Of No Name Bands and Charles River Respites Part 1

The Undergraduate Council, as anyone who has followed the organization knows, has a hard time saying no to ideas geared at improving student life, whatever that may mean, broadly construed. A quick glance at UC legislation from the past few years conspicuously contains very few pieces of failed legislation. Unlike the Crimson, which would have you believe that the UC is often made up of bumbling and inept fools content only to pad their resumes, I hold the UC in high esteem having numerous personal friends (read informants) within the organization. Indeed, the few failed bills likely represent the strength of the UC’s committee system and the high caliber of its members and their work.

That being said, the UC has in recent weeks made a number of decisions that leaves one wondering if the UC’s zealous pursuit of its primary mission, “improving student life,” isn’t also at times its greatest weakness. I’ll be covering this subject in a series of posts over the coming weeks. For the first installment, continue reading. (more in expanded post)

Last week the UC made the decision to use funds not spent in the failed attempt to bring Snoop Dogg to Harvard (which can be laid squarely at the feet of the Boston Police Department) to fund an undergraduates only post-Springfest Springfest in the MAC Quad on April 30.

At first glance, the decision appears to be a solid one. Springfest, once the solely the responsibility of the UC, has been funded by President Summers’ office for a number of years now. The President’s office opened doors and provided funding on a level well beyond the UC’s reach, rumored to exceed over $125,000 each year. Seizing on an opportunity to throw a truly University-wide event for students, faculty, and staff, the President’s office admirably put on a show each year featuring good (and free!) food, music, rides, and events. After the initial success, the event became an annual affair. Naturally, students soon began to clamor for a retaking of Springfest (even though most students, it seems, actually enjoy Springfest in its current form). The Crimson even complained, not completely without reason, that the event was “more Barney than Bacchus.”

The problem came when the details of the post-Springfest Springfest actually came to light. The UC’s plan for an undergraduate only event, rather than a reclaiming, represents a rehashing. From accounts received by my informants it appears that the vaunted event will in reality be nothing more than the President’s version of Springfest, only in the evening and limited to undergrads. Oh, and with upwards of $20,000 spent on beer and a performing artist who has yet to be named. No, not that one. (Maybe the UC can pass legislation giving this unnamed artist their own symbol! ed. Hmm…good idea. You should contact your UC rep on that one.)

Let it be known that Jamal Sprucewood is not a prude. But one wonders what type of artist the UC can swing for $10,000. Ever heard of Mr. Lif? How about the Easy Star Allstars? Well, those are the artists listed on a handout provided to the UC by the Harvard Concert Commission tasked with overseeing the musical selection. (Do they have symbols? ed. Probably not – chances are they’re not formerly known as anything, let alone their current names). Ironically, the undergraduate only event will not feature undergraduate bands. For far less than $10,000 the UC could have brought in a local (or Harvard) cover band to play familiar songs all night long. To be fair, other artists were on the list such as Grand Master Flash and Pharrell, but it’s very unlikely that artists of this caliber are possible to get at such short notice.

Unfortunately, the UC has been unable to provide services that the campus has come see as the UC’s bread and butter. The UC’s Committee Fund, from which all student events and services are funded out of (not to be confused with the much larger Grants Fund which funds student groups, HoCos, and the widely loved Party Fund) has recently been described as having hit hard times. Allegedly the Committee Fund was so pressed for cash this semester that $1 Movie Nights, once offered on a regular three week basis, hardly ever occur. The co-sponsorship of the Movie Nights by Harvard Student Agencies (HSA), once meant to augment the UC’s funding and make the events more frequent, now serves as the sole source of funding for the event (when it happens). Where the UC once sent two shuttles to NYC for Spring Break, this year only one made the trip. The UC Boxes program, which has expanded every year since its inception, was cut by 1/3 this year even though last year’s supply sold out in days.

Given the above, it seems that the UC should have said “no” to spending $10,000 on a band that even sponsors of the event admitted was not intended to draw students to the post-Springfest Springfest, but to enhance the event. Given the quality of Harvard and local bands, I’m not at all convinced that this $10,000 had to be spent on a D-list band. Given the UC’s failure to put on its bread and butter events, this seems a dubious use of the Council’s funds. At an even greater level, the UC, which has of late become skilled at conducting telephone polls, should have at least sought out whether there actually existed a strong student demand for an alternative Springfest before committing over $20,000 in funding for an event which could easily flop due to adverse weather.

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10 responses to “Of No Name Bands and Charles River Respites Part 1

  1. Mr. Sprucewood,

    It’s hard to know where to start. One is hard pressed to disagree with your background facts, but it seems they lead you to the wrong conclusions. My argument is essentially that 1) this Springfest spending is not wasteful in the first place, and 2) that the UC should not be prevented from providing events and services on the grounds that it can only do so at a little less than 100% efficiency, although of course it must strive continually to be efficient and responsible in order to reach as close as possible to 100% efficiency in its spending.

    I think the big difference in our interpretations is that it seems to me you value saving money over spending it at anything less than 100% efficiency. Of course anything less than 100% efficiency is the margin by which the UC can improve its spending management, but the existence of that margin is a poor reason for not spending anything in the first place. Especially when the margins between UC money mangment and 100% efficiency are by and large quite small. The deficiencies you listed in the committee fund are mostly attributable to other causes – NY spring break shuttles were cut down precisely because they lost too much money last year, and movie nights are funded by HSA anyway. (as for boxes, have we even passed a boxes bill yet?)

    The UC has students’ money for the sole purpose of spending it to make students’ lives better. To risk being heavy-handed, I will say that the UC is not and should not be in the busines of hoarding money. This is not to say that if the UC can make money on events it shouldn’t. But that should not be the primary goal of those events and services – that goal should be to provide good events and good services, and to provide them with the soundest fiscal managment possible. And when that managment is just under 100% efficiency, well, that’s problematic, but not prohibitive. The problems of wasting money are real indeed, but in the case of Springfest, since there isn’t really any waste anyway, the good of providing the events itself far outweighs.

    Of course the restriction on the UC comes in the sphere of quality — the UC must fulfill its obligations to the student body in a high quality way. And despite the dearth of information about the post-Springfest party (which is entirely excuseable, given the secrecy required for bidding for musical acts), I fully expect the event to be fun and worthwhile. It’s just that the band will probably not be the biggest draw — but beer and friends are all the draw I need these days anyway.

  2. Jamal Sprucewood

    Mr. Capp

    If you will again reread my original post (I do apologize for its length) you will find that I never argued for 100% efficiency from the UC. Instead, I argued that their would be only a marginal benefit to the post-Springfest Springfest through the $10,000 allocation. My focus concerned this band, and not necessarily the funding for beer – which I understand should break even since the brew will be sold for $1 per cup.

    The greater point, however, was that the UC has not been keeping up with its “bread and butter” events and services this semester and as a result, I believe that it is unwise for the Council to have spent such a large amount of money when it can’t even perform those services. As noted in my post, I recognize that HSA’s sponsorship money now funds $1 Movie Nights. But how many movie nights have there been this semester? Contrast that with last Spring, when movie nights occurred roughly every three weeks. The HSA co-sponsorship was meant to make movie nights both more frequent and with higher dollar movies. Similarly with the Spring Break shuttles. Without revealing my identity too much, I can say that I know a fair amount about the UC shuttle process and that precious little, in the grand scheme of things, was lost on these shuttles in previous years – if at all. This year, as you are aware, the second shuttle was cancelled on the grounds that the UC would lose $170 – that’s $170 compared to the guaranteed loss of thousands for the unnamed artist(s) in question for a free performance. Things would be salved some if the artist were of some distinction, even another Busta Rhymes, but that is not going to be the case given the going rate for quality artists that students would recognize. Finally, as you should again be aware, the UC has passed an allocation for boxes this year which earmarks only $4,000. Contrast that to the $6,000 ordered last year which sold out in mere days.

    I apologize if I came off as holding the UC to an unrealistic standard of efficiency. That was not my intent. I do, however, intend to hold the UC accountable for its funding decisions, which I happen to find being poorly made. I do not buy the argument that the UC would be hoarding money if the allocation were not made on the artist. That money would have still been spent, but it could have been spent elsewhere – say ordering more boxes and paying for both Sophomore and Junior class events rather than just one Junior Class event. Perhaps more Movie Nights could have been held in April than say, zero. Maybe the UC could have recreated the successful Quad BBQ from two years ago. The possibilities are great – but they are precluded by allocating thousands for a no-name band(s) to play at an event that could have found student bands to play. I bet that students who come to the event will not be drawn there by the fact that the UC has allocated money for a professional artist of little to no distinction, but by the possibilities of hanging out with friends over food and drink.

    Given this, I think that such students would have been just as happy with a free to low-cost Harvard student band providing audio stimulation. Simply because the UC can enhance student life does not mean it should spend money on every event that promises to achieve that end. My post began with my concern that the UC’s zealous pursuit of that end sometimes leads it to make bad decisions. I think this is one of them.

  3. The problem with all of these posts is that you assume that you know what students want or what their priorities are or how they would want their money spent in the same anecdotal way that you criticize all of the other reps for. On what basis do you think a Harvard band would be as good as another? Which bands are you talking about? A better deal than Pharrel or Grant Master Flash, which you yourself admit are among the possibilities? How much better? $1000? $2000? Unless you’ve done a telephone poll I don’t know how you can claim to speak for student’s needs, desires or priorities any better than anyone else. In addition, you can’t assume that the UC should take a poll for every decision, especially considering the fact that you yourself think that students don’t know enough about the issue to make good decisions. Isn’t that what representative government is about? And, in that case, isn’t the fact that more people voted to try to make this event better than voted to not spend money even if it could be better the reason it’s doing this?

    Also, what’s with the obsession with “bread and butter” things? Quite frankly, I would guess a lot of students think that “bread and butter” is just another way of saying “not risky or interesting enough to actually matter in my life.” While I’m obviously biased (as are all posters in this conversation), I’m glad the UC is at least trying to do more, not just stick to what UC insiders think has worked in the past.

  4. Jamal Sprucewood

    Golis:

    Your argument is very much a strawman argument. Obviously, on any given vote taken on the UC someone could demand to know on what basis the Reps thought they spoke for students. Having on opinion on a matter is entirely irrelevant as to whether I think that I am speaking for some undefined and unknown majority of students and their known or unknown priorities. Given that the vote within the UC for the event was one of the closest in its history – President Matt Glazer had to cast the tie-breaking vote – I would wager that there are, in fact, many students and UC Reps who share my concerns.

    I base my claim on Harvard bands being just as good for the event as any other on the statements given my the event’s sponsors at the April 17th UC meeting. While this is obviously only information available to “UC insiders,” or those who attended the meeting, it is very important in forming my opinion. As mentioned in the first post, the sponsors said that the artist was not intended to draw students to the event – that was to be accomplished by both beer and the opportunity to mingle only with other undergraduates (there was also a lengthy debate as to whether this event should be closed to pre-frosh, but that’s another matter). The sponsors additionally said that the artist is being sought to “enhance” the event with “good” music. There are numerous Harvard student bands who play great music and would play this event for free. Indeed, at Springfest proper, only student bands will be playing. So, if the purpose of having the artist is to make the event better with good music, I personally believe that this can be accomplished for a very small cost by the numerous Harvard student bands. I, and clearly many UC Reps, did not believe that it was worth it to “upgrade,” if you will, the music at the event at the potential cost of $10,000 – especially when week-in and week-out UC Reps hear how the fund used to bring the artist is in such dire straits. I don’t claim to speak for the student body any more than the sponsors of the event can speak for the student body’s desire to have this event. A tie-breaking vote victory for those who want the event doesn’t entitle them to claiming a mandate to host the event by any stretch of the imagination.

    The import of your argument is spurious at best – that since I do not speak for students and know their desires, I should not criticize decisions made on their behalf. That is, frankly, ridiculous. That I suggested that perhaps the UC could have polled students before making a $20,000 allocation to change Springfest does not imply that I should conduct a poll to see if students didn’t want that to happen. Obviously, in the absence of such a poll there is no way for either side to empirically back up their arguments – so you get my arguments in the same rhetorical form as the arguments in favor of the event.

    I bring up the “bread and butter” events precisely because I do not believe that the UC is doing “more” by neglecting these services. Indeed, I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to be “risky” when you can’t deliver those services that students HAVE said “matter in [their] life.” Here I have empirical evidence on my side. If UC $1 Movie Nights, when hosted regularly, consistently sold out the largest Science Center auditorium, why is the UC hardly ever hosting them? Why, if two UC shuttles to NYC sold out except for about a dozen seats out of 110, did the UC decide that not losing $170 was worth making over 40 undergrads find a new way to get to NYC? Why, if $6,000 worth of UC Boxes sold out in days, did the UC decide that it could cut that amount by 1/3? I would argue that these decisions were not made by taking the priorities of students into account. Students vote with their feet when it comes to UC services. They are either used, or they are not. Students didn’t use the Keg Return Service offered last year and it was discontinued. Given their wide use, I think I can safely say that students want these “bread and butter” events. They are “bread and butter,” it is true, because the UC has always provided them and done well in that.

    This year, however, without any evidence that students stopped using the services so frequently, their quality and quantity were cut. In their stead we get “risky” events that potentially “matter” to students. I’m not pushing for what I “think” mattered to students in the past – clearly students used these services. When the UC no longer does the things that students have come to expect (and use), it is not “doing more” by offering them a low-key artist at a single event – it’s doing less.

  5. Jamal, I think it’s really exciting for you that you have all this information that you can put together to act like that means you have a better argument. Even so, at the end of the day you don’t trust the Exec Board to pick a good artist if they have the chance and try to make the event better.

    My point about the polls was exactly what you said, you can’t argue in two directions at once: attacking them for not knowing the student’s priorities and claiming that you do. So we agree on that, which was my whole point…

  6. Jamal Sprucewood

    Maybe it seems like I have a better argument because I actually do. :) Am I not to use information because it might make my points make sense? I’m sorry, but I believe that’s how arguments are put together – with evidence. That you either don’t have information or can’t find the information to critique my argument does not mean that my level of “trust” in the Exec Board is relevant to the discussion at all. This is another strawman. Is the UC Exec Board infallible simply because they want to “make the event better?” Please. What is the use debating this if my arguments are to be tossed aside based on some litmus test of trust in the Exec Board’s abilities or perceived legitimacy of my discernment of student’s priorities?

    And am I missing something or did I not say that in relation to bringing in an artist that I was giving my opinion and not speaking on behalf of some derived sense of student priorities? I have a disagreement with a UC policy decision. I don’t see how it’s acceptable for the sponsors of the event to say on the floor of the Council that this event is something students want based on anecdotal evidence and then I get criticized for questioning the event because I don’t have empirical data specifically refuting the anecdotes. The only empirical data I can provide is by using the UC as a representative body as a proxy poll – and the UC was heavily divided on bringing in the artist (18-18 with Glazer breaking the tie). Does that at least suggest that I’m not beyond the pale in questioning this event? Are you going to question the discernment of student priorities of the half of the UC that voted against the event?

    I’m not the one proposing to spend $20,000 on the event – I don’t have to show that students don’t want the event to say that I think it’s a bad idea. I’m the one saying that at least $10,000 of that should have gone to keeping up those services that students HAVE proven are priorities by their sheer use of them over the past few years. If you are going to disagree with this, which you are more than welcome to, please do so with some semblance of explaining why these projects are acceptable to scale back in favor of bringing in a “no-name” band simply to make the event “better” because they play “good” music.

    Surely there are valid counterarguments other than: 1) It’s ok that the money is spent because the UC is trying to make things better (which was the overarching concern of my original post – that this attempt at improving student life can lead to bad or ill-considered decisions) 2) Jamal’s points are invalid because he claims to have divined student priorities 3) Jamal didn’t run a poll and 4) Jamal has too much information for me to counter. You are dodging the issue – not debating it – and to continually seek to divert this argument on the grounds that I don’t know student priorities is spurious. This shouldn’t be a matter of how much information I have. I’m talking about what I think the UC’s priorities should be – not students’. At least you could answer why you think its acceptable to curtail proven services in favor of bringing in this artist. This should be a debate, I agree, but I’m not the one who is dodging the issue. You don’t need “insider information” to tell me what you think.

  7. 1. the UC should try to bring in an artist to add entertainment to the event
    2. the exec board WILL NOT NECESSARILY SPEND THE MONEY, but the concert commission needs to have the ability to negotiate in order to try to get the good bands you mentioned were a possibility
    3. the event is going to be kick ass because it will have a. beer, b. only undergrads, and hopefully c. a fun band that will be good entertainment and will not cost less than $10,000 (which was simply the max amount that they were allowed to spend).

    You’re right, the best proxy of student wants is the council’s vote. This was a close one, but more people voted for this event. I think it’s fine to disagree with the priorities personally and to argue that the money should be spent on more boxes and shuttles.

    But there’s another point here that I actually think is important that we haven’t gotten into:
    is it the UC’s job to do things like shuttles and boxes that are essentially services they can get other places for slightly more money or slightly less convenience, or is the UC’s job to do things that ONLY a student government can do: throw campus-wide events that attract a diverse group of people to come together?

    The primary reason I support this over the “bread and butter” things you’re talking about is that those things, while good, aren’t things that only a student government can do. The deals and the convenience are good, and they should still be done, but who else is going to throw concerts and get bands that bring people together, that actually BUILD community? I think the movie nights are somewhere in between the two, a little less community building and a really good deal, but in terms of the other two, who’s going to provide this service if the UC won’t?

  8. Jamal Sprucewood

    Now were talking!

    To quickly answer: “is it the UC’s job to do things like shuttles and boxes that are essentially services they can get other places for slightly more money or slightly less convenience, or is the UC’s job to do things that ONLY a student government can do: throw campus-wide events that attract a diverse group of people to come together?”

    I say BOTH! I just think that the post-Springfest event satisfies the community building without the band – the most important thing is for people to be there and the band is not intended as a draw.

    I would argue that the boxes are actually a really great deal in terms of price and convenience. Where else are you going to get double-walled, super strong boxes and packing tape for move-out for $2 per box and $1 per roll of tape? You just can’t do it. Similarly with Movie Nights. Where else are you going to see a pre-DVD released movie in Boston for only $1 and with 450 of your closest Harvard friends? Even Somerville Theatre, after paying for the T, pushes close to the $10 norm for movie theatres in Boston. Being at UC Movie Nights where half the crowd has brought in..um..their favorite beverages and really gets into a movie is truly a fun experience.

    With the shuttles, the NYC service is questionable given that Greyhound has lowered rates a good bit in recent years, but they still normally break even due to the convenience of students wanting to be picked up at Harvard. The UC’s Logan Shuttle is still a great deal – the convenience of a taxi for a price only slighly more than T-tokens.

    The thing about these events though is that they don’t cost the UC much at all. Most either break-even or come close to it. Given that, they should be occurring at the same time as the large community building events – they shouldn’t be reduced in scope.

    Finally, one last point – I think that the success of the Pub Nights and Dodgeball tournaments show, however, that there are other avenues for community building besides the UC, although clearly only the UC can front the burdens of bringing in concerts that run upwards of several hundreds of thousands of dollars after all costs are taken into account.

  9. Some thoughts and clarifications…

    Movie nights
    – The lack of movie nights through April was not because of money.
    – The UC allocated money and it’s there.
    – There will be the usual 4 movie nights this semester (there were 4 or 5 last semester, I believe).
    – The MAJOR problem with movie nights is always scheduling: (1) the UC itself has been busy and does not want to conflict with its own events, and (2) it is extremely difficult to book the Science Center, which is notoriously busy with other events as well as evening classes.
    – Some thought is also given to ensuring good quality movies. Frequently, decisions are made to put off a movie night because there are no good movies available. (The UC inevitably gets criticized: criticized for not having movie nights or criticized for putting on bad movie nights if presenting an unpopular movie.)

    Boxes
    – The UC may still (and hopefully will) buy the full or close to the full $6000 that was allocated last year (the bill had a provision for adding money as it came in from other things and the almost break-even shuttle money could be used for this).

    Only 1 NYC Shuttle
    – The UC should be happy that only one shuttle was sent because of the 55 tickets available, only 27 were sold.

    One small final point: Jamal’s Dodgeball example is a bad one because the UC co-sponsored, publicized, helped coordinate, and volunteered at the first Dodgeball tournament.

  10. Jamal Sprucewood

    Dear Anonymous:

    Thanks for the detailed responses. It’s great to see that info out there. That is indeed odd about the NYC shuttle – that’s never been a problem before. Perhaps it could have been a problem with publicity or tickets going on sale too late? A similar thing happened with President’s Day Shuttles a few years ago. One year a hit, next year a flop for no apparent reason.

    A few counterpoints. First, I don’t believe an allocation has been made for movie nights for the spring semester. There was indeed a fall semester bill that called for the movie nights to be held on alternate weeks, but no similar spring bill. Secondly, I’m now confused. If the money was indeed allocated, then why have there not been regular movie nights? Cramming two movie nights into May doesn’t solve the problem of not having regular movie nights simply because in aggregate the numbers are the same as the fall semester. Third, $1 Movie Nights are not being held as frequently as last spring, let alone with the frequency of the fall. The fall bill called for the movies to be on alternate weeks. Even if that didn’t happen, the fall movies occurred more regularly. Finally, as a recurring mainstay project, the Campus Life Committee should have cleared scheduling for them far in advance. I’m sorry, but that excuse is pretty lame. Additionally, what events are you speaking of that has prevented the UC (CLC more specifically) from having movie nights? Scheduling didn’t seem to be a problem last year or the year before. Also, I would add, most UC members have been led to believe (I think it was even stated at a recent UC meeting) that $1 Movie Nights were now being entirely paid for by the HSA sponsorship. If that’s not the case then it needs to be cleared up.

    I’m also not clear on how the shuttles broke even if the NYC shuttle was such a flop – the Logan shuttles in the morning are normally pretty empty and are saved only by the sold-out shuttles in the afternoon.

    Finally, I don’t think that the UC can take credit for Dodgeball. Sure, it helped publicize and staff the event, but ownership belongs to Zac Corker and his position within University Hall. This was not a UC created event. The UC’s cosponsorship of it doesn’t prove the original point Golis made that only a student government could put on large community building events. Clearly, that’s not what happened with Dodgeball. So while I recognize that the UC was involved with dodgeball, this doesn’t mean that it’s an invalid example.

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