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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Reform: It's What's for Dinner

Today the campus was treated to a Crimson editorial that excorciated members of the Undergraduate Council for opposing a recent part of the reform package presented by the UC Reform Commission (UCRC) that would have allowed representatives to be directly elected to the UC's three committees rather than to the general council body. The general gist of the editorial was that this reform is so monumentally important to the campus that if the UC refuses to pass the Bylaws amendment providing for the reform to move forward (there has already been one vote that defeated the reform 13-18, and passing it would require a 2/3 vote) that the legislation should be put to a campus-wide referendum next fall.

Having already seen Golis heartily endorse the reform, I felt that it's necessary to give the other side of the debate. Sometimes "reform" isn't a positive goal. Below I'll "fisk" the Crimson editorial and explain why the direct election reform could be bad for the Council and the campus. It'll be a long post, but for those interested, I highly recommend it - if I may say so myself. (more in expanded post)

First, I'll say upfront that the legislation isn't totally bad. I don't think that its sponsors have any alterior motives - I believe that they truly have the best interests of students in mind when they propose this reform. That being said, this is something that reasonable people can disagree over, and I happen to disagree with the "reform minded" members of Council (nevermind that I agree with almost every other proposed UC reform) who support the direct election scheme. That being said, let the fisking commence.
The UCRC’s proposal is an excellent solution to the UC’s long-standing problem of filling less desirable committees with uninspired, unwilling reps. Its failure ensures that students interested in participating primarily in one committee of the UC will continue to engage in a crapshoot every fall.
The benefits of the reform are obvious. Many candidates run for the UC seeking an appointment to a particular committee; only after elections do they find themselves planning Springfest or interviewing grants applicants. The UCRC’s solution is clear and effective: make sure that the only individuals who serve on each committee are committed, by forcing candidates to run for one specific committee rather than a general UC seat.
There's no doubt that there are membes of the UC who do little work beyond showing up at meetings, and even then some don't show up very often. The problem with these reps is likely that they just want an office - they are resume padders who are using the UC to enhance their viability for the next big step beyond college and leadership positions always look great. The problem with the proposal is that it assumes most candidates run to be on a particular committee than the UC as a whole. My experience with this has been the exact opposite. While most incumbents know which committees they would like to be on, most new members of the UC (and there's roughly 60% or greater turnover every year) just want to be on the UC. It's only after election to the UC and some experience that candidates discover that they may not like their committee assignment.

I don't buy the argument that election to a single committee may make some more committed. If there are indeed UC committees that are "less desirable," then doesn't it follow that the most hotly contested races with the most qualified and serious candidates will only be for the most desirable committee(s)? Doesn't that leave open the rather large probability that the "less desirable" committees will attract less qualified and less committed candidates who simply want to hold a position, if they attract candidates at all? It's likely that many committee elections will go uncontested and still continue the problem of uninspired reps. The problem is a cultural one that is pandemic to Harvard extracurriculars. If you hold a position and someone else will do the work for you, then why go out of your way to do extra work? Changing the format of election does not change this culture - it just changes the way that members of that culture get on the UC.
The UCRC’s proposal would also allow candidates to run much more focused and substantive campaigns than is currently the case. As it is now, candidates often make three sets of vague and stale promises—without knowing exactly which committee they will be elected to, how could they do anything else? Under the proposed reform, student voters would benefit from specific discussions of the issues related to each committee, and, in turn, cast better informed ballots.
I remain unconvinced that this will result. Candidates can now promise to work for legislation that would fall under all three committees' jurisdictions and actually accomplish those promises. The institutional barriers to actually doing work in the UC are incredibly low. No one is going to turn away a committed UC rep who wants to write a position paper on greater flexibility in dining hall hours simply because that rep is on FiCom or CLC. There are several members currently on the UC who have brought bills through other committees than their own. What separates these reps from the rest of the Council? They also happen to be some of the most committed and hard working reps. Given that the UC has a ridiculously low rate of "killing" legislation, it's likely that any substantive work done by a rep will be passed and acted on.

Direct election changes none of this. Instead, it only limits, in theory, the promises made to one committee's jurisdiction. This changes nothing about the candidates' abilities or dedication to actually to put their pledges into action, and it certainly doesn't change candidates running on "stale" ideas - instead of a breadth of stale ideas, voters will get numerous stale ideas all relating to the same committee. The kicker is that the institutional barriers to working in other jurisdictions will remain low, giving candidates incentive to still make promises in other areas. Thus, we'll still have the same problem that the Crimson identifies, but we'll simply have a different system. Again, the problem is the culture of candidates, not the system. Changing the system doesn't necessarily change neither candidates' fondness for lame ideas nor their willingness to do work outside of committee.

The obvious rebuttal to this is that it's a lot to ask for a rep to step outside of their committee and dedicate more time. Why not? Shouldn't we be asking our reps to make good on their promises? Shouldn't we expect our reps to do more than simply meet the bare bones requirement of showing up to meetings? The answer is yes, but the truth is that few reps actually do work. Most CLC and FiCom reps rarely do work outside of their weekly committee meetings. CLC members are not frantically scurrying about wondering how they'll fit in time to do reading while planning the next movie night. Their projects are infrequent and any time-intensive work is limited to a single occasion, such as taking tickets for a UC shuttle to the airport. We should demand more of our reps. Changing the system is a strawman fix that allows the appearance of reform without holding reps responsible for the current problems created by their lax attitude towards Council work. I say this only because it's a poor excuse to point to the system as the problem when the system allows them to work in any area they so desire - so long as they are willing to put forth more than the minimal effort.
Some have claimed that the reform would make it far more difficult for sophomores entering the Houses to get elected, but this is certainly not the case. As it stands, sophomores often beat junior and senior incumbents, and there is no evidence to suggest that the reform would alter this fact.
I don't see how this is up for debate. There are more than twice the number of junior delegation chairs (top vote winners) than sophomores. Clearly, sophomores would be at a disadvantage in each house no matter what committee they ran for. Remember, it's not what you know, it's who you know; and sophomores know few house members only weeks after moving in. The Crimson will point to the success of Blake Kurisu and John Voith knocking off Jack McCambridge in Winthrop in the fall elections. This is the exception rather than the rule and it's clear that Jack didn't campaign hard.
Further, even if it were true that the reform would force sophomores to seek election to less glamorous committees, the end result would still benefit the student body. Those sophomores who were seriously dedicated to the UC and its mission would still run and serve on other committees, gaining experience and demonstrating their merit to their electorates.
This is an argument for the current system. Essentially the Crimson is saying that if sophomores can't win the committee they want, they should run for a committee that they don't want because it will give them experience on other committees. That's the current system. A sophomore wants to be on SAC but comes in second to the sitting SAC incumbent junior? Fine. Spend a year on FiCom or CLC, get UC experience, work on SAC stuff anyways, and then clean up in the election as a junior when the now SAC incumbent senior decides not to run and get on SAC. If this is what sophomores are supposed to do with the new system, then why change from the old system? Why denigrate current freshmen and sophomores concerns that this will happen?
For many within the UC, especially younger members, this vote was about naked self-interest. If all the freshman present at the UC meeting last Sunday had skipped out, an 18-13 vote against the reform would have been tied at 12-12. Since these freshmen supposedly have the most to lose from this reform, the vote tally regrettably comes as no surprise. But shouldn’t UC reps vote in their constituents interests and not in their own?
This is shameless "sexing" up the argument. Maybe for a few people this played a role, but it's hard to argue why freshmen who are going to be running in completely open houses next year voted against the reform. It can't be self interest. More likely they are indeed concerned about their constituents' interests - current freshmen not currently on the UC who will want to run as sophomores in the fall.

It's spurious to change the vote count as well. 12-12 wouldn't even be quorum. Beyond this, it would have taken a 2/3 vote to have passed. Given a bloc of 18 members opposed to the reform, this is extremely unlikely to have passed. It would have taken nearly every other member of the UC, present or not, to vote for the reform.
The Harvard student body demands two things from its UC representatives: accountability and enthusiasm.
Umm...I think most students could care less how enthusiastic reps are so long as they are doing their jobs. I think students value efficiency over enthusiasm any day. But hey, that's just me.
Committees should not be able to blame the entire UC for passing poorly planned expenditures that their members bring before the council. More work needs to be done in committees to vet proposals beforehand. To ensure this level of accountability, UC reps must be fit—both in expertise and inclination—for their committees, which in turn must be encouraged to end their reliance on the full council to make all the tough decisions on the merits of each bill.
Committees don't currently blame the UC for their poor decisions. Obviously, even though the UC may have passed a bad bill, the blame lies with the committee tasked with carrying out the provisions of that bill. If advertising shuttles to NYC is poor, and then the shuttle loses money, CLC will get blamed, not members of FiCom and SAC. So the change doesn't fix that.

Amen, more work needs to be done in committees to vet proposals. We can do that within the current system.

I agree that UC reps should be "fit" in knowledge and dedication - which is why I'm uncomfortable setting up a new system that encourages the loss of institutional memory. If a veteran SAC freshman who runs as a sophomore in a house loses to a junior with no UC experience for the SAC election, the UC does not gain from that loss. Similarly, a sophomore veteran CLC member who wants to challenge a junior SAC incumbent for their SAC seat the next year creates the same problem. As a future junior, the CLC rep has an advantage against a senior who has, in theory, a smaller base of support than the now junior. The junior wins the SAC seat, but the UC loses a two or three term SAC incumbent who knows the ins-and-outs of University Hall and knows administrators personally.

The current system allows the switching of committees for incumbents. In the above scenarios, all reps are re-elected (or elected, in the case of sophomores) and have the ability to remain on their committee of expertise even if they finish third. This preserves expertise and institutional memory - something the direct election reform actually could work against.
If even this compromise won’t move bill opponents to change their votes, the UC must submit the question to a student referendum
As an institutional precedent, this would be terrible. Should UC members frustrated by the failure of a piece of legislation take recourse to the student body? If the legislation is serious enough and directly affects the student body, say a termbill increase, then yes. In this case, UC members are clearly the most informed as to how what is essentially an internal operational reform will change the institution. To the rest of the campus, this will likely appear to be an esoteric part of UC operations that they have little interest in. Students don't care how UC reps are elected (for the most part) - they want they UC to deliver grants, advocacy, and services.

While the aims of the direct election reform are admirable, I remain unconvinced that the Council will see the benefits that supporters are touting. I see the problem as a larger cultural issue that is a mix of apathy, free-riding, and, in a few cases, resume padding. The reforms proposed do nothing to change this and will still exist if the reforms are passed. Instead of addressing the root cause of the problem, the reform will create the appearance of change when in reality nothing has happened. To use a crude analogy, this is Prozac reform - it'll make people feel better but there's a lot more to do to address the foundational problem.

A step in the right direction would be for the UC to reform its attendance policy, which allows members to show up for an initial roll-call and then leave for the next two hours and then return for final roll call. Such a policy allows minimal involvement. Furthermore, the UC should get serious about expelling members who violate the attendance policy and contribute little effort. It's rare for even the most lazy UC members to get expelled after missing too many meetings. These are hard reforms to make though because here UC members actually do vote out of self-interest. Over 50% of reps have been warned at least once - meaning that if they miss one more meeting they will be expelled. Thus, they have no interest in holding themselves to a higher attendance standard when doing so would immediately and directly lead to negative consequences.

If you've made it this far, thanks. There's far more to the debate than "naked self-interest" and far more to the equation than reform=good.


At 2:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Umm...I think most students could care less how enthusiastic reps are so long as they are doing their jobs. I think students value efficiency over enthusiasm any day. But hey, that's just me."

How do I know if what you think is anymore valid than what anyone else does if you use a pseudonuym?

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous sam teller said...

First, everyone should stop posting anonymously or at least choose a snazzy pseudonym. Especially you anonymous above. Second, there are a lot of problems with what Jamal said that I'll respond to after I turn in my three papers.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Jamal Sprucewood said...

Dear Anonymous:

That portion of my post was clearly just an editorial comment. Actually, the whole post was, but especially that part. If you don't like what I wrote, disagree with it.

I would hope that my arguments would be compelling enough without putting a name too them. I didn't know that the validity of an argument was dependent on the person making it.


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