This past week, another chapter was added to the long, storied, and extremely arduous struggle to give Harvard students a social life. The saga began more than a decade ago with a valiant attempt known as “Loker Commons,” now an Ozymandias-esque monument to the power of Harvard’s wallet and the myopia of its foresight. The student body missed another chance for a centrally located student center when plans were announced, unchallenged, for a library administration building at 90 Mt. Auburn St., across the street from Felipe’s.
In light of these past missed opportunities, we welcome and applaud University President Lawrence H Summers’ decision, last week, to give $6 million to fund the renovation of Hilles, the construction of a permanent pub in Loker, and a café in Lamont. His contribution is an affirmation of his oft-stated belief that the College and undergraduates are the heart of the University. Each of these initiatives is sorely needed in a campus that has clearly been lacking in common student social space for so long.
But, although we sincerely hope that the permanent Loker pub, a Lamont café, and a renovated Hilles will become runaway successes, these are not permanent solutions to the student space problems at the College. Only a centrally located student center can truly provide the catalyst for the blossoming of student life at Harvard. A student center would go a long way toward assimilating freshmen into upper-class life, not to mention facilitating new bonds and cooperation between student groups and kindling renewed excitement and interest in the smaller clubs. A student center that combined a pub, student club offices, and general social space could also serve as a welcome alternative to Final Clubs and cramped dorm rooms for low-key and more formal parties and get-togethers. Add late night food, alternative student performance space, and perhaps a discounted movie theater and you have the makings of a veritable blooming of Crimson spirit and a new era of undergraduate bonhomie.
The student body should not have to wait the 15 to 20 years that it will take for a student center in Allston to be constructed, especially when there are viable alternatives today. As Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby recognized, the strength of the Harvard experience is “the [synergy] between students’ academic, extracurricular, social and residential lives,” which, he went on to say, the “campus renovations are designed to boost…to an even greater extent than before.” The next logical step after these renovations is a survey of the campus to identify candidate spaces where a centrally located student center can be built.
We are not asking for a huge complex like the student center envisioned for Allston. Instead, we believe a smaller student center located close to the Yard is achievable over a short timespan. Toward this goal, some of the President’s grant should be set aside to hire a new Czar to add to University Hall’s collection—a Student Center Czar—to examine the best way to create a centrally located student center now. For starters, we suggest investigating building on the property that is currently the Inn at Harvard or, better yet, making Boylston Hall into a student center. Language and other departments that currently occupy office space in Boylston could move to Hilles or another convenient space. As it is, Boylston is underutilized, and its central location makes it a prime candidate for conversion.
President Summers and the College have taken an extremely significant and welcome step towards improving student life. We are grateful for their generosity, but it only partially addresses the problem. We hope Summers uses this momentum, and part of his $6 million grant, to investigate seriously the prospect of a student center now.