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Do … Less?

The most futile column yet

Look, I get it. Voting is important. From the upcoming Harvard Undergraduate Council elections to the national midterms, hourly emails remind me that I’ve got to perform my civic duty. (Though, I’m not sure the Mather House get-out-the-vote zealots would be so eager to provide me free stamps to mail my Colorado ballot if they realized it might not necessarily be part of the alleged “blue wave.”) Inbox fatigue and jaded cynicism aside, I do believe casting a vote is a critical function of civilian civic duty.

In all kinds of election cycles, the creative energy and “do-something” impulses of ambitious office-seekers never cease to astound me, especially at the campus level. Gosh darn it, all of Harvard’s intrepid UC president and vice-presidential candidates have so many things they want to do for students, and by golly there they’re the ones who will do them best. Another Crimson columnist has already written a delightful piece about the quixotic quest of indistinguishable UC candidate platforms, so I won’t subject them to additional satirical scrutiny.

I am genuinely glad that there are students who want to lead and serve Harvard in this way, but I would pose the following question to these candidates: What would you take away? So many campus organizational efforts seem additive in nature, whether a resource to be created, a supportive administrative post to be established, or another initiative to be funded. Such efforts make for great slogans and hashtags, and no one wants to be the villain that doesn’t want more “resources” and “support” for anything even mildly relevant or important. Yet, is it possible that there are programs or initiatives that can be struck?

This is not to say that student government, other student leaders, or University administrators shouldn’t pursue creative and innovative solutions to problems. But we need to think hard about our tendencies to generate constant institutional growth to solve problems. If we think that improving the student condition can only be done by more programming, more training, more online modules, more administrative resources — just more in general — then we will only become more entrapped in increasingly unwieldy bureaucratic machinery.

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We don’t have to look much further than our tuition bills to see part of the real cost of adding more cogs and wheels to the machine. Research from the American Institutes for Research estimates that the number of non-academic administrators and professional employees at American colleges has more than doubled over the past 25 years, far outpacing increases in student or faculty attendance. The College Board reports that tuition and fees have doubled or even tripled at public universities over roughly the same time period.

Now, as any good statistician or economist knows, correlation does not equal causation. But it is far from unlikely that no relationship exists between bureaucratic expansion and rising tuition. While the forces driving that expansion certainly can’t be solely attributed to student efforts, demands for more resources, and simply more stuff, students play a non-negligible role in perpetuating a culture that is often ignorant of the realities of scarcity.

As a good friend remarked to me over dinner once, I also wonder if our striving for “more” can be destructive to fostering community. There are two possible arguments here: The generation of more programming, initiatives, groups, etc. (while not intrinsically bad) has a dispersive effect on the student body, in the sense that students scatter to ever more niche and varied outlets for their interests and zeal. Again, that’s not intrinsically a bad thing, but it seems to me that the more we extend ourselves outward in such a way, the weaker our connections become to what anchors us to our larger community. Second, it is simply a fact of scarcity that all of our efforts necessarily compete with each other to some extent, which can foster discord and division.

But scarcity is far from salient at most American universities, especially at Harvard. It is easy for us to promise resources and funding for all kinds of initiatives and organizations because most of the time, we can actually get it all. The belief that we can have it all seems is woven deep into the Harvard psyche, as we fill up the Google calendar with endless blocks of class, extracurriculars, sports, job-seeking, and what not. However, every Harvard student knows intimately well the personal cost of this belief.

Perhaps it is because we as a student body and society are so stressed and burdened by the destructive scarcity of time that electoral promises of resources and initiatives and creative impulses become such sweet sounds to our ears, such attractive platforms for campaigns of all levels. As I cast my absentee midterm ballot and look towards the UC elections, I know that there likely won’t be many calls for any kind of resource prioritization, audit of spending, or meaningful consideration of ever-expanding administrative machinery. We will still inevitably be drawn to the promise of more, and to doing more ourselves at some cost. What will it take to convince ourselves that sometimes, less is more?

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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