Saturday, February 22, 2014

Does the Controversy Over the Student Government Funding Mean Anything?

The student government at Harvard, known as the Undergraduate Council, has long been a weak organization. Seats go uncontested, and the last presidential election was won by a guy who pretty much made a joke out of his campaign.

Part of the reason is structural. Harvard has a strong collegiate staff, so some services that student governments provide at other universities are centrally provided here. That has always helped explain why the student government here gets less funding than it does elsewhere. I think part of the problem is also the general problem of diversity. Harvard students are interested in so many different things that it's hard to find a majority opinion on anything that matters. The endless controversies over the choice of bands for Springfest seem to me almost inevitable; there simply is no majority opinion on musical tastes.

The UC is funded by a $75 term bill fee that is itemized so students can opt out of it. The opting-out requires the effort of sending a letter to the term bill office--not a major burden by any means, but enough of an annoyance that most students who are indifferent or hostile to the UC don't bother to hold back their financial support. (I think. There used to be very high compliance, don't truly know about now.)

Over the past month there has been a somewhat puzzling series of Crimson stories about the UC's desire to get $250,000 more per year to expand its activities. The Dean of the College and the President have said sympathetic things but have observed that they are dealing with budget problems of their own. I paid little attention to this until I suddenly realized that I had been there, fifteen years ago, when the UC wanted to raise the fee from $20. I eventually decided that should happen, and I wrote an op-ed for the Crimson explaining my view. I think it went to $35 shortly thereafter, so the fee has already more than doubled since then.

My general view has always been that extracurricular activities should be supported, at least the ones that students learn something from or that keep them healthy. (I have always been less sympathetic to the identity-politics groups.) Aside from whatever practical lessons such group activities teach about cooperation and leadership, and what intellectual or career-oriented skills they may foster, they on average tend to reduce drinking. Oh, I know all about the rugby team and the initiation rituals, but in general, I am persuaded that students who are busy doing something are less likely to spend their evenings wasted than students who have nothing to do but pass their courses.

(And drinking is a problem; the freshman formal was shut down early a few weeks ago, and the Crimson has a long piece about Harvard's bingeing culture.)

Add to that, the fact that Harvard has apparently reduced its support of club sports to save money, so the UC has a reasonable argument that it needs to take up the slack. I'm not sure I like the vector there: to save money, one department reduces its services to students, so students ask for money to replace those services, except the student body itself controls how that money is allocated. The pirouette may leave students paying the same amount of money and the university losing control over its allocation, while proudly announcing that it has reduced its budget gap.

But here is the part of the story that I don't get. "Mayopoulos and Goffard, who hosted a rally in the Yard before their meeting with Faust, said that they discussed the additional funding’s importance with the president and how it might be acquired, either through a term bill increase or directly from the University." So they hold a rally, and then ask the president for a quarter of a million dollars. She says "no" to direct funding, and quite rightly directs them to Dean Pfister to talk about the term bill mechanism. But the UC doesn't stop here. "Mayopoulos said that that Harvard 'should bear a significant amount of the cost of extracurriculars' on campus. 'If an increase in the term bill is necessary, this increase will be matched by the University so that students are not alone in this,'  he said."

Probably this is just the kind of low-grade populism for which the UC has always won scorn, and I should leave it alone. Still, it's embarrassing for the future leaders of the free world, and I worry that it's part of the infantilization process I have been observing for some time. It's one thing to ask for the student government to ask permission to raise the term bill fee. Every time such a request is granted, there is the potential for an instant plebiscite. If students don't want to turn over their money to the UC, they can opt out. Just as in any representative democracy, the expectation of the electorate for prudent spending of resources raised through taxation provides a counterweight to the ambitions of the political class to expand the central budget. It's a healthy tradeoff. It's so much easier, and less realistic, for the UC just to ask the university to turn over the money and trust them, rather than for the UC to ask the entire student body to trust them, one term bill payer at a time.

Acting like a teenager asking for an allowance is so different from asking for authority to raise a voluntary tax on your constituents. Holding a rally over this, when there are real problems in the university and in the world worth rallying over, is childish. My goodness, what do our students think about the relevance to them of political persuasion and civic action? Isn't there a teachable moment here?

1 comment:

  1. Harvard College never stops raising the list price at a rate faster than inflation, no matter how much money it raises or how well its endowment does. Some Harvard undergraduates are following this example.