. The UC has also faced financial scrutiny; Risk Management and Audit Services have been called in to conduct a thorough investigation of the organization’s methods and monetary decisions after an overwhelmingly large amount of financial allegations during the previous UC election. Though there have been a few victories over the years, overall the UC has failed the student body. Its flawed, inherently confrontational structure — one previously created by administrators — has made it difficult for the UC to organize students and make long-lasting change. Generating sustainable solutions is not a core aspect of the current, and outdated, UC model.

But students are not complacent – they want an improved system. That is one of the reasons they gave the UC a “vote of no confidence” and elected the current president and vice-president in last November’s UC presidential election. It was from this same desire for change that a group of students assembled to write a new constitution.

This group of students were tasked with one key question: if we were to create an inclusive, open, and effective student government at Harvard today, what would it look like? Twice a week for several months, these students — first-years and upperclassmen, international and domestic students, athletes and non-athletes, and students from a diverse array cultural backgrounds — debated and discussed topics ranging from the high-level goals of a body to the nitty gritty details of club financing and elections. Talking with students, UC members, professors, and other organizations around Harvard’s campus, they created an innovative new system for student advocacy: the Harvard Undergraduate Association.

The HUA constitution is modeled after highly successful student associations worldwide, specifically the University of Sheffield’s that has an approval rating of over 90 percent. Rather than electing all of its members, membership of the HUA would be open to anyone who would like to join. This larger body of members would then be organized into teams — such as academics, residential life, or well-being — that focus on tackling key issues at Harvard. Annual school-wide elections would be used to determine the officers who would lead each of these teams, and two co-presidents who would ensure the student association continues to represent students’ needs. Electing officers for a particular team would lead to campaigns that are both policy-focused and practically more achievable. Tools such as referenda, sortition, and digital democracy would be used to ensure accountability and democratic legitimacy when the HUA would make policy decisions.

The HUA would take direct action as a student advocacy group. Students who care about issues would be able to meet with administrators through the HUA’s connections, allowing for the new student association to give a platform to more students, rather than the current structure of speaking for those who can speak for themselves. The new structure would allow any student to partake in the student association’s work in an open, transparent, and student-centric model. The HUA is designed to promote student body participation — this would make strong and successful advocacy possible. Volunteer participation would also be a constant litmus test of the efficacy of the organization, aiming to bolster legitimacy and have a group that truly represents the student body’s voice.

If this new constitution is ratified, the HUA will immediately launch specific measures that are in alignment with its values. Students will be partially refunded with the current withheld UC funds. Club applications and funding will be streamlined and more flexible, allowing for clubs to start during different times of the academic year and funding processes to be tailored to clubs’ needs. Also, by integrating specific teams into the structure of the HUA, a multitude of issues can get deserving attention, unlike the current model that pushes different issues to the back for the sake of parliamentary procedures.

Harvard is one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the world. Why shouldn’t our student association represent the caliber of students we have? As a volunteer-driven student association, the HUA will differ from the UC with the student body’s direct participation, becoming the first student association at Harvard created entirely by students for students. We support the new constitution and a dissolution of the fragmented and outdated UC.

Shruti Gautam ’25 lives in Hurlbut Hall. Ben A. Ray ’24 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Mather House. LyLena D. Estabine ’24 is a Sociology concentrator in Lowell House

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