A Student Center Inn the Square

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 once said: “Status at Harvard is measured by meters from the John Harvard statue.”

So how many meters is it to the Quad?

I don’t know. I’m guessing it’s quite a few.

I’m not sure what that says about the “status” Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 attributes to the priority of building a student center, which he has proposed we install in the upper floors of Hilles Library in the Quad.

This all crossed my mind, ironically enough, while sitting in a building—maybe 700 meters from Big John—that was built to be Harvard’s student center. In 1899, Governing Board member and philanthropist Major Henry Lee Higginson announced his donation of “a great house on college grounds” that would serve to unite the divided student body. The lavish building was to be the center of undergraduate life, with “ample space for reading, study, games, and conversation,” a library, offices for all student activities, publications and athletics, as well as Harvard’s famous “Great Hall.” Higginson’s singular vision was the Harvard Union, now known as the Barker Center for the Humanities.

Higginson’s extremely generous gift served students well, that is until the University took it over—twice—for purposes other than reading, study, games or conversation. First it was the freshman dining hall in 1930 (Higginson “was a freshman in spirit,” administrators explained), and then it was gutted in the 1990s to create the Barker Center, the great house of the humanities.

So what about our “great house” where we are to “keep steadily burning the fire of high ideals,” as Higginson hoped?

Loker Commons—Harvard’s answer to “The Max” from Saved By The Bell—replaced it of course. Gross hasn’t minced words about Loker: “it failed,” he recently told The Crimson; $25 million worth of neon lights and wood paneling couldn’t entice the kind of attendance the administration hoped for, despite its proximity to John Harvard’s golden toe.

After the utter disappointment of Loker Commons, it is not clear that the new plans for Hilles are anything more than a half-baked appeasement of a disgruntled student body. I admire that Gross is directly addressing the century-old student center question, but to put it where less than 20 percent of the student population lives contradicts the student center concept. Hilles might be expensive and underutilized as a library, and a new-fangled student center on the top floors might beat Loker in the space and useful facilities fields, but I doubt that the far-away facility would be either cheap to build or overcrowded once in place.

There is, however, the Inn at Harvard, a property that by some accounts will be taken over by Harvard once it’s in the black by the end of this decade. It’s in an ideal location and would be perfect for student offices and space. Yet in an e-mail, Associate Dean Nancy R. Maull said that the administration had always thought of the Inn “as possible space for the humanities” should the Inn cease functioning as a hotel.

I’m noticing a trend.

Then again, nothing is set in stone. Hopefully, instead of building a facility in the upper floors of Hilles—as far from “center” as “student center” gets—Gross will put away the money for when he can build Higginson’s “great house” in a location that makes sense. If we’re really lucky, it might even be close enough to John Harvard that we won’t have to take a bus to get there.

Now that would be "status."

—Peter Charles Mulcahy is an editorial comper.