Why can’t candidates campaign in RC section elections?

Steve Hind

If you, as the RC cohort just have, were to sit through HBS’s FIELD 1 course, you’d hear a lot about the importance and value of open communication. You’d hear a lot about the importance of discussing, debating and setting clear norms in a section. And you’d hear about the importance of giving, soliciting and receiving feedback.

And yet, if you, as the RC cohort just have, were to sit through the election of RC section officers, you’d see a very different environment. Candidates are allowed to give a one minute speech in front of their section mates. They can hang a one page ‘policy paper’ at the back of the classroom. Aside from that, they may not campaign at all. It’s a stark contrast to the messages delivered in class.

This is not to say the current system is broken. No doubt each section has elected a leadership team made up of talented, dedicated people.

But I don’t think we have to believe we elected the wrong people for us to question the system. In a liberal society it’s up to those restricting freedom to justify the restriction.

Adam Shaack is the Head Senator of the Students Association and oversees the RC section election process, including the campaigning rules, and is the SA’s media spokesperson. Adam says the ban, which has been in place for several years exists, ‘in order to ensure fairness, promote effectiveness, and prevent negative section dynamics.’

Adam argues that, ‘Current rules give all candidates equal opportunity to express their reasons for running.’

‘If limits on campaigning were less defined, some candidates may have more financial means to campaign than others.’

‘In the current system, each candidate’s core messages can be relayed effectively and in a common format. This structure ensures that all RC students clearly understand the process for learning about the candidates.’

A desire to avoid contentious elections is clearly an important motivation. Adam explains that, ‘expanded campaigning can lead to negative messaging that can cause dissention in a section very early in its formation.’

Adam’s raises strong arguments. But I can’t help but feel that this desire to protect RCs from themselves runs against the grain of what the school is trying to teach RCs.

The current rules, if observed by all candidates, reduce the choice to one that has to be based on a few glancing interactions in class or at parties, a couple of comments in class, and a vanishingly short speech.

We may be electing leaders of substance, but we’re not electing them with a process of substance.

We may sit in classes where we’re encouraged to have the difficult conversation, but we’re banned from having a difficult conversation with the people who we’re going to elect to lead us.

It seems fear of what might happen and a desire to ensure a level playing field at all costs has led to a restrictive set of rules being imposed, it seems, to protect RCs from themselves.

RCs must ask what exactly we need protecting from. Yes, if there were no limits, someone could spend thousands of dollars on their campaign. They could run attack ads on their opponents. They could fund a section trip to Narnia to curry favour.

But every day in class, someone could use a racist slur. Someone could insult the professor in response to a cold call. Someone could throw their chair across the room.

There would be consequences, of course, if anyone did that. But it’s not just fear of sanction that stops us throwing chairs (I hope). The same (I hope) I true of elections.

Each section is full of people chosen for their judgment, maturity and insight. I’d like to think it is mainly those qualities that saw this year’s elections conducted in a constructive, positive way. And in a system with more free elections, I believe those qualities would lead to rich, deep conversations and more effective leadership.

Adam says that it is ‘impossible to know’ whether different types of people would be elected under a different set of rules.

I think that no set of rules are neutral. Yes, banning campaigning undermines any advantage that someone could gain by spending a lot running for office. But reducing contests to one minute speeches and one page papers undermines any advantage that may come to someone willing to invest a lot of time in talking to section mates to win their support by understanding their aspirations and concerns, and developing detailed proposals to respond to them.

In fact making a one minute speech the centrepiece of the campaign, as it is now, advantages people who are more confident and capable speaking in public. There’s no doubt public speaking is an important attribute. But so is the ability to discuss difficult section issues in a smaller group setting. At present a candidate who wanted to do this would be breaking the election rules.

In this light, I question whether the rules really do level the playing field, rather than simply adjusting it to the benefit of some and the detriment of others.

To their credit, Adam and the SA are open to feedback and engage in regular reviews of the rules by consulting with RCs, ECs and the administration, indeed he says the Elections Committee, ‘is very eager to receive feedback and communicate regarding RC elections.’

Reasonable people can conclude that, on balance, our current system is the best available. But at a minimum we should acknowledge that in seeking it maintain harmony, we pay a price in the freedom of our expression and depth of our engagement in section elections.