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Why Does Harvard’s Student Government Keep Failing?

Harvard undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to dissolve their student government. It was a long time in the making.

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In late March 2022, Harvard students did something unheard of: They turned out in droves to vote in a student government election.

Throughout its 40-year history, the Harvard Undergraduate Council struggled to engage students while grappling with infighting, inefficiency, dysfunction, and scandal — so much so that nearly every ticket in 2021 ran on a platform of fixing a broken system.

But students turned out in March not to decide the Council’s next leaders — that vote had occurred months before, handing victory to Michael Y. Cheng ’22 and Emmett E. de Kanter ’24, who had vowed to “defund” the body, in what The Crimson editorial board deemed “A Vote of No Confidence in the UC.”

This vote was to realize the ticket’s plan — to completely dissolve the UC in favor of a new structure altogether. And it wasn’t even close: More than 75 percent of voters cast their ballot to scrap the UC, sounding the death knell for the body.

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The move appeared radical, but before the decades-long reign of the modern Undergraduate Council, turnover in Harvard’s student government was the norm. Many variations of councils and committees lived and died on the order of years.

With the failure of yet another governing body, one might ask if there were ever a time Harvard’s student government was truly effective, civil, or respected by the student body, and, if so, just what went wrong.

‘Only Ashes’

One of Harvard’s first student governments emerged in the 1960s in the form of the short-lived Harvard Council on Undergraduate Affairs.

In its three years of life, the HCUA tackled a range of lackluster projects, including measuring lighting levels in lecture halls, before fracturing into two successors. The Harvard Undergraduate Council would address general issues of student life, while the Harvard Policy Committee would research academic policy alongside faculty.

The HPC quickly proved to be the more effective of the two bodies.

“The HPC is the best thing we’ve had yet, but it won’t be the last,” then-College Dean John U. Monro ’34 remarked to The Crimson in 1967.

By 1968, the HUC’s leadership had already fallen into disarray, admitting they had lost track of the organization’s finances and blaming their secretary-treasurer. After numerous unsuccessful advocacy efforts — including an attempt to bar women from Lamont Library — the HUC was in a death spiral.

“The HUC has probably become irrelevant,” said then-former HUC member Lawrence M. Lawrence in a 1968 interview with The Crimson. “Now there are only ashes.”

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By 1978, the defunct HUC was replaced by the Harvard Student Assembly.

According to former Student Assembly Chair Natasha Pearl ’82, the new Student Assembly occupied a crucial campus role through its capacity to plan school-wide social events.

But without any budget or official recognition by school administrators, the 96-person Student Assembly again ran up against the same power imbalance suffered by its predecessors and struggled to distinguish itself from other college governance bodies. In 1982, The Crimson deemed the Student Assembly “notoriously inefficient.”

“Undergraduates felt that their voice was not being heard,” then-Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. ’59 later told the Crimson.

Fox moved to establish the College’s first officially recognized and funded student government, convening the Committee to Review College Governance in the spring of 1980, chaired by then-professor of biology John E. Dowling ’57.

Pearl, who served on the Committee, said in an interview this month that Harvard was an outlier for its lack of an official student government at the time.

The next year, the Committee-produced “Dowling Report” proposed to replace Student Assembly with a representative, 85-member “Undergraduate Council” and called for Harvard to allocate the body a $60,000 yearly budget, raised via a $10 surcharge on each student’s tuition.

A year later, after an arduous constitutional convention, Harvard’s first official student government, the Undergraduate Council, was born.

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‘Worrisome Haughtiness’

Politics quickly found a home in the UC, with progressive student groups lobbying to install a sympathetic leader atop the Council.

But by the end of its first year, the Council, chaired by Michael G. Colantuono ’83, had proven it could at least function, if not incrementally improve student life at Harvard.

Thomas H. Howlett ’84, a Crimson news editor who reported on the UC at the time, called the new Council “auspicious,” but criticized the “worrisome haughtiness” of some Council members who were “willing to sacrifice their direct link to students for junior Congressman status.”

Such a characterization would haunt the UC for the remainder of its existence.

Some past actors even speculated that Harvard’s unique student population made successful student governance difficult.

“The percentage of undergrad incoming freshmen who were presidents of their student government is probably enormously high,” said Tim R. Hwang ’08, who would go on to run as a joke candidate. “You already have this ultra-competitive sort of situation that I think leads to a certain level of toxicity in the culture.”

The Council continued its reign into the late ’80s, throwing public events and advocating on issues like minority representation among Harvard faculty, South African Apartheid, sexual harassment, and campus keg policies — but struggled to drive student investment.

According to former College Dean Harry R. Lewis ’68, low student interest is not an inherently bad omen.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a terribly bad thing that you can’t get the student body all revved up about the student government,” Lewis said in an interview this month. “It’s a measure of the diversity of interests of the population.”

Students originally didn’t even express interest in selecting the body’s leader, voting down a proposal that would allow them to popularly elect the Council’s “chair,” who was appointed internally at the time. Only one-third of the student body voted in the referendum.

“One of the main things that people who proposed the amendment intended was to cut down on student apathy,” councilmember Rodolfo Ruiz ’90 said at the time. “You can see the referendum didn’t do that at all.”

“It shows that it’s hard to generate interest in what [the council] is doing,” said another then-UC member.

For a Council trying to shake its melodramatic image, 1992 was a bad year. Then-Vice Chair Maya G. Prabhu ’94 was accused of tampering with ballots for an internal social committee chair election.

Prabhu professed her innocence, but after a failed impeachment attempt, an anonymous letter of confession, and calls for handwriting analysis of the letter, she stepped down.

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The Council made more positive headlines the following year when it selected Carey W. Gabay ’94 as its first Black leader. That same year, the titles of “chair” and “vice chair” were finally changed to the familiar “president” and “vice president.”

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With the title change came renewed calls for popular officer elections, something to which the Council’s first leader was opposed.

“If you’re trying to choose effective leadership for the legislative body, I don’t necessarily think that a president is better,” Colantuono said in a 2008 interview with The Crimson. “The race can easily become of much more interest to the future senators of America.”

Rudd W. Coffey ’97, a councilmember who was an outspoken advocate for popular elections at the time, said the change might have welcomed more drama than it was worth.

“We saw going into campus-wide elections as an improvement, as a way to strengthen it, as a way to tie the key leadership closer to the student body,” Coffey said in an interview this month. “I think it obviously had some unintended consequences.”

In its first year of popular officer elections, the Council moved to recall its vice president after he failed to expel council members with poor attendance. The recall, which the VP called a “political witch hunt,” failed — but six representatives were eventually dismissed through the fiasco.

By 1998, student participation in the UC reached a new low, with just 18 percent of students casting a ballot in its midterm elections.

The Council’s woes continued. In 1998, the UC’s treasurer, John A. Burton ’01, announced an account containing $40,000 of forgotten money — more than a third of the Council’s budget at the time — had been discovered over the summer. That same year, an election commission member resigned following the revelation that she asked other students to pray for a specific ticket via email.

Jonelle M. Lonergan ’02, writing for The Crimson at the time, said the Council was marred by an identity crisis as its leaders increasingly disagreed on the role of the body.

“Every council meeting became a tug-of-war between political activism and providing student services,” she wrote in 1999.

At the onset of a new millennium, UC officer elections soared to new heights as candidates explored the boundaries of campaign finance regulation. Mail drops, stickers, buttons, and lemonade became commonplace during election season as candidates worked to stretch their $100 spending limit.

Tensions flared when an all-white group of UC representatives moved to impeach Burton, who by then was vice president to the Council’s first Black female president, accusing him of stealing buttons from a student group, according to a 2000 Crimson article. The weeks-long controversy led to a complete collapse of decorum within the Council, culminating in a hearing attended by representatives from the Harvard chapter of the NAACP. Burton survived the challenge.

‘Laissez-Faire’ and Tomato Basil Soup

By the mid-2000s, the Council’s antics had invited parody.

In one of the first of many joke candidacies to come, Hwang and Alexander S. Wong ’08 ran a familiar-sounding “Laissez-Faire UC” platform, calling for the Council’s assets to be distributed equally among students via checks.

Hwang said in a May interview the campaign was meant to poke fun at the demeanor of some UC members.

“The UC was a haven for people who took themselves too seriously,” Hwang said. “I think the people who participate in [student governments] often take them beyond a reasonable level of seriousness that doesn't make any sense.”

Hwang and Wong were unsuccessful in their bid, but attracted formidable student support, something former Crimson news editor Eric P. Newcomer ’12 said bode poorly for the Council.

“The flirtation with an eventual election of the joke ticket was certainly a strong sign from the Harvard undergraduate body that there was not a lot of belief in the Undergraduate Council,” Newcomer said in a May interview.

Accompanying the jokes in the late 2000s was an uptick in Council productivity. A series of uncontroversial leaders led successful efforts to move fall exams to take place before the winter break and establish a College-wide facebook. (Previous efforts to create a facebook were slowed by privacy concerns after Mark E. Zuckerberg used house facebooks to create a website that allowed users to rate students’ attractiveness.)

But the Council’s credibility quickly began to slip once more.

A multi-day election fraud scandal engulfed the UC in 2009, prompting a failed impeachment of the Council’s then-vice president, Kia J. McLeod ’10, the resignation of three members of the election commission, and a full investigation by Harvard IT services.

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Just four years later, the Council would see its only successful joke ticket, when Samuel B. Clark ’15 and Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15 ran on a campaign to ensure more tomato basil soup was served in the dining halls. Clark immediately resigned following his victory, but Mayopoulos remained, serving an uneventful term as UC president.

The UC was publicly questioning its own efficacy by 2014, when consistently low voter turnout promoted discussion at a general meeting.

“We’re never [going to] see the day where the UC is a fully relevant body at Harvard,” Jacob R. Steinberg-Otter ’16 said at the meeting.

Few elections following the pair’s satirical victory was without a joke or anti-establishment ticket, but subsequent administrations largely failed to stir the pot. That was until the campaign of Aditya A. Dhar ’21 and Andrew W. Liang ’21, who vowed, satirically, to “abolish” the Undergraduate Council and sit on Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s desk until he agreed to serve their agenda.

The pair lost narrowly to James A. Mathew ’21 and Ifeoma “Ify” E. White-Thorpe ’21, who made national headlines for their campaign music video, even appearing on Inside Edition and the Kelly Clarkson Show.

The following year, a cat campaigned for office. The Crimson editorial board deemed UC elections “broken.”

The 2021 election saw candidate disqualifications, reinstatements, nullified votes, and accusations of tax fraud. Just 33 percent of students turned out to elect Cheng and de Kanter on their “defund” platform.

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Dhar and Liang would get their wish after all. In March 2022, students turned out in historic numbers to dissolve the UC via referendum in favor of a new structure, the Harvard Undergraduate Association.

A Question of Sincerity

In light of the UC’s history of tribulations, it seems unlikely that the HUA will be without challenges. But opinions differ on what exactly dealt the UC its fatal blow.

According to Newcomer, who used to cover the UC for The Crimson, the success of the HUA, like its predecessors, will hinge on its ability to assure students it means well.

“Now that the UC has destroyed itself, the UC’s self-important facade is crumbling,” Newcomer wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, I’m sure that the new student government will soon try to convince the world (and The Crimson) that it is doing important work.”

Some say the introduction of popular voting sent the Council down the wrong path.

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“It remains to be seen if [the HUA] is an improvement or a downgrade,” said Coffey, a former Councilmember. “If that was the price of going to campus-wide elections and the in-between was a bunch of joke candidates and people getting more and more extreme, that probably wasn’t worth it.”

Andrew B. Herrmann ’82, a former Student Assembly leader, thinks that problems stem from a nefarious perception of student government leaders.

“The central controversy in this most recent move to redo the student government is the same one that’s probably always been there,” Herrmann said. “There’s a certain resentment against people who get involved in student government based on assumptions about their motivations.”

Still, Pearl, who helped pave the way for the UC in the early ’80s, was concerned by the disillusionment.

“I sincerely hope that Harvard College students, intentionally or inadvertently, are not discarding their vitally important role as stakeholders in the governance of the college,” Pearl wrote in an email.

But with less than a quarter of students turning out for the HUA’s first slate of officer elections, Pearl is yet to be reassured.

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

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