U. C. Members Worry About Commons

Undergraduates Charge College's Plans Will Not Help Harvard Social Scene

The position paper of Undergraduate Council President Joshua D. Liston '95 speaks volumes about students' dissatisfaction with Harvard social life.

Liston, himself a member of the Hasty Pudding and the Spee Club, promised in his "Contract With the College" to explore the possibility of establishing fraternities and sororities on campus.

And indeed, Liston's position paper is a reflection of widespread undergraduate discontent regarding opportunities to socialize at Harvard.

Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III had an answer for Liston, however.

In an interview last month, Epps claimed that the new Loker Commons will eliminate the need for a Greek social scene when it opens in 1996.

"My main hope is for an active social life on the weekends for students," Epps said in the February 21 interview. "The Commons are designed so they could have dancing."

"[The Commons] are a planned response to a weakness in [Harvard] social life," Epps added. "We don't think it's easy for students to meet each other."

But members of the council say that administrative policies aimed at including both the Harvard and Cambridge communities at large will detract from the student-centered atmosphere they were hoping the commons would offer.

In particular, council members say they have been told that the University may plan to boot undergraduates who aren't eating during peak hours from the smallish space.

"I think students are getting screwed," says Rudd W. Coffey '97, one of four council members on a student-administrator committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the Loker plans. "I don't want any student to get kicked out because a visitor from Oklahoma wants to eat lunch."

Some council members, who toured the commons this past week, say they are concerned by other potential aspects of the emerging design such as the absence of a television, a limited number of computers and a generally unfriendly atmosphere toward students who just want to "hang out."

As an example of the administra- tion's intentions, council members point to theratio of pay phones to centrex phones, which theyestimate will be about four to one.

But College administrators say that it is fartoo early to address concerns about specificpolicies.

"The thing that I'm most objecting to is havingthis thing programmed down to the last detailbefore [it opens]," says L. Fred Jewett '57, deanof the College.

Administrators add that the commons willlargely cater to its maincustomers--undergraduates--and that most of thepolicies to which students object are stillflexible and in the planning stages.

A Unifying Institution

Loker Commons was conceived partly in responseto a steady groundswell of student complaintsabout campus polarization and a dearth of studentrecreational space.

In particular, the commons was designed tobolster community life on campus, administratorssay.

The commons will be situated beneath the newfirst-year dining hall, which will be relocatedfrom the Harvard Union to Alumni Hall early nextyear.

The commons will surround a central "street,"with eating areas along both sides and a series ofactivity rooms. Among the shops currently plannedare a pizzeria, a southwestern eatery and a coffeeshop. Also planned are a cash machine, news standand technology room.

Funded in part by a $7 million gift fromKatherine Bogdonovich Loker, widow of Donald P.Loker '25, the $25 million commons is slated toopen early next year.

Cambridge Mini-mall?

Despite the good intentions on which thecommons was founded, council members objectstrongly to emerging administrative policies onuse of the commons by non-undergraduates.

Eric M. Silberstein '98, a council member whoalso sits on the Loker committee, saysadministrators have told him that students whoaren't eating will be kicked out.

Silberstein says the administration's vision ofthe commons is "more of a Cafeteria."

"It seemed evident to us that undergraduateswere being [given less favorable treatment],"Silberstein says.

But administrators say that there are no plansto kick students out of the commons.

"We're adding an extra 400 seats so I don'tthink we're going to have crowding problems," saysMichael P. Berry, director of Harvard DiningServices. "I think we can avoid having to askpeople to leave, we're going to wait and see whathappens and hope things work."

The practice would become especially egregious,students charge, if non-undergraduates were todisplace undergraduates.

Although intended primarily for students, thecommons was never designed to cater exclusively toundergraduates.

"This is not a student center, this is thelocal commons," Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R.Knowles said in a 1993 interview. "It won't hurtthe houses because it's a place that is partly forfreshmen and upper class students, but also forteaching fellows and faculty."

But well-placed sources say that when theUniversity approached Loker about the donationseveral years ago it specifically focused on theneed for an undergraduate center and theimprovement that her donation could make forundergraduate life.

Berry agrees that that was the first prioritywhen the commons were conceived.

"The first priority will be undergraduates, itis designed to enhance undergraduate life," hesays. "But, I can tell you practically thatoutsiders are not going to be banned."

Jewett adds that it would be wasteful to barmembers of the community and University if thecommons is empty during the day.

He says that any changes in policy can bereadily accomplished if the administration sees aneed after the commons opens.

But Coffey, who is co-chair of the council'scampus life committee, says reevaluation after thefact is not good enough.

"We want it to be closed and maybe then open itto the community," Coffey says. "Not vice versa."

He thinks there are a variety of ways that theadministration could limit the access, and heproposes the possible addition of turnstiles whereundergraduates could bring in one guest.

Manisha Bharti '98, another member of the Lokerplanning committee, expresses her battle cry evenmore strongly.

"I think we need to dare the administration to,for once, do something with undergraduates at thetop of their list," Bharti says.

The administrators say that they are keepingthe commons open to the community because theythink faculty, administrators and graduatestudents have a right to enjoy the facilities asmuch as do undergraduates.

But council members charge that theadministration is thinking of a differentgoal--profit.

"I think there was a definite thrust towardmaking a profit," Bharti says of a recent meetingthe committee had with administrators.

What to do?

Students also expressed concern that Loker willnot really serve as a student center becausepresently there are no plans for television,music, couches or games.

But Phillip J. Parsons, director of planningand senior development officer in the Faculty ofArts and Sciences says that the council has beenconsulted since 1988 and there have been numerousattempts to gain student input.

Parsons claims that plans for Loker todayrepresent exactly what students have asked for.

"[Although] the original feasibility study in1988 showed some interest in a full-scale studentcenter, we felt that it wasn't something thatpeople wanted," he says.

Council members did not disagree with hisstatements, but they say that they were not keptinformed of developments as the process movedalong.

Berry adds that when students were polled theyspecifically did not want a lounge but preferredan area like the one they are being given. Hereiterated, as did all of the administratorsinvolved in planning, that the process wascontinually up for discussion and if studentswanted couches they could be added.

Council members also object to the absence ofplans for a television, saying that theadministration has told them that the College doesnot favor addition of or installation of atelevision because administrators don't wantstudents "hanging around."

But the administrators disagree.

Noting that most undergraduates have readyaccess to televisions in their rooms or houses,Jewett says that he isn't sure that a televisionarea is the best use for Loker's limited space.

Still, he adds that if there is sufficientdemand for the television, the administration willcertainly consider installing one.

Asked whether expressions of demand from thecouncil--the elected representatives of thestudent body--was sufficient, Jewett says that the"U.C. is not the only voice of Harvard students."

Indeed, Berry says that the commons are alreadywired for television, and proposes that one mightbe hooked up in the event of a nationalcrisis--such as the Gulf War--or a large sportsevent.

Finally, council members express concern thatthe administration will not allow dances to beheld as often as undergraduates would like.

But administrators say that Loker Commons willbe available for dances as long as there is demandfor them.

Berry adds that a speaker system has alreadybeen included in the commons to facilitate suchactivity.

Technology

Council members say they are also dissatisfiedwith the half-hearted efforts to bring technologyto the commons.

At this point commons architects are planning atechnology room featuring a fax machine, a copymachine--and just two computers.

Council members say the two lone computers,planned before the recent explosion in the use ofelectronic mail, are woefully insufficient to meetstudent demands.

HASCS Director Franklin M. Steen agrees.

"The committee showed me a room in the back,"Steen says of a recent tour through the commons."I think they thought of it as a place for peopleto do papers or homework, but we know thatstudents use e-mail and the [World Wide] Web muchmore frequently and that's what they wantcomputers like that for."

"I was encouraging them to add more, to expandinto kiosks," Steen says.

Flexible?

The administration responds to most of thecouncil's complaints by saying that policies areunder discussion and certainly are not set instone.

And all of the administrators interviewed saythat the commons will evolve as students' needsbecome apparent.

"We have an open space," Parsons says. "Bydefinition that means it's extremely flexible."

Coffey says that he has been very pleased bythe administration's response. But Coffey says hewill wait to see if changes will really occur inresponse to students' needs.

"Great, I'm pleased if administrators will workwith us," Coffey remarks. "But there is a bigdifference between working with us and makingpolicy changes."CrimsonEugene Y. ChangLoker Commons: A Preview The New Commonswill house a pizzeria, a Southwestern eatery and acoffee shop. Also planned are a cash machine, newsstand and techology room.