Wherefore the UC?

Negotiating the UC’s role at Harvard

The Red Line

Last month, the Crimson Coalition organized students to run for Undergraduate Council seats and reform the UC. Members of the Coalition called for increased student power, envisioning the UC as a vehicle for undergraduate input in University governance and community issues. Even without winning a majority on the UC, the Crimson Coalition did raise an important question that has shaped student discussion about the UC this semester: What, after all, is the role of an Undergraduate Council?

Should Harvard’s UC represent student concerns about University governance to the Harvard administration? Recently, students have explored the UC as a tool for institutional change. For example, this semester, the UC had “an unprecedented 150 applicants for around 60 spots” on student-faculty committees, two-thirds more than last year. This UC election will also feature an unprecedented three student-initiated referenda of the ballot, suggesting that student activists view the UC as an important vehicle for organizing and expressing student opinion issues ranging from endowment ethics to sexual assault policies on campus.

This year, four tickets are in the running for UC President and Vice President positions. As candidates seek student group endorsements and student votes, they will be asked to articulate their visions for the UC’s role on campus. In fact, only two days into campaigning, many already have. For example, candidates Spenser R. Goodman ’14 and Darren C. McLeod ’14 have declared that they view the UC as a strictly student-life organization. Their platform states that, if elected, they will consolidate the UC’s resources into a Social Programs Committee and the Finance Committee, focusing on dances, parties, and other events. Similarly, Tara Raghuveer ’14 and Jen Q. Y. Zhu ’14’s platform notes, “The most important function of the Undergraduate Council for student organizations is funding for their programming.”

In contrast, Michael C. George ’14 and Nicole E. Granath ’15 tout their vision to “rebuild” the UC. An email blurb from their campaign notes Nicole Granath’s “knowledge of how to mobilize the Harvard community on behalf of larger issues that the UC has often been unable to tackle,” like the Responsible Investment at Harvard campaign. They call for the UC to take an active role in conveying students’ ideas and demands to the Harvard administration, echoing the ideals of the Crimson Coalition. (As of my writing, the fourth pair, Akshay M. Sharma ’14 and Akanksha Sharma ’14, do not have a platform online.)

In September, the Crimson Staff urged undergraduates not to devote energy to the UC, declaring, “We believe that both men and women can affect far greater change on Harvard’s campus outside of the UC’s futile sub-committee meetings.” Perhaps a revisioning of the role of the UC as a vehicle for student advocacy as well as student life, like that proposed by George and Granath, would rectify the perceived ineffectiveness of our student government.

But would an activist UC actually have the power to make important changes at Harvard? In the past two years, students across the world have demonstrated that they can effectively influence university administrations. For example, in Chile, the Confederation of Chilean Students, representing democratically-elected federations at dozens of Chilean universities, organized around issues of students’ rights. Between 2011 and 2012, hundreds of thousands of students went on strike demanding free tuition to public universities and better access to education for working-class students. And earlier this semester, students in Quebec, who walked marched in the streets on strike for months, forced the Quebec government to go back on its plan to raise tuition for the next seven years. Many of these students were organized in groups like CLASSE and FEUQ.

I don’t expect the UC to lead Harvard students in a University-wide strike for lower tuition any time soon. But, importantly, organizations like CONFECH and CLASSE are student unions that exist outside of university power structures. Achieving student goals may require working with university administrations, but it may also require standing up to the administration when it doesn’t acquiesce to student demands. At Harvard, real student power would be able not only to demand the ear of top administrators, but also to demand a student voice in University governance, ranging from allocation of funds to decisions about University investment choices and labor practices. This would make our University more democratic, more accountable, and more progressive. Those who think that the role of a student government is simply to allocate funding for large parties and student activities have drunk the Kool-Aid of student disempowerment.

Unfortunately, despite efforts by former UC President Senan Ebrahim ’12 and the members of the Crimson Coalition, today’s UC has very little ability to advocate for the interests of undergraduates within the University. Will the UC ever be able to represent undergraduate opinions within the University community effectively? Perhaps not. But, as the candidates for Undergraduate Council President and Vice President begin campaigning for next week’s election, we should consider each ticket’s platform and what it means for the future of the UC.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.