Advocate Faces College Pressure

After 138 years of self-regulation, the Harvard Advocate, the campus’ oldest student publication, is facing a growing list of demands from the University.

In interviews this weekend, Advocate trustees said that while the relationship between the literary magazine and the Harvard administration remains strong, the University’s latest actions mark a move to infringe on the autonomy of the traditionally independent group.

In March, College administrators, concerned that parties had been held in the Advocate’s 21 South St. headquarters, conducted a walk-through of the building.

They found a roof in need of repair, a broken boiler and historical artifacts rotting on the walls, according to Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II. They also observed violations of fire safety ordinances and zoning laws, including stairs clogged with back issues, a lack of emergency lighting and smoking inside of the building, he says.

The building is located on land owned by Harvard but leased to the Advocate for $1 a year.

While Advocate leaders say they will comply with University requests to repair the building, they say they are surprised that Harvard has recently decided to crack down on the magazine’s independence, prohibiting the rental of the building to other student groups and mandating thousands of dollars in repairs.

TROUBLE AT THE ADVOCATE

Though Advocate traditions live on, the publication’s building is in need of repair.

A survey by the provost’s office found that several historic pieces of furniture and wall-hangings in the Advocate require preservation. One letter from former President John F. Kennedy ’40, currently enclosed in a regular frame, needs greater protection to prevent moisture damage, McLoughlin says. In addition, the University wants to preserve the large table and chair that occupy the sanctum—often the site of parties—on the second floor of the Advocate, he says.

But Louis Begley ’54, who chairs the Advocate’s board of trustees, called Harvard’s insistence on protecting the historical artifacts “an excess of paternalism.”

“That’s really not Harvard University’s property. That’s the magazine’s property,” he says.

But some of the building’s problems stem from Harvard’s legal concerns.

McLoughlin says that for the building to remain in compliance with fire codes, the emergency lights must be installed on the second floor, back issues must be removed from the staircase and smoking must be prohibited—though that, he says, will be nearly impossible to monitor.

“In my day,” says Begley, Advocate members “smoked like chimneys.”

And, to comply with zoning laws, a mattress currently located in the building—a sign that someone may have been living there—will have to be removed. The Advocate, which is zoned as a business, cannot permit students to live in the building, McLoughlin says.

But these repairs will come at a high cost, and the College will only cover the costs of the new lighting, which it is installing in student group offices across campus. The roof repairs will cost around $3,000, although McLoughlin says he does not know the total expected cost of repairs.

Susan C. Morrison ’82, the treasurer for the Advocate’s board of trustees, says she is not worried about coming up with the money.

“This really isn’t going to be a problem at all,” she says.

Morrison says that the trustees and students leading the Advocate have “consistently...been able to keep the building maintained for years and years.”

The Advocate has already secured an anonymous donor to pay for the roof repairs and for the purchase of a new boiler, Morrison and board of trustees President James R. Atlas ’71 say.

The current boiler should have lasted 10 years, according to McLoughlin, but a lack of routine maintenance shortened its life to five. Consequently, the College is working with the Advocate to create a maintenance schedule for the new boiler.

The College and the Advocate are also crafting a plan for pest control, which is not currently a problem but is naturally a concern in a wood-frame building, McLoughlin says.

Adding to the administration’s problems with the Advocate are a series of recent parties that McLoughlin says have disturbed neighbors and inflicted damage on the building. The building has traditionally played host to parties sponsored by a variety of student groups, which bring what trustees say is needed rent money to the publication.

But parties violate the zoning ordinance on the University-owned building, McLoughlin says, and they are now prohibited—a restriction that the trustees oppose.

“I was surprised that the University should question the ability of student groups to use the Advocate building for parties, because we’ve always done that,” Begley says.

Atlas worries that restrictions on parties could hurt the organization’s financial situation.

“I don’t see what the point of that is,” Atlas says. “It provides needed revenue for us.”

He added that he thinks the magazine and Harvard “can negotiate an agreement and a compromise.”

McLoughlin says Harvard might try to rezone the space to allow parties, which would then be University-supervised and include a police detail and mandatory closing time.

“We would like to have a venue for acoustic concerts,” McLoughlin says. “Advocate members have a view that poetry, art and music are all related.”

The Advocate has taken the initiative to propose several other changes that the University is not requiring. Members hope to replace the wooden floor of the sanctum and hire an electrician to alter the building’s circuits to allow enough power to support computers, which was not a concern when the outlets were originally installed.

McLoughlin says that, with the College’s cooperation, he expects both of these changes to occur in the near future.

In order to finance these operations, Begley says that the magazine will hold a fundraiser in the fall to raise money for the Advocate’s endowment, which is currently in the six figures, though Advocate affiliates refuse to disclose the actual number.

Atlas says though the renovations have not been an “adversarial issue,” the Advocate deserves more respect from the administration.

“The Advocate has a historic role in the history of the University; it has been a very significant literary presence, not only to the University but also to the Anglo-American literary tradition, and the Advocate house, itself, is part of that tradition,” Atlas says.

Advocate President Andrews B. Little ’05 said that “I appreciate [McLoughlin’s] help” with the building but declined to comment further.

Current Advocate Publisher Rebecca L. James ’06, and Business Manager Scott M. Coulter ’06 declined comment for this article.

THEY PAVED PARADISE

The Harvard Advocate has published from 21 South St. since it completed the construction of the Georgian wood-framed building on May 1, 1956, after leasing the property from the University.

From the beginning there were problems associated with the planning and funding of the venture. The building cost $45,000 to build and the capital campaigns designed to raise the money to fund the construction fell $15,000 short. The Advocate was forced to take out loans to complete the structure, which boasted a garden for poetry readings and a bar to serve spirits on the second floor.

That garden was later paved to create a parking lot, with leased spaces which provide significant revenues for the organization.

A series of five-year plans were drawn up by Advocate leaders prior to the move to the current building in order to raise money from alumni to repay the organization’s debts.

The Advocate said at the time that the difficulty in raising money was due to the esoteric nature of the publication.

“News-mongering and cartooning are far more lucrative pursuits than the creative art that is literature,” Samuel H. Ordway ’21, then chair of the Advocate board of trustees, told The Crimson in 1956 after the Advocate failed to raise the money to fund the construction of its new building.

Ordway’s statement about “news-mongering” and “cartooning” refers to The Crimson and the Lampoon, respectively, which began publishing after the Advocate.

Douglas McIntyre ’77, vice chair of the Advocate’s Board of Trustees, says that the campus used to be dominated by three publications, the Lampoon, The Crimson and the Advocate. He called the relationship between the three a “friendly rivalry.”

The Advocate used to publish weekly, according to McIntyre. In the past few years, though, the Advocate has struggled to meet its quarterly publication schedule—causing drops in advertising revenues.

In 1981, rumors abounded that the Advocate would have to close after the organization ran up large publishing debts and had to be bailed out by the trustees several times, prompting an IRS investigation. Financial problems became so severe that phone service was cut off to 21 South St. repeatedly.

Then President Lynne Murphy ’83 blamed the financial problems on the weakness of the business board and the limited appeal of the Advocate’s content, which kept circulation numbers low in comparison to other student publications.

“Most people who come to the Advocate are shy about selling ads or dealing with money...we don’t attract business types,” Murphy told The Crimson in a 1982 interview.

Nevertheless, strong leadership, enforced membership dues and trustee bailouts were able to get the organization back on its feet in the 1980s.

In December of 1996, on the eve of its 130th anniversary, the Advocate found itself in deep financial trouble once again. The organization owed several thousand dollars to its printer, its building was in need of renovation and it faced an impending battle with the University over the land that is the site of its building.

The magazine was threatened with displacement as the College considered building additional undergraduate housing on South Street.

At the time, the building required an estimated $60,000 in repairs. The trustees were able to raise $50,000 from prominent alums, including Begley, Robert Bly ’50, Norman K. Mailer ’43, Conan C. O’Brien ’85 and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ’38. Steven A. Ballmer ’77 matched that sum to bring the total to $100,000.

The trustees used this money to pay the printing debts and to fund repairs to the building’s heating and plumbing systems. They withheld the rest of the money until they could ensure that the building would remain in the group’s possession.

In 1997, the Advocate requested a 50-year lease with Harvard. Though the University would not agree to that deal, the two parties instead settled on a 15-year lease, expiring in 2011, for an agreed $1-per-year fee.

GOOD TIMES AHEAD?

Once the Advocate undergoes the renovations that the College has requested, the College will likely offer the organization a long-term lease for the South Street property, McLoughlin says.

“As we approach the Advocate to make repairs, we couldn’t do that in hopes of removing [the building] in seven years,” McLoughlin says.

Morrison says she thinks the only reason the Advocate has come under recent scrutiny is the arrival of McLoughlin, who was appointed assistant dean of the College in October.

“I don’t think there’s anything terribly out of the ordinary about [the condition of the building], except that it’s a new dean,” she says.

McLoughlin, however, defends the University’s treatment of the Advocate. He says the practically free lease is preferential treatment that few student groups receive, but he notes that no other campus publications can claim as long a history.

“They didn’t have e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot,” he notes of the poets who graduated in 1915 and 1910.

—Staff writer Joshua P. Rogers can be reached at jprogers@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Patrick M. McKee can be reached at pmckee@fas.harvard.edu.