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The High Cost of Harvard’s Club Culture

By Libby E. Tseng, Crimson Opinion Writer
Libby E. Tseng ’24, a former Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

When I heard the news that the former president of Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative transferred $30,000 from the club’s bank account to her own, I laughed. $30,000 seems like an astronomical amount of money for a single individual to access in an instant. With that amount of money, an undergraduate could buy enough takeout ramen, burritos, and iced vanilla lattes to fuel all four years at Harvard.

But, putting tasty snacks aside, $30,000 is equivalent to the annual income of a family of four living at the national poverty line. With this realization, my laughter faltered.

I go to a school where a teenager or twenty-something year-old can unilaterally control more money than some families see in an entire year.

Most Harvard students will argue that the HUFPI situation is atypical. Only some student organizations have as much money or power as HUFPI, and the optimistic undergraduate might even argue that their peers could handle such responsibility. But while these points might be true to an extent, the existence of even a single story like this illustrates an important reality about the culture of student organizations at Harvard: They’re usually centered around control.

Even though we don’t like directly recognizing it, this theme comes up often in high-profile on-campus news events and whispered gossip. After the Undergraduate Council was defunded amid allegations of financial irresponsibility, the Harvard Undergraduate Association proposed an (ultimately unsuccessful) amendment to its constitution so that the position of “Co-President” would be renamed “Co-Coordinator.” This move was apparently made to reduce the prestige associated with the role and select individuals motivated by passion rather than aspirations of a career in government.

Besides this well-publicized example, many of my friends have complained to me about leadership issues in their clubs. A classmate told me that one of their collaborators refused to share the login to a club’s bank account, preventing them from planning essential events. Another peer told me their club suddenly instituted a hierarchical leadership structure after years of being unstructured.

The common thread here is that many Harvard students want to be in control of their clubs, even if they don’t want to admit it. Maybe you have an impulse to point fingers at the megalomaniacs engaging in hostile takeovers and controlling leaders monopolizing power, but I would bet that doing so would lead you to run out of fingers pretty quickly.

Besides, this ignores the issue at the heart of this story: Harvard doesn’t inherently have too many students pursuing power over passion. Rather, the University is a breeding ground for this kind of mentality.

Extracurriculars aren’t treated as a reprieve from the day-to-day stressors of being a college student. Instead, time outside of class is measured in bullet points on a resume. Participation in a student organization must have tangible benefits, whether those be building a useful network, developing pre-professional skills, or beefing up a CV. This mindset creates a culture where control and “leadership experience” are prized above passion.

Tragically, this “leadership experience” is mostly tainted. The pressure to engage in a large number of clubs rather than dedicate quality time to just a couple can cause ineffective leadership. Many clubs have hierarchical structures with a single person at the top. Demanding leadership roles can make participation logistically challenging for first-generation, low-income students who must balance work with extracurriculars.

For students who do lead clubs, the responsibilities take up significant time and emotional bandwidth. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, enterprising individuals may use their unchecked power to make fantastically horrible decisions that ultimately harm their own future and the future of their organizations.

If you are keeping a tally of the ingredients that make up student life at Harvard, you may have noticed by now that “fun” is missing from the list. Believe it or not, these conditions are not conducive to fulfillment or enjoyment — but you should not write this off as an individualistic problem.

We need to radically restructure the clubs that exist. It’s not enough to make symbolic gestures; a co-coordinator doing the job of a president might as well retain the title. I would argue that few clubs, if any at all, need a hierarchy. A board of individuals can divide responsibilities and lead as effectively as a single person. Restructuring clubs in this way would allow students to engage specifically with an aspect of an organization, reduce the barrier to entry, and decrease the pressure to control a club or hold the position of president. The checks and balances of group decision-making also decrease the chances that anyone could single-handedly control an amount of money equivalent to the annual income of a family.

Most importantly, these changes could drive a cultural shift towards focusing on activities that spark passion and joy rather than strengthen sections of a resume — and hopefully bring back fun to a campus that desperately needs it.

Libby E. Tseng ’24, a former Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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