On Student Governance
An Interview with Harvard Undergraduate Council President Johnny Bowman and Vice President Eric Hysen
Last November, Johnny Bowman and Eric Hysen teamed up to produce a phenomenal Undergraduate Council (UC) presidential campaign that captured the votes of thousands of students on campus. While the dynamic duo maintained a positive reputation throughout the campaign, they had to overcome a controversial challenge to the legitimacy of the election results. Having weathered that crisis, Johnny and Eric now hold two of the most prestigious leadership positions at Harvard College: UC President and Vice President, respectively. As the face of the student body, these two work with students, administration, and faculty to improve the lives of Harvard students. Johnny and Eric sat down with the Leadership Magazine to talk about their roles as UC President and Vice President, about leadership during crisis situations, and about the experiences that shaped their leadership development.
So what exactly does the UC President and Vice President do?
JB: The UC President does what most student organization presidents do: I meet with the executive board once a week to go over all the projects that the UC is up to and I preside over a general meeting of all the UC members. However, there are three main differences. The first is that while most student groups have enough projects to fill an Easter basket, the UC’s could fill Strega Nona’s magical pasta pot. So watching over those is a science unto itself. Another big [difference] is morning meetings in the basement of University Hall where the Office of Student Life resides. Eric and I are there at least once a week to drink OSL’s coffee and talk to administrators about UC initiatives new and old. Finally, I also meet with any students that email me and want to chat about a project they think the UC should take on or about Harvard life in general. This involves a good deal of coffee drinking as well.
So to recap, I a) spend more time on email than health experts advise and b) am 100% addicted to coffee by now.
EH: The VP’s main job is to, along with the President, represent undergrads to the College, Faculty, and University administration at all levels. This means a lot of meetings – the biggest change I saw going from being a UC committee chair to VP is that before I had meetings in University Hall once a month; now I’m there several times a week. It’s a huge time commitment but it’s really important – Johnny and I are the people the Deans turn to when they’re making decisions that affect all of our lives, so our most important job is to present what students want in those situations.
Beyond that, I generally play a sort of utility role on the UC — leading and helping out with various projects. The Vice President doesn’t have any pre-defined areas of responsibility here, so I’m able to pick projects to work on based on what needs help and where we can see concrete accomplishments. Recently, I’ve led the advocacy efforts to get student programming during January 2011, and also helped plan the t-shirt distribution and tailgate before the Men’s Lacrosse Game vs. Duke.
The two of you have mentioned that the UC should not always take things so seriously. How have you made the UC more “fun” while still ensuring that it stays true to its responsibility to the students?
JB: We blast techno at the beginning of our big meetings in Sever 113 to get everyone juiced up for serious business. Also, we have a section in our meetings called “Meet a Rep” that used to involve long descriptions of extracurriculars. Now they involve lassos and singing. Also, I don’t know how this has happened, but encounters with methamphetamines have been discussed more than I’m currently comfortable with. Needless to say people feel safe telling some outrageous tales. As for the UC’s responsibility to students, that’s something we’re always working to improve. But as long as we keep delivering (and so far we have with the new room reservations site, expanded housing for winter break, an improved events calendar, a Harvard-wide Craigslist, the Harvard for Haiti campaign, and a pilot program for parties), the techno stays.
EH: A big way we’ve tried to make the UC more fun is to make what we do for students more fun. If all you’re doing on the UC is writing reports and trying to grapple with obscure parliamentary procedure, most people won’t enjoy it and everything will get super-political. If you’re doing fun things like handing out free t-shirts to everyone at dinner, coordinating parties like we’re doing with the Student Initiated Programming fund, or throwing a study break in your House or Yard, then you’ll probably enjoy it more.
The end of the last UC Presidential campaign was marred by controversy. Did the episode make the leadership transition more difficult? If so, how did you overcome the obstacles that arose?
JB: Luckily most of that was dealt with by the end of last semester. We then had the month of January to say, “That was crazy” and realize that it had no bearing on anything we wanted to do. Laughing about it turned out to be a very effective method of recovery.
EH: I don’t think it actually made the transition any harder – the controversy was settled before Thanksgiving, so Johnny and I had all of December and January to get settled in. The fact that everyone on the UC spent some time at home twice (Thanksgiving & Winter Break) between the election and when we started really helped everyone put the whole thing in perspective.
Some would say that the mark of a leader is the ability to carry a team through any crisis situation. Do you think that the first few months of your term as UC President and Vice President has changed your perception of leadership? What is your perception of leadership and why?
JB: As much as I would have liked to have dealt with the situation, I wasn’t president at the time. It was not my time to lead. I think most of the credit for helping the UC not dissolve into oblivion belongs to [past UC President Andrea Flores]. I think the best thing Eric and I did as the UC’s new leadership was to get right down to business when we came back from January and then make tasteless jokes about what happened at social functions.
This has enforced one of my perceptions of leadership — leaders should have a good sense of humor as it will save them and everyone else a lot of time and frustration. A sense of humor also allows you to criticize other people’s actions in a way that is not confrontational, which is extremely useful.
EH: I learned a lot from how Andrea handled the post-election period. She did an incredible job keeping the campaigns, UC, student body, administration, and everyone else who was involved in the situation fully aware of what was going on, and allowing everyone to participate in the process. Rather than following the standard protocol of having the UC’s Executive Board discuss the situation and make a decision in private, she moved the discussions to the full UC in a widely-advertised, public meeting, and then allowed every student there to ask questions and present their views before any decisions were made.
Real leadership isn’t just making the right decisions, it’s really about making those decisions in the right way to ensure that everyone is involved, and this situation definitely showed me the importance of that.
What experiences taught you the most about leadership? How can others learn to be leaders?
JB: Helping organize hotel workers in Los Angeles was eye-opening. My first week on the job organizers sat me down told me the stories of their lives. We were all bawling by the end. For the next six weeks I would have done (and did) anything for them. If you want to build trust, there is no better way to do it than by trusting other people.
EH: In terms of others learning to be leaders, I think the best way is to work closely with someone who’s a good leader. I’ve had to go to leadership trainings and other things like that for student government in the past, and I’ve never found it as useful as watching how a strong leader does their job. I’ve worked closely with the past three sets of UC Presidents & VPs, and in that time I’ve been able to learn from what each of them has done well or struggled with.