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LTE: Lessons To Learn From The Harvard Student Government

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014 02:01

They ran on a slogan saying, “You Could Do Worse.” On Nov. 21, Sam Clark and Gus Mayopoulos won election as the President and Vice President of the Harvard Undergraduate Council. Known for being satirists, one of their central platform points was increasing the availability of tomato basil soup. Surprised at their win, the duo articulated what most Harvard political insiders were thinking, “…really?” The majority of students there, however, as evinced by the astonishing social media support that the campaign generated, must have been thinking, “Why not?”

The election of Clark and Mayopoulos shows that, even for a school as intellectual and engaged as Harvard, student governments (SGAs) are at risk of becoming at best irrelevant in the eyes of students and at worst self-important and out-of-touch resume builders. There is no mistake that student governments are much less prominent than they were during the vocal 1960s and 1970s. Especially at private institutions where students are most likely not represented on an institution’s Board of Trustees, students could not care less about their respective SGAs.

Why? Because it seems like the issues just aren’t worth fighting for, and if there is a problem, then why not give Mom and Dad a call to get it sorted out with the appropriate administrator? Student governments do an exceedingly bad job of campaigning for issues. Once the popularity contests that we call races end, SGAs have a tendency of becoming insular, even close-minded. They resort to complex jargon. They spend most of their time engaged in internal politics. Most of their close friends end up being in the government. As a result, elected students and staffers grow out of touch with the times and crowd. They spend so much time harping on issues that they “think” matter but have not really even asked the everyday student.

Worst of all, they are resistant to criticism from all angles. Levy any charge against an SGA die-hard, and you’re bound to get one of the following responses: 1. You don’t know what I know. I have privileged knowledge. 2. I have been here longer than you have. 3. What do you do on campus? All of these stereotypical responses point out one uneasy fact. SGAs have devolved into self-important, self-serving, and self-perpetuating elitists. SGAs have become the Vaticans of their respective schools, and its time for a Pope Francis-style catharsis.

We can learn a lot from the example set by the Pope. First, we need to get our hands dirty again. No one in the government should be spending more time in an office than he or she is spending with other students. Second, we need to be humble. You’re a senator—so what? You’re Vice President, but you’re still a 21-year old neophyte by the scheme of things. Students no different from us put us in these roles, and students are those whom we serve. Third, we need to use simpler language. Jargon, acronyms, and political correctness are just veils by which to justify our own ignorance or accuse others of it. Fourth, we need to be doing things, not just saying them. Pope Francis puts his money where his mouth is, and when he does speak, each of his words carries weight.

Granted, I myself have fallen to the typical sins of a SGA leader, and in many ways, our government has been stepping down this harmful path. It’s harmful not simply because these mindsets threaten the organization, but because I sincerely believe that SGAs can still be compelling and dedicated student advocates who can make an impact. The desire to serve is still there, and students will be as visionary and passionate as ever. We just need to become better at re-uniting thought with action, politicians with constituents, and lobbying with campaigning. It is only by becoming a simpler, humbler, and more down-to-Earth government that we can avoid the fate of many other SGAs across the country.

We shouldn’t be laughing at what happened at Harvard, nor should we be overly concerned with the well-being of our SGA peers across the river. Instead, we should take Sam’s and Gus’ win as a tell-tale sign that we too should be connecting better with our fellow students. Sam and Gus originally intended to resign their seats, but Gus stayed on pointing out that he wants to help the Harvard UC bridge the disconnect between it and the student body. The truth may not be as savory as tomato soup. We should be doing better.

Matthew Alonsozana
UGBC Executive Vice President
A&S ’14

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