The Unprecedented UC President



“Harvard University claims to produce future leaders,” Michael wrote. “But constantly telling young people they’re leaders seems to bring out some of their worst qualities.”



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UPDATED: April 26, 2022 at 6:41 p.m.

In late March, we walk into what will be the Harvard Undergraduate Council’s last official meeting — though, of course, we don’t know it at the time.

We find several dozen student representatives gathered around a cluster of faux wood tables in a conference room on the top floor of the Smith Campus Center. Late afternoon light floods in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and lands on furrowed brows. A small group of spectators has come to watch what’s sure to be a contentious meeting of a Council now well-known for its colorful interpersonal conflicts.

The President of the Council, Michael Y. Cheng ’22, looks as though he’s just stumbled into the meeting by chance, with his Harvard Rowing Team t-shirt and slightly ruffled hair. He sits at the front, often getting up to pace as council members debate items on the agenda — or, more often, air their grievances about perceived slights.

There’s scattered applause as Samuel H. Taylor ’24 is voted in as the new Rules Committee Chair; he ran unopposed for a position that had sat vacant for several months.

But mere seconds after he takes office, another council member is already looking to unseat him.

“I move for a vote of no confidence,” they blurt out, to a chorus of groans and giggles. “In the UC constitution, you — ”

“Please don’t use ‘you,’” Michael interrupts, flatly. Under UC rules, personal pronouns are not to be used in floor debate.

The vote of no confidence dies on the floor, and the Council moves on to the first bill on its agenda.

Secretary Jane J. Oh ’24 points to the representatives one at a time to count their votes for the motion. “I got you! … I got you! … I got you!” she says, becoming increasingly frustrated as several inattentive council members fail to put their hands down.

“Please don’t use the term ‘you,’” Michael interjects for the third time in 15 minutes. The room erupts with laughter.

Forty-five minutes of debate later, decorum has dwindled and the sun has set. Michael and Jane are now embroiled in a heated argument.

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Some representatives duck out of the room, hoping to catch dinner. Michael and Jane continue to bicker above the smacking of a gavel as the parliamentarian attempts, rather fruitlessly, to maintain order. A council member holding a microphone cuts them all off.

“My d-hall closes in 13 minutes,” the disembodied voice reverberates throughout the conference room. “Y’all are so disrespectful, it’s incredible.”

Michael doesn’t catch the personal pronoun.

With seven bills still remaining on the agenda, including some of his own, Michael decides to call it a night. “You have a right to exercise your First Amendment speech rights. Thank you, and goodnight,” he says. He drops his microphone and exits the room.

The remaining council members raise their hands in incredulity. Some laugh uncomfortably. Several glance at us as if to say, “yeah, it’s that bad.”

Following a history of infighting, inefficiency, and general chaos among the Council, this UC meeting was far from the first of its kind. But it was soon to be the last.

Less than 24 hours later, a referendum question would land in the inbox of every student at Harvard College, asking them whether the school’s 40-year-old student government ought to be scrapped entirely in favor of a new system. Students would turn out in historic numbers to dissolve the Undergraduate Council.

It was the result of months of campaigning by an unlikely actor: the Council’s own president.

***

Everyone at Harvard seems to know Michael Cheng, even if they don’t know him.

You might have received one of his emails updating you on his initiatives, usually signed off with a “Be well, Michael.” You might have heard that he’s a Math and History joint concentrator, a concurrent master’s student in Computer Science, and a Rhodes scholar to boot.

You might also have walked past him in the Science Center Plaza last semester, campaigning for the UC presidency by shouting through a megaphone as Speedo-clad athletes danced beside him. You probably recognize his signature bushy mustache.

And you’ve almost certainly heard other people talking about Michael. What you’ve heard, though, depends heavily on who you’ve asked.

“He was never really leading the UC. It was always him doing whatever he wanted to do to get the job done,” Jane, the Council’s former secretary, says.

“He’s a builder, he’s a creator, and he’s a visionary,” says LyLena D. Estabine ’24, a former Council representative.

“He is someone that has been extremely divisive, and he’s someone that has been extremely hurtful toward the members that he claims to want to work with,” says former Representative Laila A. Nasher ’25. “I don’t think he’s a good leader.”

“Michael Cheng is one of the most conscientious, gentle, and hardworking individuals that I know,” says his close friend, Sam S. Detmer ’20.

“Renaissance man!” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of Michael’s professors.

Everyone at Harvard seems to know Michael. Few accounts match up.

Prologue

“With a lot of people on the UC, they’ve been trying to make controversy around me,” Michael says. “I don’t feel like I’m an inherently controversial personality type.”

In February, we meet Michael for our first interview. He’s slouching on his bed in his Quincy dorm room; we’re at his desk. He speaks in slow, lilting sentences, often pausing to leave a thread hanging in mid-air before picking up another. What was supposed to be a 30-minute interview turns into a two-hour monologue. Conversations with Michael tend to do that.

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He tells us how he’s frustrated by the “wackiness” of the UC. He shows us dozens of emails and screenshots, taken by him as well as other members, which he says serve as evidence of the Council’s misconduct.

In later interviews, he would contrast the behavior he saw on the UC with the Harvard motto of “Veritas.” Michael, we quickly learn, has little tolerance for anything he views as dishonest. He prides himself on being a straight shooter, even if that has ruffled some feathers.

“If you’re telling the truth, what do you have to fear?” he asks.

***

Growing up in West Philadelphia as an only child, Michael had to navigate the world largely on his own. His parents “weren’t really involved,” he says.

Michael’s parents, who grew up in poverty during the Cultural Revolution in China, sometimes had trouble adjusting to their new lives after immigrating to the U.S. “There’s a lot my parents didn’t know about,” Michael says, so he had to figure certain things out for himself. In eighth grade, his friend invited him to cross country practice after school. Michael showed up in a collared shirt, thinking he was attending a geography bee.

His parents struggled to make ends meet. They bounced between jobs and often fought over money, sometimes as little as $10. “I didn’t like being at home,” Michael says.

To escape these stressors, Michael made origami, read books, and played fantasy video games — hobbies he still enjoys today.

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During an interview, he booted up one of his favorite childhood video games, “Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance,” and provided commentary for our benefit as he played.

A poster of “Fire Emblem” is one of the few decorations that hang on his dorm room wall. The others are a torn map of Pennsylvania and, above his desk, a printed copy of “The True Harvard,” William James’s 1903 speech.

The rest of Michael’s room is similarly sparse; his belongings are stored in cardboard boxes, as though he’s never bothered to unpack. His book collection, on the other hand, is vast — we spot “Mastering Blockchain” and “Famous Origami Boxes” wedged between Hobbes’s “Leviathan” and Plato’s “Republic.”

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Though Michael has always excelled at reading, he’s struggled with speech impediments for most of his life. He took speech classes until his junior year of high school, and he made a habit of writing down words and phrases he picked up from conversations and books.

Even now, Michael says, he occasionally mixes up a phrase or two. (He would later tell us, describing Harvard’s pre-professional networking culture, that “some people are trying to make friends with benefits.” We sent him an Urban Dictionary screenshot afterward.)

At home, Michael’s parents primarily spoke Chinese. “My parents really tried to learn English, but it wasn’t that great or helpful,” he says. “But it’s not their fault.”

Kids would call him “ching-chong Cheng” and make fun of his lisps in elementary school, he says, though he quickly adds, “I don’t think they were trying to be malicious. I think it was representing the broader world. That’s what kids do; they soak up the world around them. Even in college life, it influences you.”

For most of his life, Michael says, many saw him as “basically an Asian nerd.”

“Granted, maybe my appearance didn’t help that much,” he adds, telling us that he was obese and wore thick glasses.

At the end of middle school, a friend convinced Michael to take the SAT. His scores attracted the attention of the Drexel High School Scholars program, which invited him to take night classes for free. At Drexel, Michael took courses ranging from health care regulation to water policy to multivariable calculus. It was there, Michael says, that he “came of age.”

Despite his early academic success, Michael says that he’s always “recoiled” from high-achievers. He applied to Harvard, he says, after learning that his tuition would be entirely covered by financial aid if he was accepted, adding: “it was the logical next step if you’re more academically minded.”

Once on campus, Michael took classes “pretty lackadaisically” — “I’ve never been much of a planner,” he says. Rather than follow a particular academic track, he chose a varied and unconventional courseload based on personal interest, including his joint concentration in Math and History. He researched topics ranging from 20th-century Japanese energy history to ancient DNA.

While he excelled at academics, other aspects of college life didn’t come so easily to him. Michael tells us that in freshman year, he was “so socially awkward.”

In one of his first attempts to make friends on campus, Michael didn’t think he’d made the best impression. Later, when he asked someone else for feedback, she told him, “It’s kind of weird to be like, ‘play Settlers of Catan with me’ after 30 seconds of meeting someone.”

Michael says he “wasn’t very happy, to be honest” during his first two years at Harvard. He found himself unequipped for what he calls the “elite” culture on campus. “I remember freshman year, it’s day two, and I’m crying right behind PBHA, in that little courtyard, because it was just so overwhelming.”

One day in his freshman fall, Michael stood in the Science Center Plaza holding cardboard signs that read “Smile! It’s going to be a great day :)” and “YOU ARE INCREDIBLE!” He offered free hugs to passersby. Only three people took him up on the offer.

“Maybe it’s just this kind of area, but it feels kind of cold sometimes,” Michael says.

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Although he often had a hard time fitting in among his peers when he was younger, Michael always had a community he could return to. He grew up going to a local African American church. “I have really fond memories from that service,” Michael says. “People from a community singing together, believing in something, having hope.” That sense of community, he says, was something he felt Harvard lacked.

Part of that feeling came from his experience on the UC as a freshman, which Michael joined as a representative in hopes of connecting with others. “It was not a good place to make friends,” he says. “I never went to UC social events, never got invited.”

By the spring of his freshman year, he had started the process of petitioning to transfer to another school. He eventually decided to stay at Harvard, only to be forced off campus at the start of the pandemic in March of 2020. “I was pretty happy to leave, really,” he says.

Michael took full advantage of online school, loading up his schedule with seven classes per semester. However, his home environment wasn’t conducive to his studies, so he petitioned to return to campus — and to his surprise, he found that the reduced-density campus had a much more welcoming culture than the one he’d left.

“I have been infinitely happier during Covid-era Harvard than pre-Covid Harvard,” Michael once wrote in a letter to The Crimson’s Opinion section. “March 10, 2020 is when my stressful, snobby Harvard died.”

It was then that Michael decided it was time for a change. He traded his glasses for contacts and started growing a mustache. “It started because I was too lazy to shave. It just grew out in a month and I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

After a chance encounter with the novice crew coach at a virtual student activities fair, Michael spontaneously decided to walk onto Harvard’s lightweight crew team, despite not knowing how to swim. He taught himself breaststroke through video tutorials and trained with his fellow walk-ons, and he eventually made the cut.

“I was so surprised that I made the team,” he says. “I didn’t think I hit any of the varsity standards — and I didn’t. Obviously, with Covid, it was a flexible year.”

Michael often frames his relationship with the team in terms of gratitude or surprise: “They could have said, ‘Here’s this random Asian guy who walked on. He’s not going to be as good as us at rowing.’” Instead, he says, they “accepted me for who I am.”

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That season, he trained as hard and as frequently as he could. “I got near where a lot of the people who got recruited had their times at,” he says.

As one of Michael’s coaches, Dan Boyne, describes him to us: “When he sets his mind to something, he’s like a dog with a bone.”

Michael now spends over 25 hours a week rowing and says that he’s found his closest friends and greater confidence through the sport.

“During that Covid year, there was this idealism that I had,” he says. “It was this idealism that things could be different.”

Rising Action

Michael had served on the UC twice before, once as a freshman representative and again as a junior representative. However, when the November 2021 UC presidential elections rolled around, he had no plans to run.

Several tickets featuring established UC members seemed likely to prevail. Carrying the most momentum was Esther J. Xiang ’23 and her running mate David Y. Zhang ’23, whose campaign Michael had agreed to support. He wanted to see the success of an Asian American woman, he tells us.

However, Esther and David quickly became mired in controversy. Just days before voting was set to begin, their ticket was disbanded by the UC’s election commission, which ruled that they had committed “serious” violations by campaigning early. (Their ticket was eventually reinstated on the eve of voting after the Harvard College Dean of Students Office intervened.)

Michael cited Esther’s disqualification as a personal “turning point,” saying it solidified his view of the UC as an institution with “wacky tricks” and arbitrarily enforced “little rules.” He’d pushed for several adjustments to the UC constitution in the past, though “fundamentally, not much changes,” he tells us. Now, seeing the Council as irreparably “broken,” he was driven to act.

Eleven hours before the application closed, he tossed his hat into the ring to run for president of the body. “I don’t want to go into politics,” he later told us, “but I’ve kind of been thrown into the lion’s den.”

Michael recruited Emmett E. de Kanter ’24, his teammate from crew who had never served on the UC, as his running mate. In his campaign, Michael claimed the UC had lost over $100,000 in grant funding it could not account for (citing a Harvard Open Data Project report), overspent on its retreat to New Hampshire, and took over $2,000 from a grant for diversity, harassment prevention, and mental health initiatives to fund Patagonia sweaters. (A financial audit would later confirm the latter two instances but, due to “unavailability of financial records or inconclusive data,” could not reach a definitive ruling on his claim of the lost $100,000.)

Michael blanketed Harvard’s campus with flyers promising that, if elected, he would “defund” the UC and form a more effective, transparent alternative in its place.

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The UC had long suffered from a perception that it was an impotent body made up of slick wannabe politicians, opening it up to satire. This winter, the body’s approval rating rested at a lowly 9 percent, according to a Harvard Political Review survey. Unsurprisingly, then, the Council had seen myriad prank and protest tickets across its 40 years of elections.

“We typically always have a ticket who has some sort of suggestion about a new student government or dissolving the UC,” says Kate T. Colleran, assistant dean of student engagement and leadership and longtime advisor to the UC. “The students don’t often vote for them, but they voted for Michael’s, and I couldn’t tell you really why.”

In 2013, a junior who ran on a platform calling for Harvard to stock thicker toilet paper and serve tomato basil ravioli soup on a daily basis was elected UC president — then resigned immediately, leaving his running mate to lead the Council.

When Michael was a sophomore in 2019, a platform to “abolish the UC” had come very close to winning. Andrew W. Liang ’21 and Aditya A. Dhar ’21 had run satirically, promising to “refill the perpetually empty condom boxes,” “move the Quad back to the Yard,” and sit on Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow’s desk until he agreed to serve their agenda.

“It was a way for us to have a lot of fun,” Liang tells us. Students played along enthusiastically — “I think the majority of the UC at the time actually voted for us,” he says. The pair lost by a thin margin in the ranked-choice election despite garnering the most top-choice votes.

Andrew and Aditya’s platform may have been ironic, but “it planted a seed,” Michael says.

As the election neared, that seed sprouted into a full-fledged platform to dissolve the Council, redistribute its funds back to students, and rewrite its constitution to create a “New Student Government.” Their logo depicted a phoenix rising from a broken UC crest.

After a fraught campaign that saw a slew of allegations ranging from tax fraud to embezzlement — slung against individual candidates as well as the UC itself — Michael and Emmett emerged on top, narrowly beating Esther and David.

Michael, now a senior, was set to graduate at the end of the year. He had just one semester to dismantle a body with four decades of tenure.

A Tale of Two Councils

The Council, however, wouldn’t go down without a fight.

In late November, closely following Michael’s victory, lame-duck President Noah A. Harris ’22 and Vice President Jenny Y. Gan ’22 introduced a constitutional amendment that raised the threshold for a binding referendum, the method by which Michael had proposed to dissolve the Council during his campaign. Instead of requiring a simple majority vote for a referendum to be binding, Noah and Jenny’s amendment stipulated that one half of the total student body, 3,458 students, would have to vote in favor for a measure to pass.

To Michael, the amendment was an inexcusable, “profoundly anti-democratic” move. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he labeled it an effort to “undermine the election results.”

The amendment was subsequently replaced by another proposal that set a slightly lower bar: a two-thirds majority in a referendum where two-fifths of students cast a vote. This would require 2,766 students to turn out for the vote — still a high number for a generally apathetic student body. The proposal was adopted on Dec. 3 at an emergency meeting.

***

“Harvard University claims to produce future leaders,” Michael had written in his op-ed. “But constantly telling young people they’re leaders seems to bring out some of their worst qualities.”

Several weeks later, on the day Michael was inaugurated as the UC’s new leader, he was publicly accused of voter intimidation. Laila, a freshman council member, claimed that he had told her in a private meeting that he would not promote her to a leadership position if she voted for Noah and Jenny’s constitutional amendment.

“Immediately after he said that, I was like, ‘Michael, this is wrong.’ And he told me, ‘Well, I'm being honest about it,’” Laila says.

At the inaugural meeting, Michael had replied, “These allegations are false, and I really apologize if my words have given them the appearance that they are true.”

Yet in an interview, Michael concedes that he did encourage Laila to reconsider her vote, calling it “intellectually inconsistent” for her to join his cabinet after voting for an amendment that would make his primary goal — dissolving the UC — more difficult.

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It was around this time, Michael says, that he sought to shield himself from the “he said, she said” attacks levied by his opposition.

Shortly after his inauguration, Michael withdrew from the UC Slack channel, instead opting to communicate with council members through email and only selectively responding to their messages. The divide between Michael’s executive board and the other UC representatives quickly grew.

“Michael seemed absolutely disinterested in working with anyone who didn’t completely align with his worldview,” says Samuel, the former UC rules chair, who, true to his reputation as one of Michael’s loudest critics on the Council, punctuates our interview with colorful expletives. “In fact, I think he was someone who had no interest in being a leader. I don’t think he exhibits any sort of leadership characteristics.”

“One time I tried to speak to him after a meeting,” Samuel adds. “I said ‘Michael!’ and he looked me in the eyes and turned away.”

“I think a few UC members have said that I’ve ignored them. I think that would be accurate,” Michael says matter-of-factly.

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Instead of focusing on passing UC legislation, Michael proposed policies directly to Harvard administrators; in the month after his inauguration, he and Emmett met with 36 different school officials.

“I like doing stuff for students. I like talking to administrators about policy,” Michael had told us. “I hate my job on the UC … I don’t care if any of the bills they bring up pass or not.”

His meetings with administrators would eventually contribute to the introduction of several policies, he says, including the proposed expansion of dining hall offerings and the introduction of “Research SnackChats” between thesis writers and students interested in research. He was also a vocal supporter of double concentrations, which students and faculty had long advocated for and were finally approved this April.

But his critics claim that Michael purposefully bogged down the club funding process, citing his decision to shorten the body’s general meeting duration. “At the end of the day, the most important thing the UC ever did was fund clubs,” says Samuel. “For him to deliberately try and to prevent the Council from passing the club funding pack was pretty shameful.”

“We have clubs that have members that have literally thousands of dollars in credit card debt,” says Ivor K. Zimmerman ’23, a former UC representative, regarding the undisbursed grants.

But Michael maintains that the delays in club funding was a structural issue that has long been part of the UC. In a written statement, he blames the backlog on the inordinate burden put on the role of treasurer and the consistently late opening of grant applications.

Even as Michael led the UC through unilateral action, he publicly declared his commitment to representing the student body through direct democracy. This paradox became particularly apparent when he launched Crimson OpenGov, an app that solicits anonymous opinions from the student body to help propose actions to administrators. The app had initially died as a bill within the UC, so Michael chose to independently develop the platform with some of his friends, drawing the ire of other UC members.

“Oftentimes, I felt he tried to circumvent UC input, feedback, or collaboration,” says Jane. He made her job as secretary particularly stressful, she says, as she was forced to mediate between Michael and the other UC members.

“Michael will do anything it takes to get what he wants done. And he’s really good at that; it’s really effective,” she says, adding, “I don’t think the ends justif[y] the means.”

At the heart of Michael’s solo approach was his belief that he had been fundamentally wronged by his peers on the Council, who’d voted to pass Noah and Jenny’s amendment. “They made the choice to try to undermine the election results and play games, and so if they’re willing to make up, I’m happy to work with them — but they’ve got to do that,” Michael said in February after launching the OpenGov app.

“There’s been a bit of a disconnect between Michael’s team and the rest of the council,” Owen O. Ebose ’25 said at the time. “I liken it to being two councils, almost.”

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Emmett, like Jane, often played the role of mediator; he presided over the end of the UC’s last-ever meeting after Michael walked out, earning praise from some other council members. Emmett believes that the conflict between Michael and the other council members largely stemmed from Michael’s “strong ideals.”

“I think he can be especially upset and surprised when people don’t hold themselves to [his] standard,” Emmett says.

Others take a less sympathetic view.

“His political goals were always ahead of the student body, and always ahead of the Council,” Ivor says.

Antagonism

On February 14, Michael woke up to find two flyers posted on his door that called him an anti-Asian slur. “SAVE THE UC,” they read.

That afternoon, the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Women’s Association released a statement of solidarity. Twenty-four student organizations signed on in support, followed by 12 pages of students’ names.

The Council sent a private statement of support to the leader with whom they had so often clashed. The incident might have been an opportunity to start anew, to reconsider the stakes of their past discord.

But at their meeting the following night, Michael made it clear that unity was out of the question.

“I don’t support the statement of solidarity,” he said in his opening speech. “I think we need to have some tougher conversations first before I would support that statement.”

He went on to lay out a series of grievances against the Council — chief among them his belief that in characterizing him as “competent but cutthroat,” they were perpetrating similar racist stereotypes as the ones they claimed to condemn.

“We’re now supposed to take seriously that the Undergraduate Council is offended by anti-Asian racism, with many of its members engaged in a multi-month harassment campaign that was influenced by anti-Asian stereotypes,” he said.

Near the end of his speech, Michael aired a suspicion he first shared with The Crimson the day before: “The person or people that are responsible for yesterday’s hateful attack, as well as the multiple kinds of other attacks targeting me, are potentially in this room right now.”

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Michael offered no corroborating evidence for the accusation, which did little to endear him to his critics on the Council. “Very disappointing reflection on whoever did it,” Samuel says of the perpetrators who posted the flyers, “but I think the way that he immediately turned around and tried to use it was also disappointing.”

The Harvard University Police Department investigated and has since closed the case, though it did not disclose its findings.

Later that week, Michael tells us he’s been making an effort to attend more Bible study groups on campus. “I’m trying to learn to forgive people,” he says. “I think my initial reaction was definitely not really as forgiving.” All he wants, he tells us, is an apology.

‘Our Next Chapter’

Michael’s proposed replacement for the Undergraduate Council was called the Harvard Undergraduate Association, whose constitution was cobbled together by a randomly-selected “Citizens’ Assembly” in about 2 months. While the UC was composed of 54 representatives of different dorms, the HUA constitution calls for just two co-executives and seven officers leading teams of student volunteers. Each team would work on initiatives relating to a specific area of college life — an issue-focused approach, Michael says, that would reduce infighting and serve as a “breath of fresh air” to the toxicity of the UC.

Others criticized the proposed constitution, citing a lack of checks and balances as well as reduced representation of the student body.

Michael largely dismissed these concerns. While he admits the document isn’t perfect — “there are gonna be issues; you’re gonna have constitutional amendments” — he says, laughing, that “it couldn’t be worse than the UC.”

The decision on whether to dissolve the UC and replace it with the HUA was put up to a school-wide referendum at the end of March. As Michael ramped up his campaigning, he decided to apologize for a criticism that he’d received over the previous months. Some argued that his use of the slogan “defund the UC” co-opted language from the Black Lives Matter movement, conflating the importance of an effort to dismantle systems of racial oppression with that of the dissolution of a student government.

“I do remember being a little bit put off by the term ‘defund’ used in a student government election context, especially as a Black woman,” LyLena tells us. “It made me uncomfortable, and I think it made other people uncomfortable.”

Michael changed his slogan to “reimagine Harvard,” and he released a public apology video with Emmett. But this time, it was Michael’s turn to have his olive branch rebuffed. The apology — conveniently timed right as voting on the referendum was set to begin — largely failed to address his opponents’ criticisms.

“That is one of the most disingenuous apologies that I have ever seen,” former UC Representative Jada Pierre ’25 said of the video.

***

Once the referendum officially opened, Michael and his opponents geared up to focus on its biggest obstacle: meeting the 2,766 voter threshold.

Hoping to suppress voter turnout to below the required 40 percent, an anonymous Instagram account, @HarvardKnowYourVote, urged disapproving students to boycott the vote. “Voting ‘No’ on the HUA referendum could help it pass,” one post reads. “Don’t let it.”

Michael campaigned aggressively, personally handing out flyers and sending frequent emails to the student body with updates on the vote count: “Never want to hear about UC drama again? Vote Yes!”

We met up with Michael for an interview for this story a few days after the referendum opened. Erg season with the crew team was in full swing, and he was significantly thinner than the last time we’d seen him, his hands blistered and raw.

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We asked him about the prospects of the referendum passing. He was confident that it would, citing several statistics he’d gathered himself. “Realistically, if this doesn’t pass, both Emmett and I are gonna resign that night, and they can figure out what they want to do,” he tells us. “It’s like, we tried. Thank you, Harvard. We’re leaving.”

The night before voting closed, Michael sent us his prediction: “I expect 55-58% turnout with 70-75% voting yes.”

Shortly after 5 p.m. the next day, the results were out — and Michael’s estimates were almost exactly correct. Turnout was a historic 57 percent of the student body, 76 percent of whom voted to dissolve the UC. The Council’s 40-year reign had come to a close.

Just one week before, Michael had told us that he would resign if his core campaign promise failed. Now, he was triumphant.

***

But on April 5, one week after the UC’s dissolution, Michael resigned anyway.

He told us it was because he didn’t think that the HUA elections “should be about me,” adding, “I am the past. The HUA is the future.”

But what exactly that future entails is still unknown. At the time of writing, the HUA’s first elections are just now taking place. The body lacks any bylaws to organize its day-to-day operations, which filled a significant portion of the UC’s 21,682-word governing document. All that is truly known is that the new body will be led by nine officers elected by ranked-choice vote — and that they have a lot of work ahead of them.

“When students voted on this referendum, they were more focused on ‘the UC is annoying. The UC is toxic,’” Jane says. “The question that really should have been asked is, ‘is the HUA a good replacement?’ and not, ‘is the UC bad?’”

In his parting email to the student body, Michael writes that he is looking forward to “getting lost in used bookstores, playing video games like Tales of Symphonia and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, and spending time with friends and teammates.” The email is titled “Our next chapter.”

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“I have this sense of destiny,” he later tells us. “It’s like my life is like a book that’s already been written. And I have no idea what the pages ahead are. I’m not allowed to flip ahead. But I live through the pages, the words on each line, very viscerally.”

He concludes his resignation email with a quote from William James’s “The True Harvard,” the speech that hangs above his desk:

“As a nursery for independent and lonely thinkers I do believe that Harvard still is in the van. Here they find the climate so propitious that they can be happy in their very solitude. The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.”

Below the quote, Michael attaches a pensive portrait photograph of himself looking off into the distance.

Epilogue

For our last interview with Michael, we returned to his room. Again, we sit facing him as he reclines on his bed.

Two months ago, he’d shown us screenshots of emails and Instagram posts, periodically going off on tangents about the function of democracy. This time, he’s eating ice cream cake from his resignation party. “Yesterday was the best day of my life,” he tells us.

Michael reflects on his UC presidency. Initially, he says, he had a lot of hope. “There are a lot of cultural things I wanted to do,” he says, “like consensus-based agreement or giving hugs when you come in.” There’s not a hint of irony in his voice.

“But the culture that had been on the UC for so long was completely negative,” he continues. “Once you already have [an] established culture and established system, it’s really hard to actually change that culture.”

And yet, many of his peers claim that it was Michael himself who perpetuated much of that negative culture. “I think that Michael did contribute to the toxicity and divisiveness of the UC,” Jane says. “There was a lot of mistrust.”

“Michael, to me, is someone profoundly driven by pride and reputation,” Samuel says. When we ask Samuel why he thought Michael was so dedicated to the UC’s dissolution, he says, “truth be told, I think Michael wanted to leave a legacy behind.”

But whatever legacy Michael may leave has come at the expense of others’.

“As plain as it may sound, I’m very sad,” Daniella M. Berrospi ’24, the UC’s former finance committee chair, tells us the night the referendum results came out. She sighs. “I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that the job that I’ve put so much time into for about a year and a half now is gone. It’s just wiped away.”

We ask Michael if all the strife was worth it.

“Yeah, I would think so,” he says, citing the remarkably high voter turnout for the referendum: “I think we got students to actually care about their university.”

He adds, “Obviously, I think there were mistakes made. There were decisions I definitely would have thought about differently.”

He doesn’t elaborate on what these are.

***

Thirty minutes after Michael resigns from the UC, we join him on his way to crew practice, making small talk as we walk to the boathouse. There comes a lull in the conversation, but after so many hours of interviews over the past couple of months, it isn’t awkward.

After a while, Michael breaks the silence. “I feel so free,” he says.

Michael is the stroke, a technically demanding position in front of the rest of the rowers. From the front of the boat, he sets the pace and the others must match him — “even if I’m wrong,” he chuckles.

As his group gets ready to get in the water, they walk over to a boat resting on the ground. Michael is hunched over, his arms wrapped around the bow, ready to lift the boat at any moment. “Mike, you can relax,” his coach tells him. Michael grins sheepishly and releases his grip.

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The rowers are largely silent throughout the two hours of practice on the water. The setting sun outlines their silhouettes and casts the tips of their oars in an orange glow.

They paddle with Michael in the front, their backs to the direction they are rowing. As the boat moves steadily onward, disturbing the stillness of the Charles, it leaves trails of ripples in its wake.

Corrections: April 26, 2022

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated a proposal changing the Undergraduate Council’s constitution was adopted by the council on Dec. 4, 2021. In fact, it was passed on Dec. 3, 2021.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated former Undergraduate Council President Michael Y. Cheng ’22 changed the slogan of his campaign to dissolve the UC to “reimagine the UC” after backlash over his use of the word “defund.” In fact, he changed the slogan to “reimagine Harvard.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated former Undergraduate Council Vice President Emmett E. de Kanter ’24 sat in the place of former UC President Michael Y. Cheng ’22 when he refused to attend UC meetings. In fact, de Kanter filled in for Cheng only once, when Cheng walked out of the UC’s last-ever meeting.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the students who were elected Undergraduate Council president and vice president in 2013 immediately resigned after the election. In fact, only the UC president-elect resigned.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

— Magazine writer Amber H. Levis can be reached at amber.levis@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amberlevis.