Harvard’s Undergraduate Council Kerfuffle
The representative student body is replaced after decades.
The logo of the now-defunct Harvard Undergraduate Council
The logo of the now-defunct Harvard Undergraduate Council
After 40 years, the Undergraduate Council (UC)—the Harvard College student government—is dead. During a four-day referendum voting period that concluded in late March, 76 percent of nearly 4,000 voting students decided to dismantle their current representative body and replace it with a new form of government: the Harvard Undergraduate Association (HUA).
For years, the Council had not been taken seriously by a considerable portion of the student body. In 2013, Gus Mayopoulos ’15 and Sam Clark ’15, won the UC presidential election on promises to increase the thickness of campus toilet paper and make tomato basil ravioli soup available at all meals. In 2019, Aditya Dhar ’21 and Andrew Liang ’21 ran a “campaign to end campaigns,” promising to abolish the UC, end the yearly $200 student activities fee, and move the Quad back to the Yard. The duo received the most first-place votes of any ticket but finished second in UC’s ranked-choice voting system.
But it was UC president Michael Cheng ’22 who brought the organization to its end. In an interview with Harvard Magazine, Cheng, a resident of Quincy House and member of the lightweight crew team, described himself as a longtime Council backbencher who had focused on policy work in his time on the UC. “I never endorsed a campaign…never wanted to be UC president,” he said. A particularly combative fall 2021 UC campaign season changed his mind. One candidate was accused of stealing $20,000 of COVID-19 relief funding from the Council (the allegation was later disproved). The same candidate was disqualified by the UC for supposed rules violations that Cheng found ridiculous, then reinstated by College administrators. He recruited UC outsider and fellow rower Emmett de Kanter ’24 as his running mate during the early-November tumult, with the two vowing to “Defund the UC.” They were inaugurated on December 5.
Cheng and de Kanter organized a “Citizens’ Assembly” to write a constitution for a new government. Of the 30 undergraduate students selected to this assembly by a random sorting algorithm (picked from 100 who filled out a demographic survey), 22 showed up to the first meeting and 16 attended the group’s final of 11 meetings. The sessions featured guest lectures from various government scholars. The focus, Cheng said, was to move the student government away from passing “yes or no” bills with little enforcement power and toward action.
As he tried to disband the government he led, UC morale plummeted from an already low point. “They just used a lot of intimidation tactics to keep people in line,” said UC member and Finance Chair Daniella Berrospi ’24, who opposed its dissolution and was saddened by the lack of civility—including an unsuccessful attempt to recall her from her position. “Meetings became a lot more draining and a lot shorter.” (Cheng disputed accusations of intimidation: "Simply saying 'I disagree with you, so you're intimidating me' isn't intimidation," he wrote in an email.) Ivor Zimmerman ’23, a UC member who ran a presidential campaign against Cheng, was critical of Cheng’s months-long refusal to preside over an election for a “Rules Chair” in the organization, a position with significant constitutional power in referendum processes. Cheng said he did, on February 18 (Zimmerman disputes that the election was presided over in good faith), but added, “If you tell most Harvard undergraduates that, they’re gonna be like, ‘This is why we voted to get rid of you,’” he said, citing a Harvard Political Review survey in which students gave the UC a 9 percent approval rating (with 44 percent remaining neutral). “Because they’re not talking about things that actually matter.” The Citizens’ Assembly emerged on March 22 with a 4,518-word constitution for the HUA, a new form of government. It sought to replace a 21,682-word UC constitution that Cheng argued mired the organization in pointless bureaucracy.
After a successful petition process, a contentious four-day referendum to abolish the UC began on March 28, during which Cheng and his allies were accused by opponents of violating campaign laws. “Everything Michael did was totally against the rules,” argued Zimmerman. “There are rules for how you can campaign: You can send one email a day; you can’t send emails to the entire student body; one poster per board; no posting on people’s doors; no door drops; no knocking on people’s doors; no campaigning in dining halls; no campaigning in classes. Michael personally broke every rule I just listed.” Cheng dismissed the accusations and said that many of these so-called rules were not truly rules. LyLena Estabine ’24, a UC member and Cheng ally, agreed and argued her efforts to encourage voting in Annenberg Hall were not illegal because she didn’t tell people which side to vote for. “If they’re insinuating that the election was handled unfairly, they’re accusing the election commission of not doing their job,” she said. “And I personally trust the election commission.” In the end, the election commision corroborated just one rules violation and students voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the UC.
The leadership of the HUA, will consist of nine officers elected by the student body, including two co-presidents and seven officers who will preside over different aspects of the student experience: finance, social life, extracurriculars, academics, residential life, well-being, and sports. Cheng argued that cutting the number of elected members from more than 50 to nine will not dilute representation; students can join the HUA as team members or project leaders even if they aren’t chosen by the student body—a departure from the current system which focuses on legislation passed by elected officers. The body will continue to officially advocate for students on issues like shopping week. He is especially proud of the new club-funding system, which will allot funds to students primarily at the beginning of the semester, with monthly opportunities for additional cash from the organization’s $500,000 budget. The current system grants money on a per-event basis. “If the new system does club funding well,” he said, “anything else is a cherry on top.”
Zimmerman does not share Cheng’s optimism. “You would have to try to write a stupider piece of governing documentation,” he said. He points out the contradiction between a line that says, “the Undergraduate Council’s Constitution and Bylaws will be immediately deleted and invalidated,” and another that maintains the Undergraduate Council’s student-organization funding through the semester. “The UC doesn’t exist,” he said. “You can’t fund clubs.” (Cheng denies this and says the organization continues to exist as a legal entity.) Despite the ambiguity, Daniella Berrospi ’24, the (former) UC’s former Finance Chair, is helping to process club-funding requests in the interim. “I don't think I could ever imagine myself letting student organizations down,” she said, “especially during this month, when a lot of clubs are having a lot of nice events.”
After Cheng stepped down as president on the evening of April 5, de Kanter assumed authority during the UC-HUA transition. Over breakfast in Winthrop House, the UC’s final president acknowledged that there is much work to be done to improve the HUA constitution after it becomes the law of the land (or at least of the undergraduate student body) on May 8. “I think this is by not by any means a perfect system yet,” he said. “The bylaws still need to be written.…It’s entirely possible that there will be great flaws. But what's good about the system is that we’ve acknowledged, for the first time in 40 years, that change needs to be made.” He will not be part of that process, he said. After presiding over new elections, scheduled to take place between April 27 and 29, he will leave changes up to the new HUA members. One year in student government was enough. “I'm just excited to do something where I feel like the relationship is collaborative and positive,” he said. “I felt like I was sort of fighting a battle, and I don't really like that.”