Where would they put it?

Undergrads say only a student center can save social life. But maybe there is another way.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Very early this Tuesday morning, Special Assistant to the Dean for Social Programming Zachary A Corker ’04 got ready for bed after a long day of work. It was 2:45 a.m., and he’d just gotten back from a full round of bar-hopping and social scouting at Princeton University.

Corker has been doing this sort of original research since 2004, when he was appointed Harvard’s first “fun czar.” Since then, his title has changed and a new “fun czar” has been crowned, but Corker has stayed in the employ of his alma mater. His latest project: planning the first ever Harvard College Pub.

This week at Princeton, though, he took an uncharacteristic detour—away from pubs and into the Frist Center, Princeton’s student life hub.

Undergraduate Council President Matthew J. Glazer ’06 would have been proud. While Harvard University looked to Corker and then to his replacement Justin H. Haan ’05 for an answer to the social life problem, Harvard students like him have long had a different idea.

“Only a centrally located student center can truly provide the catalyst for the blossoming of student life on campus,” wrote The Crimson editorial staff last week, echoing a long-held sentiment.

“I think a centralized student center would be the ideal thing,” says Mather HoCo co-chair Ryan “Trini” Abraham ’06, “because it would have that title, it would have that function, and everybody would probably go there.”

Although elusive promises abound for a student center in Allston, they have not satisfied The Crimson or Abraham—and they have certainly not satisfied Glazer. Even if the University decides to build one in Allston, even if it makes plans to build the best student center money can buy, 10 or 15 years is too long to wait.

Harvard is the only Ivy League school that doesn’t have a student center. Princeton’s Frist Center has become the poster-child case for what might be.

“It’s sort of like students’ home base on-campus,” wrote Princeton Undergraduate Student Government President Leslie B. Joseph in an e-mail.

The Frist holds classrooms, dining areas, meeting space, a theater, and a “multipurpose room” for such uses as important conferences and “Princetonian Idol”—just the type of student center that Harvard students have been looking for.

But for as long as undergrads have been demanding it, a student center has been nothing more than a chimera. Today, however, things are changing. Relatively new faces at the College—such as Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd, Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, old fun czar Corker and new fun czar Haan—are more dedicated to improving the undergraduate experience than any group before. Then, two weeks ago, University President Lawrence H. Summers announced that millions of dollars will be spent on improving the undergraduate social experience, lending a financial reality to the group’s big dreams.

“Have you ever read the book “The Tipping Point?” asks Kidd. “Well, this is it.”

A student center seems within reach.

Only one problem: the College isn’t buying it. When Corker visited the Frist Center, he was “underwhelmed.” “It just wasn’t that sweet,” he wrote in an e-mail. He prefers the innovative approach of the College: instead of advocating for a big cliché student space, Harvard College administrators want to re-invent the phrase. “The word ‘student center’ is a nebulous term,” Haan says. According to his office, Harvard is already on its way to having one.

“If you think about a student center, Harvard has all the components—just spread out over campus,” says McLoughlin, Haan’s boss. He’s right. When current renovations are complete, Harvard will have all the individual resources any student center would possess—just not all in one place.

The idea of a decentralized student center is new, untried, and somewhat bizarre, but that is precisely why it might actually work.

Though some fear that the notion of a “decentralized student center” is just a clever excuse for not building a real one, maybe, for once, the administration does know best.



SPACE JAM

Harvard is an urban campus. Space is limited, precious, and extremely expensive. “Funding is difficult to get, but space is even more difficult,” Corker says.

Perhaps that’s why students reacted so strongly to the news that a central lot on 90 Mount Auburn St. was turning into library administration buildings. The lot, which is surrounded by final clubs, bars, and food joints, would be an ideal location for a student center. But it never will be. And worst of all, it never had a chance. The lot was quietly given away to the library by then-Harvard University President Neil L. Rudenstine four years ago.

“I don’t know what made him choose the library,” says Director of the Harvard University Library Sidney Verba ’53. “I think maybe KSG and FAS expressed interest, but I don’t really remember.”

The College may not even have been notified that the space was available for bidding. A College official from the time who spoke on condition of anonymity says he didn’t find out the lot was available until it was too late. He only learned about the buildings, he says, when he read in the Harvard Gazette that they’d already been given away.

The story of 90 Mount Auburn is not a new one. The list of unattainable space continues: the Inn at Harvard, whose lease runs out in a few years, is owned by Harvard and would seem an ideal location for a student center but, according to Glazer, the chances of that happening are slim. The old Radcliffe buildings and the Loeb Drama Center would make fantastic student spaces, but the College has control over neither.

As building after building is snapped up for other uses, the College loses opportunities forever. “Space is our one irreplaceable resource,” former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote in a confidential 1999 report bemoaning the deplorable state of College resources. “Once land is gone, it is gone forever.”

The only option left is to scatter resources across campus—a serious shortcoming, according to the UC president. “Decentralization,” Glazer wrote in an e-mail, “does not allow for the cohesiveness of an ideal student center.”

But maybe what’s missing isn’t space, but will. When it wants to, the University seems to be able to make space appear out of nowhere.

When the University decided to build a squash center, then-UC Vice President Sam C. Cohen ’00 says he had serious doubts that a building would fit anywhere. But it did. “Once they decide they’re going to do something,” he says, “they’ll find a spot.”

An important and largely unknown fact about the College is its place on the Harvard University food chain. Think bottom feeder. The President’s Office is on top, and beneath it a number of schools, including the Medical School, the Kennedy School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Beneath them is the College, which must report to FAS, which must then report to the President: a long-winded hierarchy in an extremely non-transparent institution. “We are not a very centralized organization,” says Kidd.

The structure of the administration is directly related to the use of buildings across campus. For example, freshmen used to have a student center of their own: the Freshman Union, where they ate, had meetings, and hung out. But in 1996, the Union became the Barker Center, and the freshman were unceremoniously ousted into Memorial Hall. This wasn’t the College’s initiative; it came from the superior body of FAS. According to student advocates such as Glazer, the administrative structure often means undergraduate life suffers.

“I think [McLoughlin] is very good at his job and paying attention to what students want,” says Glazer. “But he doesn’t have access to all that money.” Until now, that is.



CURRENT PLANS

The millions from the University will have four main destinations: renovations in Hilles Library, renovations of freshman dorm basements, the creation of a café in Lamont, and the probable construction of a pub in Loker. When these renovations are complete, Harvard will have its own unique student center. “We have every single thing that my alma mater’s center had—just not in one place,” says McLoughlin, a graduate of the University of Miami-Ohio.

The Hilles space, slated to open next fall, is intended as a solution to the space squeeze faced by student groups. Forty-five thousand square feet on the top three floors of the library will become the locus of student groups. The College plans to build office space as well as communal spaces where groups can hold meetings or just hang out.

With Hilles complete, even more space will open. Thirty-seven student groups now have their headquarters in the basements of freshman dorms. When these groups move to Hilles, the once-dungeon-like offices can become low-key social spaces. “It will go back to the freshman,” says Kidd.

Another addition will be a café in Lamont, slated to open in the fall of 2007.

Hilles, the freshman dorms and the Lamont coffee bar are all exciting developments, but in State Fair terms, if these projects were all competing livestock, Loker Pub would be the prize cow.



CALLED TO THE BAR

On this year’s first pub night, Loker was already pulsing with activity by 6 p.m. as skinny, artistic-looking students dressed in black ran around frantically with tape rolls hanging from their arms and HSA workers prepared to man the bar. “I don’t think people understand the amount of work each Pub night takes,” says Dan J. Zaccagnino ’05, co-founder of Veritas Records, the group that helps put pub nights together.

Born in 2003 as a support system for student bands, Veritas Records saw 2004 as a year to expand. When they heard the administration was accepting new grant applications for social events, they put one in. It turned out their idea, however, was pretty similar to one Corker was planning. So the two decided to work together; Corker got his student input, and Veritas got their big break. Eventually, they were equal partners in Pub Night’s execution. Now, on a pub night week, Veritas members put as many as 25 hours into launching the event, working alongside third partner HSA and, of course, Corker.

The success of the events—over 600 students belong to the Facebook group advocating for a permanent pub, and hundreds have attended pub night—led the University to rehire Corker as a “project manager” responsible for building a permanent pub in Loker Commons.

Raymond C. Traietti, a member of the Pub Planning Team, articulates the vision: “A successful space in Loker Commons,” he says. “It’s just that simple. But, there’s a lot of little steps in trying to get to that.” Traietti, who has worked in Memorial Hall since Loker Commons opened in 1995, has seen the space flounder over the past few years. “Definitely, there’s a social need on campus that needs to be filled, and Loker isn’t filling it.” Along with representatives from the College, the University, and outside architects, Traietti, the rest of the Pub Commission, and other involved students are now looking into what could make Loker a successful space.

Although the now-graduated Zaccagnino is not actively involved in the planning, other students with similar dreams are. James M. Rhodes ’06, current co-president of Veritas Records, would like to see a place where student musicians have space to practice and perform.

Haan has his own vision, too. He would like to see a sign above the bar that blinks three minutes before the shuttle comes, allowing students to finish their drinks and take off. “That way,” explains Corker, sitting next to Haan, “you can wait and talk to the bartender you have a crush on, waiting for the shuttle, instead of sitting outside in the cold.”

“Small steps can have a huge impact on student’s well-being,” Haan adds.

Haan and Rhodes may each get their wishes; no suggestion is too big or too small, although every idea is contingent on the final budget, which has not yet been decided.

A defining characteristic of the Pub project is its heavy reliance on student input. When Loker was first built, administrators consulted with students. Now they’re actually working with them.

Focus groups composed of a cross-section of students based on every imaginable variable—race, class, gender, extracurriculars, financial aid, nationality—have met to discuss what the pub should look like. And that’s just the first step. Starting today, students can go to www.harvardcollegepubnights.com and fill out a survey on their opinions regarding the Pub.

Student members already sit on the Pub Commission, the group in charge of exploring the idea of a permanent pub, and now that the exploratory phase is ending, students are mobilizing to join the pub task force, the group that will put the plans into action.

“We are working with the College to develop a structure that will include student support and student labor,” says HSA President Caleb J. Merkl ’06.

Merkl says he is particularly excited about the task force because it will provide “an opportunity for anyone to get involved”—not just the UC, HSA, and Veritas crowd.

Students aren’t the only ones excited about this collaboration.

“I’d like to see students define what a success would be,” Traeitti says. “Because ‘cool’ is hard, isn’t it? I don’t really know how to do that. I think Loker tried too hard to be cool.”



HALF FULL OR HALF EMPTY?

New resources, increased undergraduate focus, flashing shuttle signs—the future looks promising. But whether these improvements will truly improve what Glazer refers to as “a social crisis,” only time can tell. Within the College’s big push are definite imperfections.

The new student group hub, for example, will be located inconveniently in the Quad.

“Hilles will be wonderful, but I suspect there will be some grumbling that the space is not near the river,” says Adams House Master Sean Palfrey.

Cabot House Master Jay Harris has no problem with the location; it’s the use of space he’s not sure about. “I’m concerned it will become a place where students keep their file cabinets and garbage, but do no real work,” he says. Time may be the greatest threat to this project; when Allston developments begin in 10 to 15 years, the Hilles space will likely become graduate student housing.

The new projects also may not address a different problem: lackluster House life.

Even the decentralization advocates agree that Harvard houses are crunched for space. On any given night, in any given house, most common spaces—from JCRs to smaller common rooms—are being used for student group meetings. That takes space away from pure and simple fun. “There is a sense that our JCR is used too much for organizations that have no connection with House life and not enough as a House living room,” Leverett House Master Howard Georgi ’68 wrote in an e-mail.

Masters like Georgi are optimistic about Hilles because of the space it will open up in their houses. Places like Leverett’s JCR can become more like Currier’s Tuchman Room, where students often throw parties and hang out.

Today, however, the situation is unequal: quality of life—and student satisfaction scores—differ between houses.

Currier enthusiast Lindsey E. Gary ’06 attributes her house’s happiness to a multitude of common spaces which leads to a vibrant, visible community. “It’s not like one of the typical river houses where you walk up to your entryway, swipe in and go up the stairs to your suite with your three friends and shut yourself in from the rest of the house,” she wrote in an e-mail.

But while Georgi believes the new Hilles space could make a big difference, others think only a student center can improve house life.

“House life is suffering because there is not enough room for everyone,” says Glazer. “A student center would help with that.”

Aaron K. Harris ’06, an Adams House resident, agrees. “A campus social space would clearly be a good thing.”

His friend, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees. “If you’re down with all the people in Adams, you’re cool. But if your social circle is based outside, you’re screwed,” he says. “If there was [a student center], I’d go there more [than Adams].”

However, supporters of the decentralized student center idea use the same evidence to validate their arguments. According to Kidd, the current pockets of renovation will “allow students to reclaim life in the houses.” She doesn’t see one large student center as a cure-all for House problems, and her partner in crime agrees.

“I think House life has something that a student center doesn’t have,” says McLoughlin.

But it isn’t a replacement for one, either. “Students rate house life highly, and social life quite low,” says Harris. “That shows that students do not see the houses as a primary locus of social life.”

In that case, projects like Hilles and Loker may be the key. The Pub, for instance, will theoretically add to campus cohesion without detering from house life.

“People who go out [to socialize] are going to go out of their dorms anyways,” Zaccagnino says. “The idea is not to shift the social scene from the Houses to the Pub, but from outside bars to the Pub.”



PUB

Maybe the Harvard fun fiasco is not a matter of House life, the Pub, student group meeting areas, or the elusive central space. Look to examples such as Corker, Abraham, and Haan—all are fun-loving, spirited leaders who managed to have a great time at Harvard sans Pub, Hilles, a café, or a student center.

Palfrey points not to the space, but to the space users. “It doesn’t just have to do with space, but has to do with how much you are working, how hard you’re working, how hard your papers are,” he says. “Maybe, ironically, [low satisfaction rates] are also a function of how many clubs and groups there are.”

If Palfrey is correct, then the argument over a centralized student center or a decentralized student center is secondary to a larger issue. In this case, it may take more than building it to make them come.

Harvard students are renowned for their workaholic attitudes, something McLoughlin recently experienced first-hand.

When he planned the Harvard State Fair two weeks ago, students seemed more interested in recruiting for their organizations at the fair than enjoying it.

Countless student groups called to ask if they could hand out fliers and set up tables. “I said, ‘All you can do is relax and have fun.’ ” According to McLoughlin, the campus needs to take a huge chill pill. “It’s a culture shift,” he says. “We need to let down and have fun.”

Even Loker Pub will place responsibility for fun upon the shoulders of undergraduates. “I think ultimately, student life is the province of students. It’s really up to undergrads to make their social experience,” says Corker.

Apparently, nobody has told the freshmen that they need a student center before they can have a good time. This fall, the Yard has been full of fun: an impromptu slip-and-slide, nightly showings of a midnight marauder (the 11:50 man), and bizarrely competitive bean bag throwing contests. All this, without a student center.

If there was ever a time for students to reclaim their social potential, this is it. The money has just come in. The momentum is building. The new administrative players, like Kidd and McLoughlin, are willing to step up to bat for students. Campus center or not, students have the potential to win this game; they just have to learn how to play.

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