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.

Shared Interests Across Schools: Let’s Make One Harvard a Reality

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. 

E Pluribus Unum: HLS Should Welcome Identity Groups

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. could very well be talking about law school life in general, and not just judging. If for nothing else, the formative years of legal education and training in law school are crucial in shaping the way we will emerge as advocates, judges, teachers and policymakers. But those years in law school are not just about what we learn inside the classroom, but also what we experience outside of it. This is why all law schools, including Harvard Law School, make it a part of their mission to create a rich, vibrant and diverse student life which will complement its formal academic offerings.

Recently however, Student Government passed a bylaw which could possibly undermine this mission. According to an anonymous member of Student Government, a new bylaw states that: “Student government will consider fundamental the possibility for an organization to fit within the mission of another existing organization or office. For instance, Student Government has a default of not accepting applications for student organizations that are based on national, state or regional identity or degree status.” This bylaw appears to be intended to align with a Dean of Students regulation which reads: “In general, groups formed on the basis of a state or regional affiliation will not be granted student organization status. If you are interested in forming a state or regional group, please send an e-mail to the Dean of Students Office (dos@law), we may be able to assist with an event that celebrates a state or regional area that is not currently covered by our existing organizations.”

It is rather ironic that a law school, proudly touted by its former dean and now Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as the New York City of law schools, is enforcing a rule contrary to the spirit of that characterization. This default position against identity-based groups blatantly curtails the freedom of students to associate and to express themselves in a rich and meaningful way. In addition, the lack of transparency and hearing involved in the adoption and implementation of these rules makes one wonder if being in a law school, where one supposedly learns about fairness and justice, makes any difference at all.

What is more disturbing however are the underlying fears behind these rules. Is it a fear of the creeping internationalization of the school? What makes the Georgia Club more acceptable than an Taiwanese Students Club? Or what makes an SJD students association more problematic than the Transfer Students Association? One common denominator here is the international component of these “troubling” groups. Are these signs of an incipient xenophobia at HLS? Identity groups, whether based on nationality, degree, ethnicity or religion, should be welcomed, rather than discouraged. For one, certain experiences are made only meaningful within the context of a community. There are good reasons why we encourage expressive associations in school such as the Muslim Law Students Association and the Federalist Society. All law students need to be exposed to a spectrum of ideas and social forces as part of their education. Moreover, it is not beyond logic to understand that a graduate student association would have different needs and aspirations than J.D. student groups or a transfer student group. Second, these groups are more than just the sum of their parts. These groups qua groups make the school a livelier and a more dynamic place to learn and experience new things.

This is not a call for a balkanization of the school. If the issue is about the scarcity of funds to be allocated to student groups, then the proper response is to institute stringent rules which ensure that groups are not idle and that they actually contribute something to student and intellectual life. The solution, in other words, is to hold all groups accountable to their stated mission and objectives, terminating their recognition should they fall short of particular standards, and not to arbitrarily prevent new groups from being created.

In the same way that the numerous ethnic enclaves enrich, rather than impoverish New York City, we should see identity groups in HLS in a similar manner. After all, everybody identifies themselves as Harvard Law students. HLS should celebrate that diversity rather than shun it.

Anna Su is an S.J.D. candidate.

The views in opinion articles, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.