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Harvard Undergraduates Will Vote on a New Student Government Constitution This Week. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The Harvard Undergraduate Council formerly met in the Smith Campus Center's Isaacson Room.
The Harvard Undergraduate Council formerly met in the Smith Campus Center's Isaacson Room. By Aiyana G. White
By J. Sellers Hill, Crimson Staff Writer

Four months after taking over as president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, Michael Y. Cheng ’22 will finally learn the fate of his marquee campaign promise: to replace the institution he now leads.

Cheng and UC Vice President Emmett E. de Kanter ’24 unveiled the draft of a proposed new constitution in an email to undergraduates last week. If passed, the constitution would dismantle the UC’s existing structure and replace it with the “Harvard Undergraduate Association,” a body led by two co-presidents and made up of fewer elected members who would manage seven issue-focused teams.

The new constitution was drafted over the course of several months by the Citizens’ Assembly, a group of randomly-selected undergraduates convened by Cheng.

The College-wide referendum, set to run from Monday to Thursday, will determine whether the UC will undergo a complete constitutional overhaul and be replaced by the HUA — or survive in its current state.

Here’s what you need to know about the vote.

How Would the New Constitution Pass?

Beginning on Monday at 12 p.m., undergraduates will cast their vote on two referendum questions, including a “yes” or “no” vote on the passage of the new HUA constitution.

In order for the HUA to pass, two-fifths of the student body must turn out to vote. Two-thirds of voters must vote “yes” on the new constitution.

The other referendum question on the ballot asks undergraduates whether they approve of Harvard’s Covid-19 policies.

What Happens if the New Constitution Passes?

If approved by voters, the HUA would be established by May 8, according to the proposed constitution. Initial HUA elections would take place by April 30.

But current UC members would have some say in the process. Under the HUA’s transition guidelines, applicants for an interim election commission would be selected by the outgoing UC executive board. The interim election commission would be responsible for running HUA’s first elections.

If the board cannot finalize its selections by April 6, the Dean of Students Office would choose students to serve on the commission.

Based on procedures set by the interim commission, an election for HUA officers — including the co-presidents — would take place via school-wide ranked-choice voting.

The guide says students would not see immediate changes to club funding.

“The Undergraduate Council’s regular student organization funding process will be maintained as normal through the end of the semester, with funding based on the budget agreed upon by the UC Treasurer,” it reads.

What Happens if the New Constitution Is Voted Down?

If the referendum fails, the UC will continue to operate as normal, though a successful petition could get the HUA — or another proposed constitution — on a future ballot.

With Cheng set to graduate in May — only halfway through his yearlong term — the fate of the body is uncertain. The new president of the student government will ascend through one of two routes — a new election triggered by the referendum or the promotion of the body’s current vice president, de Kanter.

How Would the HUA be Structured?

A major difference between the UC and the HUA is leadership structure.

Currently, the UC has an executive board consisting of its president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. The HUA would be led by two co-presidents who would oversee seven popularly elected officers.

Each of the officers would lead a team centered around one of seven issues — finance, social life, extracurriculars, academic, residential life, well-being, and sports. The co-presidents would also serve as officers, co-leading the executive team.

Under the HUA constitution, the co-presidents would be responsible for proposing team budgets, meeting with school administrators, maintaining the website, and sending school-wide emails. In a departure from the UC’s well-defined approval process for official communications, the HUA simply requires that the co-presidents “must seek input on these communications.”

Within each of the teams, project leaders would be appointed at the sole discretion of team officers to lead an issue-based initiative.

Any College student would be able to assist in the initiatives as “volunteers.”

How Would Clubs Get Funding Under the HUA?

Clubs would be able to receive funding from the HUA by submitting requests for either “expected” costs or “unforeseen” expenses. Expected costs would be approved on a semesterly basis by the body, while unforeseen expenses would be considered monthly.

Currently, the UC typically approves club funding weekly at its general meetings.

The HUA constitution does not elaborate on the exact structure of its finance team, but it does require that at least two people have access to the HUA checking account.

The HUA constitution also details several checks on the finance team’s funding activity, including monthly reviews and external audits occurring every three years.

Can a Freshman be Elected to the HUA?

Yes. But since all HUA officer positions would be elected via a school-wide ranked choice vote, some critics of the proposed constitution say freshmen would be unlikely to be elected to the body.

Proponents of the HUA argue the structure would better enable freshmen to get involved in specific issues as volunteers.

The HUA constitution stipulates that officers can only hold a given position for a single term.

What About Those Refunds Cheng Promised?

In an email to the student body Thursday, Cheng promised that if the HUA were to pass, “the UC’s hundreds of thousands of dollars will go to direct refund checks for students, House Committees, and student organizations.” But he said in a later interview the exact form of repayment was pending.

Corrections: March 28, 2022

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the UC referendum will run from Monday to Wednesday. In fact, it is scheduled to conclude on Thursday.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the proposed Harvard Undergraduate Association would approve all club funding on a monthly basis. In fact, the body would approve club grants for "expected" costs on a semesterly basis.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com.

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