The Report on Harvard House Renewal
released last week promises to give students everything from 24-hour dining halls to more soundproof bedrooms. The House Program Planning Committee has gone to lengths to address a broad array of problems, involving both the structure of the Houses themselves and the general organization of House life. The major initiatives laid out in the report seem positive and, if renewal proceeds along these lines, prospective students can look forward to joining better-equipped, more cohesive Houses.
Many proposed improvements concern aspects of House life that students have complained about extensively, and their inclusion indicates that the planning process is responsive to student concerns. Notably, the report addresses the lack of social spaces within Houses. It notes that dining halls should not be the only place to hold large functions nor Junior Common Rooms the only student “hangout” space in a House. Any student who is tired of bumping into soda machines on Saturday nights or has attempted and failed to book one of the overscheduled JCRs for an activity will no doubt appreciate this. Aside from social space revamping, many of the report’s other recommendations, such as restructuring the workload of House tutors and eliminating walk-throughs, have also been long-awaited.
We are pleased to see such a great number of student concerns being tackled at one time. This success may be due to the student-heavy makeup of the Planning Committee. Of its five subcommittees, two were made up entirely of UC-vetted students. University Hall made the right decision in structuring the process to include such significant student involvement, and we urge that student involvement be a priority as renewal plans proceed.
Nevertheless, moving forward, there are a few other important items that should not be ignored. While the renovations are taking place, constructing desirable swing space for displaced residents is essential. No student should feel as if they cannot partake in the benefits of the House system because of the unlucky timing of their college years. Housing renewal should not come at the expense of a satisfactory living experience for such students. In order to avoid this scenario, swing space could contain special amenities, as has been the case at other schools, in order to improve the lot of those having their Houses renovated.
Additionally, we maintain that horizontal floors in place of vertical entryways would make an important design improvement. Vertical entryways are an idiosyncratic quirk of our housing design that have outlived their usefulness in fostering social unity. While vertical entryways may be a characteristic feature of Harvard’s dorms, they should be scrapped in favor of more conventional horizontal hallways, which provide better opportunities for socializing among neighbors. It seems counterintuitive that the Planning Committee is investing in better social spaces within the Houses while neglecting the deleterious social effects of the space within which students spend a majority of their time—their rooms and their immediate vicinity.
Finally, it appears that some of the report’s recommendations can be implemented now. Improvements such as restructuring the Senior Common Rooms or changing the roles of House tutors are good ideas, and they don’t require any walls to be knocked down. Moreover, if such bureaucratic adjustments are made before the Houses are renewed, it will make the transition process from old House to new House more stable. Redesigning the House life experience should not be artificially confined by a building schedule. We hope to see the report’s suggestions put in place as quickly as possible in order to maximize the benefits of this admirable piece of student-administration collaboration.