On Sunday afternoons, a handful of students gather around a table in Harvard’s Smith Campus Center, resembling a casual club meeting or study group.
To an outside observer, it would not be obvious that this group is actually Harvard’s student government, that these students are managing a budget of more than half a million dollars, or that the young organization sits atop the rubble of a 40-year-old institution demolished just last year.
The Harvard Undergraduate Association’s style stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, the Harvard Undergraduate Council, where weekly meetings featured rigid procedure, contentious arguments, premature exits, and accusations of discrimination in its final year. Last March, Harvard undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to dissolve the UC and replace it with the HUA.
Before the historic referendum, HUA proponents branded the proposed structure as highly collaborative, efficient, and transparent. They promised a revamp of club grant funding and promised the government, with few elected positions, would see increased student involvement from passionate volunteers.
It would be everything the UC wasn’t, they said.
With the HUA’s inaugural semester drawing to a close, students are split on whether the new government is more of the same, or the start of a new chapter in Harvard’s historically acrimonious student government.
If the HUA had a single priority in its inaugural semester, it was to shift the culture of student government, which for years has been associated with Harvard’s most politically ambitious.
Sasjha I. Mayfield ’25, who helped draft the HUA’s constitution, said this goal was front of mind from the Association’s very inception.
“I think what we were envisioning when we were creating the constitution was less of a student government focused on politicking and more of a student government focused on advocacy work and tangible solutions to student problems,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield, who now serves as the HUA’s representative on Harvard’s Committee for Undergraduate Education, theorized that some of the UC’s conflict came from a desire for credit, and the HUA’s structure works “as long as people don’t get caught up in wanting titles and recognition.”
“Any work that I do on the HUA is going to be attributed to the Academic Team, and I’m totally fine with that,” Mayfield said.
One immediate change the HUA brought was the introduction of a co-presidency.
Inaugural HUA Co-Presidents LyLena D. Estabine ’24 and Travis Allen Johnson ’24 even originally vowed to change the name of their executive positions to reflect their rejection of title-chasing — a move endorsed by Michael Y. Cheng ’22, the former UC president who led the effort to dissolve the body.
But they never did. This week Estabine and Johnson said they decided not to pursue the name change in order to clearly designate their position to outside groups.
“It helps for people to know who they’re talking to,” Estabine said. “If you say ‘the Co-Coordinator of Harvard,’ they’re going to be like, ‘I don’t really understand what that is.’”
Still, Estabine and Johnson maintain they have made strides toward improving the culture of Harvard student government.
“I think LyLena and I have worked really hard to ensure that the climate and culture of the HUA is one that’s collaborative and cooperative and not cutthroat,” Johnson said. “A lot of times on the UC, we saw a lot of arguments break out during the middle of meetings.”
With multiple HUA executives having previously served on the UC, some students remain skeptical that the HUA presents a drastic departure from the Council’s antics.
“I haven’t even really noticed the difference between the UC or the HUA,” Claire Yoo ’23 said. “It’s just a different name for the same student body government.”
Indeed, the HUA’s first semester has not been completely free from controversy.
In September, the HUA drew criticism from Harvard Primus — a campus group for first-generation, low-income students — which alleged that HUA leaders rejected its efforts to establish a diversity, equity, and inclusion team.
A Primus Instagram post claimed the Association “voted against a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Team” over the summer “after a Primus representative reached out to HUA Co-Presidents and Officers.”
HUA leaders deemed the post “misinformation” but said they would evaluate the need for a dedicated DEI team, which would require a campus-wide referendum to alter the HUA’s constitution.
It wouldn’t matter, however. Just days later, the HUA’s first referendum was voided following a procedural misunderstanding with the Dean of Students Office. Estabine and Johnson labeled the incident as an example of “growing pains” within the organization.
In an interview this week, Estabine and Johnson reaffirmed their commitment to DEI issues, saying they would include a question regarding the creation of a DEI team on their spring referendum.
The episode drew student criticism, as did a subsequent scrutiny of Estabine’s affiliation with a campus Christian organization, Harvard College Faith and Action. Estabine said the criticism has at times negatively affected her mental health.
“It just seems that no matter what you do, people seem to legitimately hate you as a person,” Estabine said. “Not even what you’re doing — they hate you.”
As the HUA nears a transition of power — no officer may hold the same position twice — it is too early to tell if the body has implemented lasting cultural change.
In the UC’s early years, the now-defunct student government operated in a similar manner to the HUA, addressing tangible student concerns without much fanfare.
Cheng, now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, believes avoiding future conflict within the body will require electing reasonable leaders who aren’t “stirring up controversies and drama.”
“I think when you have establishment, wannabe politicians running student government at Harvard, because it’s at Harvard, they’re going to take it way too seriously,” he said.
Before the dissolution of the UC, proponents of the HUA marketed it to students as an opportunity to revitalize a slow and convoluted club funding process, a point of frequent criticism toward the UC.
This semester, the HUA successfully advocated for a $550,000 annual budget — a 10 percent increase from the UC’s allocation the previous year.
The HUA has also sought to implement a series of recommendations yielded by an independent audit of its predecessor’s finances, which was launched last January amid accusations of mismanagement and tax fraud.
Some student club leaders have lauded the HUA for its efficiency in disbursing club grants, which are provided on a monthly and semesterly basis.
Rebecca J. Kay ’23 said the HUA’s revamped funding guidelines allowed her campus organization to use its funds “a little bit more flexibly.”
HUA Finance Officer Alexander J. Zurovec ’25 said equity was a major priority when designing the Association’s fiscal policy.
“One thing I really tried to do too was just level out the playing field, in terms of hopefully trying to make it a bit more equitable across the board for all students [organizations],” Zurovec said.
Even with a larger total club funding budget, some students have reported surprise at scant allocations when compared to past years.
Christopher J. Kwon ’22, co-president of the Harvard Taekwondo Club, said his club has received less funding under the HUA, creating a financial burden for students.
“[Our funding] is a fifth of what we had before, and the expenses have stayed generally the same,” Kwon said.
Zurovec said the HUA has had to divide its budget among more clubs than the UC did, attributing the uptick in grant requests to the ease of applying.
The HUA has also funded a variety of new and returning initiatives, including campaigns and grant packages intended to boost campus accessibility and inclusion.
Estabine said while the UC used to rely on public statements, she and Johnson have sought to take direct action on campus issues.
“It used to be that if [the UC] saw something they didn’t like, maybe you write a statement and you just kind of email it into the void,” Estabine said. “Now, we ask, ‘What can we actually do?’”
Noah A. Harris ’22, a former UC president who opposed the effort to dissolve the body, said that although he does not “intimately keep up” with the HUA’s activities, he has admired the organization’s accomplishments in its first year.
“I’ve seen how the projects that they’ve done have been very substantial and very helpful to the student body so far,” he said.
The HUA’s vow to revive a historically unmoved student body got off to a rocky start when only 1,849 students voted in its first officer election — just months after nearly 4,000 undergraduates turned out in droves to dissolve the UC.
The HUA’s leadership structure hinges on passionate student volunteers, a rare commodity among a generally apathetic constituency.
While the UC featured 54 elected dorm and house representatives, the HUA currently only elects nine officers via a College-wide popular vote, a change that opponents argued would concentrate power among fewer individual students.
The rest of its members are student volunteers. Any College student who attends a weekly general meeting is eligible to vote on legislation.
By the HUA’s reasoning, this system allows for students who are not interested in a long-term position to help with temporary projects. In practice, meeting attendance remains sparse. Weekly general meetings rarely see significantly more than a dozen voting members turn out.
Harris says he fears that without the same raw numbers as the UC, more responsibility has fallen upon HUA executives.
“I think, overall, the structure does make it more difficult on the leadership — it makes it a harder job to do,” Harris said. “It just means that the leadership will have to work harder.”
Ivor K. Zimmerman ’23, a former UC representative, agreed.
“I think they’ve done a decent job — a pretty good job,” said Zimmerman, who opposed the HUA’s formation. “But I think I get the sense that they’re doing a lot of the lifting.”
Estabine and Johnson agreed their roles are, indeed, very hands-on but dismissed concerns that the Association’s success relies too heavily on the labor of its leaders.
“What reduces my worry is the fact that we’re not the only officers,” Johnson said. “There are seven other — and hopefully, in the future, more — officers who are duly elected and can lead projects if necessary,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson underscored the need to better involve the student body, particularly freshmen.
“It really makes me so disappointed when I talk to first-year students and they say, ‘I didn’t know I could participate in the HUA,’” Johnson said.
Of the HUA’s nine current officers, four were elected as social freshmen.
Estabine lauded the new electoral system as more accessible for freshmen to run for office.
“What we saw in the past few years was the people who were able to run successful campaigns were the ones with large Instagram followings,” Estabine said. “When you run at the beginning of your freshman year, you don’t really know these people.”
Under the current system, general elections take place during the third week of the spring semester.
According to Zimmerman, the Association’s lower profile has shielded it from student scrutiny.
“I think people’s perception of [the HUA] is probably slightly more favorable,” Zimmerman said. “I think people just think of it less in general, and I think a big part of that is just that there’s fewer people in it.”
Zurovec largely agreed with Zimmerman’s characterization, saying the new government tried to avoid forcing its campus presence “down people’s throats.”
“What I’ve heard from other people is people saying that they don’t really care about [the HUA],” Zurovec said. “In terms of the people who do care about it, it’s about club funding.”
—Staff writer Mert Geyiktepe can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.