In 1992, there were about 80 student groups on Harvard’s campus. At that time, space in the basements of freshmen dorms was converted and gifted to a select number of student groups. Today, 21 of those student groups retain their offices in the basements of Yard dorms, but the number of student groups has grown to more than 300.
University Hall has responded to this student group space crunch, but in a flawed way. In a project overseen by Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, the College is renovating the Hilles building to house new offices for between 48 and 70 student groups. At the same time, student groups in the basements of the Yard dorms are being kicked out so the College can begin the process of renovating those basements into usable freshman social space. Although Hilles is a boon to many student groups that don’t currently have offices or are located in the dankest of the Yard basements, we see no reason why the renovation of Hilles should go hand-in-hand with a reduction of student office space in the Yard dorms. Additionally, although the Hilles renovation is still very much in progress, University Hall has done a poor job of keeping student groups up-to-date on exactly the quality of the space that will be available, leaving some student groups frustrated and angry. Going forward, we believe the College should cancel plans to transform Yard dorm basements into social space, and instead incorporate the Yard offices into the massive lottery for office space that will happen in the months to come.
From a cost-benefit standpoint, the addition of new social space in the basement of freshmen dorms is not a compelling enough reason to gut so much student office space. Before planned renovations of the Yard dorm basements are even finished, freshmen living in the Yard will already have a new pub in Loker Commons and, depending on the construction schedule, possibly a new 24-hour café in Lamont Library. These improvements seem to offer more than enough conveniently located social space for freshmen. And, furthermore, these are spaces that promise to encourage freshmen-upperclassmen interaction—a priority of the College—not insular freshmen socializing. Proponents of the plan to gut the basements argue that freshmen dorms should have the same amenities as the Houses: kitchens and large common rooms, for instance. But while these improvements would be nice, marginal progress toward making freshmen dorms more like Houses cannot justify the eviction of so many student groups, especially in the face of the massive increase in social space that the completion of the Lamont Café and the Loker Pub will herald.
As for Hilles itself, the furor raised by some student groups on Monday about the layout and amenities of the offices themselves was overblown. The plans for Hilles are still in a state of flux. On Monday, Dean McLoughlin presented plans for offices that had no doors, and whose walls were formed by Hilles’ teak bookshelves. Student groups were understandably concerned about the privacy of offices with no locking doors and bookshelf-walls that are far from soundproof. In the coming days, however, these limitations are likely to be overcome. Since most Hilles-based offices will be between two and four times bigger than any Yard office, even student groups forced to relocate from the Yard will have reason to count their blessings.
In the coming months, a subcommittee formed by Dean McLoughlin will consider applications from student groups for office space. Needless to say, this process will be extremely tricky. As the 21 student groups currently enjoying space in the Yard were given that space through an arbitrary process more than 10 years ago, those groups should be made to reapply as well. But their offices should be preserved—not transformed into freshmen social space—as offices open to lottery. When considering applications for the Yard space in particular, the student-heavy subcommittee should resist giving preference to older or more moneyed groups. Instead, all groups should be forced to make a case for why their function requires a location in the Yard. Subcommittee members should be especially wary of using group size as a metric, as it is extremely easy to inflate membership numbers.
There is no way to placate established student groups who may be displaced by this process other than by maintaining the current, unfair status quo. But McLoughlin and the College must do a better job in the future of communicating with all student groups, including ensuring that they are kept appraised of the latest developments with the construction plans. If student groups knew that Hilles plans are essentially still in flux, their minds would be better set at ease.
In the end, the essential fact is that the College is spending upward of $6 million to renovate existing buildings to expand social space and student-group offices. But there are right and wrong ways to spend this money. Yard dorm basements should be kept as student-group offices to serve a campus whose students consistently identify with their student groups as much or more than they do with their Houses and their dorms. Looking forward, we want to see a process that is both fair and responsive to student input. Although no process will make everyone happy, an improved process will enable the College and student groups to find their common ground.