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Harvard Undergraduate Association’s First Referendum Voided Following Misunderstanding with Dean of Students Office

Harvard Undergraduate Association Co-President LyLena D. Estabine '24 speaks at the organization's inaugural meeting.
Harvard Undergraduate Association Co-President LyLena D. Estabine '24 speaks at the organization's inaugural meeting. By J. Sellers Hill
By J. Sellers Hill and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

After soliciting votes for their first-ever referendum earlier this week, the Harvard Undergraduate Association announced Thursday that the results would be declared void, citing a constitutional misunderstanding with the Dean of Students Office.

HUA Co-President LyLena D. Estabine ’24 wrote in Slack communications over the HUA channel that the referendum was void because the Association had not yet appointed a student election commission, and constitutional amendments would not be considered again until the spring. The decision drew ire from some students, who saw another delay in an ongoing effort to establish a diversity, equity, and inclusion team within the HUA.

“Our conversations with the DSO left us with the impression that until an election commission was convened, their staff could serve in that capacity,” Estabine wrote. “Upon further review, we have decided, in consultation with the DSO, that the HUA must be a student-led organization, including the election commission.”

The debacle began on Monday, when Primus, a campus group representing first-generation, low-income students at the College, went public on Instagram with claims that the HUA had dismissed its efforts to establish a DEI team over the summer.

The addition of a new team requires the passage of a school-wide constitutional reform referendum — a process that, according to the HUA’s constitution, can be initiated by a unanimous vote of the executive board or a petition signed by 5 percent of the student body.

Estabine and HUA Co-President Travis Allen Johnson ’24 refuted Primus’ accusations, saying they hesitated to hold a referendum in the fall, when an incoming DEI officer would only be eligible to serve for one semester.

Without agreement from HUA leaders, Primus pursued a referendum via petition, hosting a public town hall meeting Wednesday evening to discuss the matter with Estabine and Johnson. At that time, the referendum was still open, and Estabine encouraged attendees to vote in the minutes before it closed.

But during the meeting, both Primus and HUA leadership claimed to have received different information from the DSO about the referendum, creating confusion surrounding the state of the election commission.

“In terms of what is a fact, the election commissioner is JR [Bagley] at the DSO, and we are working with him to ensure that the election is handled fairly and smoothly,” Estabine said during the town hall.

Laila A. Nasher ’25, the vice president of advocacy for Primus, said she had received conflicting information from her conversations regarding Primus’ petition for the establishment of a DEI team.

“The DSO said that there is an election commissioner who held [Tuesday’s] referendum and that this was not the HUA’s executive team. They said that you guys should definitely name a commissioner to hold the election,” Nasher said. “So I’m just confused about this gap of information.”

Estabine, Johnson, and Nasher did not come to a resolution by the meeting’s conclusion. DSO representative Jason R. Meier did not respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, when Primus submitted its petition to the DSO for certification, they were told that the process should instead be handled by the HUA, according to an email from Meier to Primus.

In the email, which was obtained by The Crimson, Meier said the office could not initiate the referendum process as it would be an “administrative over-reach.”

In the wake of the Undergraduate Council’s dissolution last spring, the DSO appointed an interim election commission to facilitate the election of the HUA’s first officers, as outlined by the Association’s constitution.

According to Estabine and Johnson, an official election commission will be formed by the end of September through applications selected by the executive board.

In her Thursday statement, Estabine confirmed that a question regarding the formation of an “Inclusion Team” would appear on the HUA’s spring referendum.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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