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Op Eds

A More Democratic Student Government Wouldn’t Have Elections

By Tommy Barone, Crimson Opinion Writer

In just a few days, the Harvard Undergraduate Association will hold its first elections. They will be its first sin.

To understand this requires understanding how we arrived here. When the roiling controversy (and outright bigotry) that met the proposal to replace the Undergraduate Council ended with the HUA’s resounding affirmation by over three-quarters of students, there was a sense of finality. Just like that, they were gone — the self-righteous UC careerists, the racists that supported them, the hated, moribund form of a decades-old body known for bureaucracy, ambition, and little else. These are the kinds of victories that we like to believe inaugurate real change.

But it hasn’t. The HUA suffers from precisely the same structural flaw that ruined all of its predecessors, from the original sin of student government: that we elect it.

In some sense, student government represents us. Its constitution says so. The sickly-sweet overseriousness of its campaigns looks like real representative politics.

But the core of representation lies in the people doing the representing. In a community as small as ours, government is personal — unlike in national politics, we have the privilege of knowing who represents us and the values they hold. The people are the soul of student government. And they continually fail it.

They are not, to be sure, all or even mostly bad people. Intentions aside, they do hard, thankless work that has kept clubs funded and delivered valuable initiatives. But, at a school chosen for resources and prestige, student government can seem the shiniest trophy in an embarrassment of riches. High stakes, a grueling campaign process, and the thankless work that comes after form a powerful mechanism for self-selection. Elections for any Harvard student government invariably choose at least a handful of people who are calculating and insincere. They, most prominent of their peers, define the institution.

Totally irrespective of how it performs, then, students dislike and reject our student government because they feel that it does not represent us, that its values and methods fundamentally diverge from ours. That’s how a student government that made Lamont an overnight library, established the blue-light alarm system, centralized online information about clubs, and delivered summer storage dies — because policy comes second to character when the scale is personal.

This is the original sin of student government, and it taints the body from the moment it comes into existence.

Though our institutional memory seems hazy on this point, it has doomed every student government that has come before this one too. In 2019, a UC abolition campaign declared “a campaign to end campaigns”; in 1983, a UC representative hoped to “eventually abolish the Council”; in 1965, the Student Council, from which Dunster House seceded, was abolished, a development foreshadowed by a 1950 petition contending that "there is nothing that the Student Council does which would not either be done better by someone else or be better not done at all.”

The problem is endemic.

Buying into the technocrat’s hope — the blind belief that a smarter, newer system will succeed where all others failed — is foolish, ahistorical, and will ensure that this campus goes on hating the generally decent people that govern it while periodically tearing the whole thing down.

To break this sordid chain of failures demands a clean break, a solution that aligns the student body with its representation by making them one and the same. The most democratic, most representative student government is one that doesn’t hold elections at all.

Instead, students would be far better served by a number of official, entirely volunteer-based advisory bodies focused on particular issues facing the student body (mental health, social life, etc.). Such a model would untether representation from willingness to campaign and eliminate the poisonous electoral self-selection that has destroyed every student government to date. These bodies would work within our community to advocate for students, interface with administration, and spearhead voluntarist initiatives that directly, meaningfully improve student life.

The mental health group, for one, could coordinate with student counseling organizations to help the Dean of Students Office overhaul our hole-filled mental-health support system. The social life team might apply for funding to hold school-wide social events like Yardfest for example.

Club funding, meanwhile, should be transferred to a new, independent, application-based student body unswayed by politics and invulnerable to dissolution. The chaos of post-UC, pre-HUA club funding attests that this change is long overdue.

The HUA got some of this right, but the original sin remains. In reducing the number of elected positions, the HUA begins a more furious race for the prestige of just nine spots. On its inaugural ballot, you will find a powerful testament to this stasis masquerading as change: Four of the six tickets vying for HUA co-President feature long-time members of the UC.

The original sin of this school comes with awkwardly fitting a fractured template for representative government from the outside world onto a community small enough to lead itself cooperatively. To absolve it, we must choose something different, better — a politics of direct democracy, of personality, and of action.

Our history, because we fail to learn it, repeats itself. For this failure, the moment it is born, the HUA will fate itself to die.

Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall.

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