Let's Meet Half-Way

FIRST-TIME VISITORS to the Lyman Common Room Center for Women (LCR), frequently remark with surprise that they had not known about Harvard's Women's Center.

LCR staffers are usually quick to respond, "Oh, no this isn't a Women's Center. This is the Lyman Common Room [Center for Women]. Harvard doesn't have a Women's Center."

Confused yet? You should be.

WHEN students last year renewed a 20-year-old campaign for a women's center at Harvard, they envisioned a centrally-located multi-room facility, staffed by a full-time coordinator and administered by a consensus-oriented student board. The Women's Center would serve to centralize resources currently available to women at Harvard, provide a space for political advocacy and social change and foster dialogue about gender issues between men and women in the community.

Largely in response to these demands, new Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson last spring announced the opening of the Lyman Common Room. The LCR has since been much like any other common room--an administratively controlled space which people can reserve for meetings or use for studying or "hanging out." Because it is a "Center for Women," the groups which meet there are supposed to have some relationship to gender concerns, but that is by no means a hard-and-fast rule.

Wilson sees the LCR as at least the first step towards her vision of an inclusive Center for Women. As such, she and other Radcliffe deans have planned to run some programming on gender issues out of the LCR, although they have not publicly articulated many specific goals.

But in spite of what appear to be some similar goals, Radcliffe administrators and students advocating for a Women's Center are working at cross-purposes.

Although the LCR could fulfill many--if not all--of the functions of the proposed Women's Center, students continue to demand the immediate creation of a separate multi-room facility located nearer to Harvard Yard. And Radcliffe deans continue to ignore the importance of student involvement with a patronising "we know what's best for you" attitude toward both the LCR and the question of a Women's Center. Both groups are going to have to compromise if either of them wants to achieve anything.

STUDENTS working for a Women's Center should rechannel their energies away from fruitless meetings with administrators about an independent multi-room facility. Instead, they should seek an active role in running the LCR, and begin to work there towards the programming goals of a Women's Center.

The reality is that Harvard is not going to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to create a multi-room Women's Center. The likelihood of finding an independent donor is almost nonexistent. If a donor did appear, it is unclear where in Harvard Square a Women's Center could be housed.

And even if a separate building could be found to house a Women's Center, nobody really knows yet who would use it.

By working with the LCR to establish some of the programs envisioned for a Women's Center, interested students could discover whether the broader Harvard community would actually participate in the goals of a Women's Center. Successful LCR programs could easily be moved to a Women's Center in the future if that proves necessary.

Although the LCR is not a multiroom facility, many of the proposed Women's Center functions could effectively be run from the single room. For example, the LCR could house a library of gender-related reading and films. LCR staff have already started developing a database of local women's resources that could serve as the foundation for a referral service. A coalition of women in extracurricular activities could be run through the LCR as a means for developing more connections between undergraduate women. Informal seminars and other meetings could be run out of the LCR to provide faculty, students, staff and alumnae with more opportunities to meet.

None of these services actually requires a separate, multi-room facility. If the demand for programming in the future is higher than the LCR can meet, at that point a multi-room Women's Center will be a demand the administration can less easily ignore. If it turns out that support for the kind of programming that would be run out of a Women's Center is very low, it is better to discover that now than after investing valuable time and money.

BUT AS IT STANDS right now, students willing to make this kind of compromise are met by a patronising Radcliffe administration unwilling to meet them halfway. Since the creation of the LCR, it has been run by administrative fiat, with absolute resistance to giving students a part in the actual running of the room.

Although Wilson last spring created an LCR Task Force that included students, it has barely met. No decisions relevant to the room have been debated in Task Force meetings. The room was designed, decorated, budgeted and staffed without any student input.

Wilson has the final say on everything that happens in the room--from what hangs on the walls, to what groups use it and when, to who works there. She can call at a moment's notice and announce that she intends to use the room for a reception or some other event--a privilege no other member of the Harvard-Radcliffe community can claim.

And when students ask for increased involvement in the LCR, the Radcliffe administration responds that all student groups should feel absolutely free to use the room whenever they like. The issue of student input in actual decision making is side-stepped completely.

But if the Radcliffe deans are going to call the LCR the Center for Women and view it as the first step towards a women's center they are going to have to relinquish a little control. Students will not get actively involved in a "space" if it is only an administratively-controlled space.

The Radcliffe administration's stated intention of running gender-related programs through the LCR will fall flat if students don't feel any investment in the projects. Without some significant role in shaping those programs, they are unlikely to feel that investment.

IF THE Radcliffe administrators continue their patronising attitude, students will never get really involved in the LCR, and it will remain nothing more than just another space at Harvard.

And if students continue to demand nothing less than the immediate development of a student-controlled multi-room facility in Harvard Square, they will be met with continued--and maybe not unreasonable--resistance.

But if Radcliffe's administration will meet the students halfway, the LCR could begin to fill--perhaps completely fill--many of the functions of the proposed Women's Center and could begin to make a real difference for women's lives at Harvard.

Melissa R. Hart '91 works in the Lyman Common Room.