State, National and Regionally-Focused Student Organizations: A Win-Win Scenario

The world is rapidly changing, and Harvard Law School must keep pace. Global flows of people, goods, and ideas, fueled by technological advances, are merging the local and the global. Harvard University is responding. President Drew Faust has on several occasions expressed her commitment to intensifying the internationalization of Harvard. Internationally trained academics are assuming leading positions at the University. Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, completed his chemical engineering and management training in India and the United States respectively.

Harvard Law School is also changing. For the first time ever, over 10 percent of this year’s J.D. class comes from countries other than the United States.  Formal partnerships, exchange programs and cross-institutional degree and diploma granting arrangements offer students and faculty unprecedented opportunities for global engagement.  The “Globalization, Lawyers, and Emerging Economies” project led by the Program on the Legal Profession, the Institute for Global Law and Policy and a series of projects with Sciences Po Law School concerning transnational private law and Franco-American Legal influence afford students and faculty greater facility for global dialogue and networking.

Unfortunately, our Law School has recently taken a huge step backwards. In early February, the current Student Government adopted a bylaw stating it now has a “default of not accepting applicants for student organizations that are based on national, state or regional identity or degree status.” The recent “sharp increase” in the number of student groups seeking such recognition is a natural consequence of the changing face of HLS. At the very moment this Law School should be fostering global student initiatives, Student Government has shut them down.

Two arguments have been consistently raised in defense of this By-Law: one relating to resource limits and allocation, the other related to event overload.  I will address each in turn.

The first is essentially a floodgates argument.  If students from every country or region represented at HLS decided to seek formal recognition as a student association, our current level of resources would not be sufficient to fund them all.  Moreover, the recognition of new student organizations has been presented as a “zero sum game.” For every student organization recognized, the smaller the budget for each existing organization.

First, the money issue. Of course, resources are limited. The question is whether the current allocation of funds for student organizations should be open to discussion, transparency, and possible amendment, particularly in view of some of Student Government’s other questionable expenditures.  Moreover, most student organizations undertake their own fundraising initiatives.  Student contacts with law firms and institutions from emerging regions that have not historically given to HLS represent an opportunity for more revenue, not less. The Global Legal Education Forum, for example, received significant financial support from Brazilian law firms and institutions as a result of student outreach.  This situation can be a win-win for all, if we could only have the opportunity for our ideas to be heard.

Moreover, much of what is involved in student association recognition is not financial, but simply institutional. You cannot book a room for more than 20 people, order catering or media services, design and print posters or create a student organization website without formal recognition. Without recognition, interested students must rely on ad hoc relationships with existing student organizations and attempt to coordinate logistics, funding, and communication through another Board.  This is simply unworkable for any sustained series of events.

The second argument asserts that there are already too many events taking place at the law school. Too many e-mails, posters and free pizza. Allowing more students to organize and develop initiatives will only flood our heads, schedules, and inboxes.

How many events are “too many”? Maybe there are too many events overall, but not enough events for some causes and way too many for others. Who gets to decide? It should not be by Student Government fiat.  Students should be incentivized to associate and engage in important and exciting projects, like those organized frequently by the Asia Law Society, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, Southeast Asian Law Students Association, and African Law Association, to name a few. The problem of inbox flooding can be solved with different rules for the use of listservs. With the Wasserstein Caspersen Clinical building, physical space is no longer an issue.  New technologies greatly increase the possibilities for pursuing global initiatives that reach beyond the law school.

Certainly, the Law School should not adopt an “open gate” policy of granting immediate recognition to any proposed student organization.  Clear criteria need to exist to help distinguish seriousness from opportunism, even if the boundaries may not always be clear.  But, geographic affiliation or focus should not be an a priori disqualifier.  Initiatives should be judged by their substantive merit and the seriousness of those behind it.  And Student Government already has the capacity under current rules to review the activity level of student organizations and wind those down that have become inactive over time.

I have recently worked with a team of students for over a year and a half to gain recognition for the Brazilian Studies Association.  We experienced resistance from Student Government throughout, despite our commitment to pursuing a serious agenda of social, economic and legal engagement on issues of relevance to Brazil and the United States. We were eventually recognized, but the door was closed behind us. Two other serious and engaging student groups subsequently sought recognition with a regional focus and were apparently rejected. This is a step in the wrong direction.

Legal education and the legal profession are changing. Global student associations provide all of us the opportunity to learn and engage across borders. We all benefit from this.

The University is going global. The Law School is trying to keep up. The Student Government should do its part.

Gustavo Ribeiro, S.J.D. candidate, is the President of the HLS Brazilian Studies Association. Lisa Kelly, S.J.D. Candidate, also contributed to this piece. 

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

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