In light of a recent Harvard Political Review op-ed criticizing the structure of the Institute of Politics and its definition of politics, more than 40 IOP-affiliated students gathered in the Winthrop House Tonkens Room on Friday to share reactions to the piece and ideas about the future of the institution.
Students who attended the event—which was moderated by IOP committee chair Jenny Choi ’16, who penned the HPR op-ed—expressed a range of views, with some advocating for a remodeling of the staff-student interaction at the IOP to give more weight to student input and others maintaining that the IOP’s structure should remain unchanged.
In the op-ed that sparked the event, Choi, also the current co-chair of the IOP’s Fellows and Study Groups committee, explained her decision not to run in the IOP student elections that begin Nov. 16.
“I write this article...in order to share the realization that’s helped me come to terms with why I no longer want to run: the IOP is not a student organization,” Choi wrote, citing limitations on student fundraising and the requirement that IOP staff must approve any “significant” ideas generated by student leaders at a student board retreat.
Procedures at the IOP such as a system of pre-approving line items on some subgroups’ budgets, she added, are “a symbol for the spirit of complacency that dominates the place.”
At Friday’s conversation, Inesha N. Premaratne ’16, a former chair of the IOP’s Women’s Initiative in Leadership program, said she disagreed with Choi. The level of involvement of IOP staff members does not directly interfere with students’ suggestions for changes within the organization, she said.
“I saw resistance to some ideas, but it was not from the staff,” Premaratne said, adding that the paid staff of the IOP help the institution run more efficiently.
“[The staff] pick up the ball when we drop it,” she said.
Ellen T. Robo ’16, a member of the Institute’s Harvard Public Opinion Project, cited the different timetables for student and staff members of the IOP as a potential source of tension.
“Across education institutions...students can be outlived by staff members. We’re only here for four years; we’re only really involved for two or three. It’s easy [for IOP staff] to outlive our time at college,” she said, adding that improved communication about the respective roles of student and staff members would benefit both sides.
In an interview after the forum, Choi said that despite the focus of the conversation on the relationship between staff and undergraduate leaders in the IOP, the focus of her op-ed was more directed toward “outsiders”—students at the College who are not involved with the IOP.
“I think the primary issue is how the IOP is defining what is politics and what is public service,” Choi said. “Maybe the underlying issue there is the student-staff dynamic, and maybe a tangible action item is working on that issue. But the umbrella goal, which might be hazy, is to really reflect on the way that we have set up politics and public service to be defined at Harvard.”
—Staff writer Forrest K. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ForrestKLewis.