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After Going Viral, Undergraduate Council Leaders Struggle to Find Footing

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The duo garnered millions of views on social media, partook in an interview with NBC, and won messages of support from the likes of prominent U.S. senators, sports stars, and other media personalities. For a Harvard Undergraduate Council election, the attention directed towards James A. Mathew ’21 and Ifeoma E. White-Thorpe ’21 was unprecedented, helping propel them to a narrow yet resounding victory.

Mathew and White-Thorpe’s message was one of transformational change, seeking to catapult the student government to action on issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

“We gotta do something different, something that no one’s expecting when they think of student government,” Mathew said in January on NBC’s “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”

The video that had launched the new president and vice-president into the national spotlight — gaining 5.3 million views and counting — was intentionally designed to reflect their intended mode of collaborative governance, according to White-Thorpe.

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“I mean there’s a reason why James and I did not speak, or rap, or sing, or anything in that video,” she said. “It was about extending our platform so that we can collaborate with others and lift everyone’s voice.”

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Yet in the nearly five months since the duo took office, many Council members say Mathew and White-Thorpe’s aspirational goals have failed to come to fruition, partly due to problems of their own making.

And in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic that forced students to leave campus, these representatives say Mathew and White-Thrope failed to fulfill the needed role of conveying student concerns about grading, mental health, and other issues to administrators.

Mathew and White-Thorpe did not respond to multiple requests for comment about criticism of their leadership.

The Grading 'Fiasco'

In the aftermath of the transition to virtual instruction, students and administrators debated how to ensure equitability in the College’s grading policy.

While some students advocated for grading to remain as it was, others advocated for one of various models, including opt-in pass-fail, “universal pass,” and a so-called “Double A” model ensuring a grade of A or A- for all courses.

As students continued to discuss the best way forward and consider how to lobby administrators, Mathew and White-Thorpe informed the student body they were endorsing the Double A model using the UC’s official email address. The duo did not consult the Council as a whole or wait for responses to a survey asking undergraduates their views on the issue, according to multiple UC members.

“We’ve done so as two concerned students within a larger group of dedicated organizers, consisting mainly of individuals outside of the UC,” Mathew and White-Thorpe wrote in their email endorsing Double A.

Although some representatives such as Chair of the Academic Life Committee Fernando Urbina ’22 were aware of Mathew and White-Thorpe’s email before it arrived in students’ inboxes, most other members were not notified of the email’s existence.

Urbina acknowledged in an interview that he, Mathew, and White-Thorpe should have been more forthcoming with the Council on their thought process. Yet he argued that because of the uncertainty related to grading policy, UC leadership had to act quickly.

“And I mean, I believe it is true that we did begin to work on the ‘Double A’ model before we totally talked to the Council,” Urbina said. “I definitely think we potentially should have released a survey to the student body and have the Council more in the loop the full time.”

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Three days later, the Council met virtually for the first time since leaving campus in an “emergency session,” allowing undergraduates to share their views with the UC. More than 200 representatives and constituents participated in the meeting.

But rather than follow Mathew and White-Thorpe’s lead, the UC rejected a Double A grading model, choosing instead to endorse a universal pass system.

UC secretary Nicholas J. Brennan ’23 said the differing endorsements of UC leaders and the Council as a whole compromised the body’s advocacy efforts.

“When the whole Council comes together and comes to a different decision, it definitely does send a poor message and that there was a disconnect between the President, Vice President and the rest of the Council, because ultimately, we should all come to a decision together in the hopes of representing the student body, the best that we can,” Brennan said.

Mixed Signals

Days after the Council’s emergency session, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh announced the College would adopt a universal emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading model due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Gay’s announcement indicated administrators considered input from the UC in its decision, some representatives questioned the efficacy and relevance of the Council’s advocacy, given that the UC was still debating grading models the day before the switch to Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory.

“For all we know, they had made the decision before we even sent out the survey,” said UC Treasurer Noah Harris ’22. “We’re out here trying to sell students on ‘we’re able to represent you, we’re meeting with the administration, we're making your voices heard.’ But at the same time, the administration is not looping us in on any type of decision or even giving us any type of clue.”

Both current and former Council representatives said it is not entirely new for a gap to exist between the administration and the Council. Harris said he wants to build a better relationship with administrators.

“I would prefer us to have more of a working relationship where they actually tell us what's going on and trust us to just take that information as well as possible and try and help students with it,” Harris said.

But according to multiple Council members, Mathew and White-Thorpe have yet to bridge that gap during their time in office.

Several Council members drew contrasts between Mathew and White-Thorpe’s approach and that of their predecessors, former President Sruthi Palaniappan ’20 and former Vice President Julia A. Huesa ’20. While Palaniappan and Huesa often asked the Council about topics that representatives wanted them to discuss in meetings with administrators, multiple representatives said they have not seen the same engagement from Mathew and White-Thorpe.

Under the Council’s new communication guidelines, representatives need approval from Mathew or White-Thorpe to work with administrators on projects. That requirement provoked a brief flare-up when two representatives sought to bypass the policy.

After the release of a student experience survey commissioned by the Council, Chair of the First-Year Class Committee Jenny Y. Gan ’22 and Lowell House Representative Oliver S. York ’21, the coordinators of the survey, scheduled a May 20 meeting with Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana to speak about the results. They did so without Mathew and White-Thorpe’s approval.

When the UC leaders discovered the existence of the meeting, they pushed back against their exclusion, arguing they deserved to be in the room given their roles.

On May 19, Gan sent a text message to Mathew and White-Thorpe saying she would keep the meeting with Khurana limited to York and herself in response to White-Thorpe’s request she allow her and Mathew to participate.

Mathew and White-Thorpe did not dismiss the possibility of going around Gan and York to obtain access to the virtual meeting, but Gan and York finally acceded to their demands before that was necessary.

“If you would prefer not to send us the link, we have no problem simply reaching out to Dean Khurana’s office,” White-Thorpe wrote.

In a May 23 message sent in the Council’s Slack channel, York questioned Mathew and White-Thorpe’s involvement with the UC’s Student Experience Survey.

“Where have James and Ify been during this process?” York wrote in the Slack message, which followed Mathew and White-Thorpe’s email to the student body about survey results on Saturday morning.

‘Still Learning’

Past Council presidents and vice-presidents said discontent within the UC and about the body from undergraduates was far from unprecedented, perhaps most strikingly in 2014, when Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15 won the presidency promising more tomato basil ravioli soup and thicker toilet paper.

General dissatisfaction with the body came to the forefront again during the most recent presidential election, when Aditya A. Dhar ’21 and Andrew W. Liang ’21 received the most first-choice votes running on a platform of abolishing the UC. Because of the Council’s ranked choice voting system, though, the pair ultimately lost to Mathew and White-Thorpe.

Dhar and Liang said in a May interview that in addition to the over one thousand first-place votes they received from ordinary students, multiple UC members expressed support for their candidacy.

Dhar and Liang said that despite losing, there was an unexpected efficacy behind their campaign message. Both attribute their popularity and what they perceive as low turnout in recent elections — averaging roughly 50 percent— to the UC’s perceived inability to communicate progress on its initiatives to students.

“The reason that there is generally low turnout is because, in all honesty, an important and small subset of people are affected by the policies that the UC needs to pass,” Dhar said. “And so the consequence is that the vast majority of students don't really feel the day-to-day impact of the UC.”

Former UC president Catherine L. Zhang ’19 said she was disappointed to hear that such negative sentiments ran so deep among students.

“I think hearing about that campaign makes me sad, to be honest,” Zhang said. “I will say that with any student government—there's always going to be push back on it.”

Former UC vice president Nicholas D. Boucher ’19 said the Council’s popularity among students often fluctuates.

“I think you’ll see these ebbs and flows of people taking the Council very seriously and people not taking the Council seriously, and it kind of swings in this, you know, back and forth motion, and people handle it different ways,” Boucher said.

But many long-time representatives argued that the current leadership has exhibited particularly poor communication and engagement both within the Council, as well as with students and administrators.

For instance, many say the switch to a more compressed Council meeting schedule has hampered efforts to thoughtfully craft and consider legislation.

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The Council’s executive board, which includes the president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and committee chairs, meets weekly to discuss legislation for the upcoming general meeting.

In these meetings, the executive board compiles the week’s legislation from the committees — which is later presented at the general meeting to the entire Council — into an agenda.

Previously, executive meetings took place Fridays, two days before general Council meetings. Under Mathew and White-Thorpe’s tenure, that meeting has occurred just an hour before the general meeting. Multiple representatives said the shorter time period between executive and general meetings prevented general meetings from running smoothly, in part because representatives sometimes have felt unprepared to vote on legislation.

“So, because it is an hour before general meeting, it means that some legislation that might need to be written during that executive meeting has had to be rushed and, like, has had to be put in as a new business in the general meetings,” UC Head of Communications Yousuf Bakshi ’23 said. “There's just not enough time to consolidate everything before the general meeting.”

Given several instances of breakdowns in communication between council members, many on the UC contend that Mathew and White-Thorpe should take a more active role as executive leaders.

Social and Residential Life Committee Chair Jack M. Swanson ’22 said the UC's response this semester “obviously could have been improved in a number of ways.”

“The biggest issue with the response was not so much the ideas that we had or the effort that we put forth on the part of individual members, but we didn’t have a strong leadership to guide all of the efforts that we had,” Swanson said.

Others urged a more generous view of Mathew and White-Thorpe’s perceived communication issues, given that the coronavirus upheaval occurred just a month after the first general meeting which they presided over.

“I would say they’re still learning, that’s how I would describe it,” Chair of the Finance Committee Rukmini “Mini” Ganesh ’22 said.

For some UC representatives, the Mathew and White-Thorpe administration has provided them with the freedom to launch their own initiatives. While a few council members have welcomed this independence, others expressed a desire for more top-down guidance.

“It seems to me that in the absence of leadership, a lot of committee chairs have had to step up and sort of guide the discussion and bring our ideas to the fore,” Swanson said.

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simauchi

—Staff writer Sharon Xu can be reached at sharon.xu@thecrimson.com.

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