The UC has four referenda for debate this fall.
Autumn, especially the month of November, is often a period of transitions, changes, and adjustments. Not only are we adjusting to the drop in temperature, change in the time sunset takes place, and adapting to the naked trees and their yellow and orange vestiges, but we are tasked with making decisions that can potentially change life as we know it. November means elections season. While students do not always take the Undergraduate Council’s referenda process seriously, the four questions that will potentially be included on the ballot later this month could have significant impact on our lives as Harvard students. Each of the four proposed questions must obtain 670 undergraduate signatures in order to be included on the UC presidential ballot later this month.
As my fellow students scroll through their inboxes and decide which, if any, of the referenda will garner their support, I’d like to provide my own thoughts on what each of these referenda could mean for the student body. This year, the topics the referenda will tackle include the administration’s handling of final clubs, breakfast meetings, student involvement in Harvard’s sexual assault policy-making, and the conversion of Pusey into a student social space.
Let’s start off easy, and talk about the anti-breakfast meeting proposal from Colin Diersing ’16 and Kim Soffen’16. Officially, the question posed is, “Should Harvard undergraduates stop having breakfast meetings?” While in her pub email to students Soffen tries to get peers to consider how much better sleeping in is, she does provide links to the “more serious” referenda attempting to get signatures. Though I personally am not a morning person, I don’t think that the student body as a whole needs to endorse the merits of morning meetings. Sometimes getting things done over a bowl of oatmeal is necessary. Besides, I am hopeful that students are able to schedule meetings that fit within their schedules without the need for a UC vote.
The next ‘softball’ item that will automatically be included on the UC ballot is whether Harvard should make Pusey Library into a freshman social space. This question does not require student signatures because two-thirds of UC members have already endorsed the referendum, however, students will need to vote yes, no, or abstain from the question. In light of increased advocacy for more inclusive social spaces that can accommodate a variety of student needs, I find that this proposal is a step in the right direction. Besides the individual common rooms within freshman dorms or Annenberg, there isn’t another space in which first-year students can commiserate their freshman experiences.
I think that any space transformation of Pusey should have the ability to transition from study lounge to party space. I also think that first-year students should be able to reserve the space for their own private events from time to time because I believe that the college’s approach to creating social spaces doesn’t give students enough agency or control over space. The key to making a more inclusive campus is to create spaces that are not only communal, but that can allow students to have a sense of ownership or pride. Inclusive social spaces should work to disaggregate the amount of social space capital a particular group has.
Perhaps the referendum that is getting the most attention is senior Jordan Weiers’s, “Should a provision be added to the Harvard College Student Handbook making enrollment at the College contingent upon abstaining from membership and participation in traditionally male final clubs?” This question is different than the question originally posed in order to fall into compliance with UC rules regarding referendum petitions. In all honesty, I did sign the original petition, because I do think our student body should have a greater stake in how the administration handles final clubs. However, I am a little jarred by this rephrasing of the question. While I will vote in favor of having the question included on the ballot, I personally do not think the administration should change the Harvard College Student Handbook to make being in a final club a violation of one’s enrollment at Harvard.
While other peer private institutions like Amherst have made similar decisions “to prohibit student participation in fraternities and societies and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, either on or off campus,” I do not think that is the right move for Harvard. I whole-heartedly agree that there are many issues with final clubs, but I do think that the administration is – to a certain extent – using final clubs as a scapegoat for larger problems within our community. Though I understand that final clubs, in particular male final clubs, have more social capital at their dispense and have been a “larger threat to the Harvard community”, I don’t think it is necessarily fair to target just final clubs when there are other unrecognized student groups like fraternities and sororities to which students belong.
There are also issues with student rights regarding the autonomy to choose where and how to associate that also need to be addressed. Even so, there does need to be a larger conversation with how final clubs are handled by the Harvard administration. Personally, I do not think the pressure for clubs to go co-ed will eliminate all of the issues I believe exist with the clubs, and I believe that students, club members and non-club members alike, should be a part of a larger conversation on how to disaggregate the social capital of clubs and diversify the ‘types’ of people in clubs. I am hoping that this referendum will be the catalyst to those discussions.
The final referendum that is attempting to get 670 signatures is senior Julia Geiger’s “Should Harvard be required to open the meetings of current task forces reviewing sexual violence policy to interested students?” Geiger is submitting the question on behalf of Our Harvard Can Do Better, Harvard’s student activist group working to better Harvard’s sexual assault policies and advocate for a more supportive culture for victims. I sincerely hope that this question receives all 670 signatures needed, and that once it is on the ballot, students vote in favor of it. Harvard has a long-standing tradition of not including students or getting student approval after-the-fact on many policies and practices that directly impact students.
Considering that these policies affect students in the most intimate of ways, students have the right to be on these task force committees. In addition, Harvard owes students this transparency after having such damning results from the sexual climate survey. By allowing students to sit on these task force meetings, students are better able to advocate on behalf of and protect our community.
While it would be nice if everyone agreed with my opinions regarding these referenda, I do hope that my musings (or rants) will add more thoughtful discussion on the question of to sign or not to sign as the Monday, November 9 deadline approaches.
Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) wants to start a referendum requiring all Harvard students to read the Harvard Independent. Heck, maybe even a referendum that makes the Harvard Independent the official paper of the University.