For the first time in Harvard’s history, the Council of the Dean of Students recognized university-wide student groups for the 2011-2012 academic year. This followed a two-year effort by students making the case University-wide groups. While the deans were completely on-board and very supportive of the idea in principle, we faced significant obstacles common to a decentralized University with dispersed systems. The challenge was to make these systems work together without a central system in place to recognize and support such student collaboration, especially when it came to funding and the monitoring and dispersal of those funds. The Council agreed to recognize up to 10 groups for the inaugural pilot year: seven such groups were eventually recognized. The case we made to the Council was two-pronged: some groups of students (in this case from Pakistan) while present throughout schools, were not present in large enough numbers in any particular school to be able to form a sustainable group housed in that particular school and there are always lingering and pertinent questions of sustainability from one year to the next. The other prong of our case was that a country such as Pakistan that is faced with immense social, political and economic challenges and yet has deep reservoirs of resilience, needs students from across disciplines, both from the country as well as anyone interested in it and the region, to address and grapple with them in an integrated way from one platform.
We crossed many further administrative hurdles such as having to find a Sponsoring Unit that would take monitoring responsibility, anywhere in the University (such as a center or department)—in our case, the University’s South Asia Initiative was a perfect match with its focus on the teaching and learning of the region. The problems remained that no Unit or Dean of Students Office in the University was willing to allocate funds to us—even a minimal amount for running expenses. Because we were not housed in any particular School, we also lacked an administrative support structure, such as room reservations, website hosing, or group email addresses. In short, the groups after much pressure and demand from students were recognized, but as the president of one of the other recognized groups said to the Office of the Provost, whose help has been invaluable in getting us this far, “Without any money, we’ve been set up to fail.”
What’s truly immense is what we’ve been able to achieve and add to the academic community, both before we were officially recognized and this year— even while we have no clarity (whether we can reapply on the same terms next year; whether there has been an effort to develop the necessary administrative mechanisms whereby we’ll be allocated a stable budget; on what criteria will we have been deemed to be “successful” and whether or not there is internal thinking about whether the pilot will be extended). In short, the lack of clarity and ownership by any administrative Dean of Students school-based-type-entity has been immense.
So what are the initiatives and collaborations we’ve contributed to during our pilot year? We recently collaborated with the Women’s Law Association and Southeast Asian Law Students Association along with a group at the College and Harvard Kennedy School to screen the very powerful Bol (Speak), a film about gender equality and diversity, population and religious issues in Pakistan. We had more than 60 attendees and a conversation following the screening led by one of the actresses in the film, a Harvard College undergrad; Professor Noah Feldman helped us host Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.N. along with Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center at HKS and an expert on Afghanistan and the Taliban at a standing-room-only event. We co-hosted along with another University-wide student group, the Harvard India Student Group, SAI and the Program on the Legal Profession, the visit of the former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam.
If we can be so active and collaborative without a working budget (given the effort needed to find money on an event-by-event basis) imagine how much more productive we would be and be able to add to the overall academic and social life of the graduate schools, the College, and the University as a whole if a the Office of the President took us in or the Council and the Office of the Provost developed a mechanism to house and fund us? If there is an administrative concern that there will be no end to the groups that will demand recognition, an annual cap could be put in place accompanied by a mechanism by which non-active groups could be put in hibernation or at some point in the future, de-recognized. The important point to recognize is that it is often those with particular concerns who are most able to shine light on a particular thing—and once they do that they can collaborate with others. In short, if there is goodwill and commitment to making One Harvard a reality—an initiative intended to recognize the diversity of our backgrounds and to build in inclusive University—practical solutions can be found. We need your help to speak to your student representatives and to Dean of Students to let them know that students from all backgrounds need their support to enable conversations and develop academic collaborations that will matter for an increasingly globalized legal profession.
Erum Sattar, S.J.D. candidate, is the Vice President of Organizational Development of the Harvard Pakistan Student Group, one of seven groups recognized as a University-wide student group in the program’s pilot year.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.