Not Just the Thought that Counts

Student life benefits when good ideas are translated into action

When it comes to student life, good intentions are one thing, but good execution is another. This year saw the introduction of many new initiatives, among which were the green campus campaign, the Harvard Task Force on the Arts, the Report on Harvard Housing Renewal, and exciting plans for calendar changes. Students, however, benefit most when the administration follows through with its plans and takes student opinion into consideration. Likewise, efforts to improve social life at Harvard are much more likely to be successful if thoughtfully executed.

By far, Harvard’s campaign to “green” the campus and raise awareness about environmental issues was a great success due to the efforts of both the administration and student environmental advocacy groups. Harvard kicked off the year with the creation of the Office of Sustainability and a weeklong sustainability celebration, headlined by guest speaker and former Vice-President Al Gore. Subsequently, the Harvard Environmental Action Committee’s extensive involvement in the Massachusetts General Court’s passage of a national energy policy resolution and the school’s selection of U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu for Commence speaker demonstrated the campus’s genuine commitment to greener living.

In general, incorporation of student input led to positive results. HUDS in particular, went out of its way to solicit student feedback on many changes that it implemented this year. The modified reinstatement of calorie cards in the dining halls and the creation of a comprehensive website and Harvard dining blog demonstrated HUDS’s admirable responsiveness to student opinion.

The Office of Career Services addressed criticisms that it focused too narrowly on the financial and consulting sectors by launching a new initiative to highlight more diverse career options. Although OCS still has room to improve, it is gratifying to see that it is beginning to branch out as more students look to alternative career options. The Q Guide also made a very sensible change this year by finally requiring students to complete their evaluations in order to view their grades promptly after examination period. Again, encouraging student participation is key to making the Q Guide effective, but further improvements such as creating a more accurate rating system and better integrating the Q Guide with the my.harvard.edu course shopping tool are necessary for the Q Guide to be truly useful for students.

At several points in the year, University Hall raised ire among the student body by putting forth good ideas and then failing to back them up. Just months after President Drew G. Faust announced the formation of the Harvard Task Force on the Arts, VES students were dismayed to find out that instead of increasing the number course offerings in visual art, Harvard would be letting one of its two painting teachers on the VES faculty, Nancy Mitchnick, to leave when her visiting lecturer contract expires with no plans announced to replace her.

Similar indignation greeted the letter sent out this spring by Deans Michael A. Smith and Evelynn M. Hammonds announcing that, instead of creating the much anticipated “January Experience” programming for the extended free period created by the calendar change next year, the university will close the campus for the full five weeks. While the extra discretionary time may be positive for overstressed and overcommitted Harvard students, we are concerned that housing on campus will only be made available to a limited number of students “having good reason” to stay on campus. The arrested development of January programming may have been a reasonable decision given the current state of FAS finances, but the disorganized manner in which administrators handled this decision and their lack of transparency with students suggested that calendar reform was not well thought-out.

Of course, Harvard’s budget cuts have affected every aspect of the University, and student life was no exception. Even though student opinion should by no means dictate budgeting decisions, the University should have consulted with students before making any final decisions. For example, the administration should have solicited feedback from student athletes before cutting hot breakfast and feedback from Quadlings before closing the Quad Library or reducing Quad shuttle service. It is unacceptable that these students should be forced to choose between participating in student nightlife by the river and getting home safely. Fortunately, the issue of shuttle transportation will be reconsidered this summer.

The Houses also took a hit during this time of institutional belt-tightening, with each House required to slash 25 percent of its budget for next year. In a perplexing sequence of events, the announcement about House budget cuts came on the heels of the recently released Report on Harvard House Renewal. Once again, students were temporarily encouraged by the fact that the report addressed many long-standing student concerns such as creating more House social space and eliminating walkthroughs. With a 25 percent budget reduction though, it is unclear whether non-construction-related recommendations that could be addressed now, such as increased tutor presence and restructuring of Senior Common Rooms, will be completed. Budget cuts are unavoidable at this point in time, but hopefully extras like food at House events will be eliminated rather than the House administrative staff that provides vital student services.

The eternal quest to improve College social life enjoyed general success this year, with a few big exceptions. September saw the announcement of a new financial initiative in which the College allocated an additional $75,000 to facilitate student group transportation and house formals. Then the College responded to student outcry over its new alcohol policy by revising the objectionable provision that held student group leaders responsible for individuals who become intoxicated during their social events. Students were generally pleased to see sensible proposals get translated into sensible policies within a reasonable amount of time.

The UC deserves credit for forging a better relationship with the Dean of the College this year, one that helped facilitate positive developments like the provisional return of a modified version of the Party Fund, which was unceremoniously terminated last year. The new “UC Weekend Fund,” created under the Social Grants act, does not allocate money for private room parties as the Party Fund did, but some form of social event funding is better than having none at all. This was a sensible move for the UC and should help revitalize the Harvard party scene.

Unfortunately, good intentions got the better of the UC with regard to increasing campus social space. Lack of social space is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed, but the UC’s planned purchase of the 45 Mt. Auburn Street property is an unfeasible and ultimately counterproductive goal. Raising the approximately $6 million needed for the initial purchase over the course of a 16 month capital campaign to solicit alumni donations is highly unrealistic, especially in this difficult financial climate. Moreover, if the UC actually does manage to acquire the building, it will require extensive renovation in order to be usable, and the small size of the building itself suggests that it will not be the type of student center that students envision. This misguided attempt to address the social space issue will only hurt the UC’s credibility and detract from more pressing issues such as responding to the budget cuts.

Yet there are always lessons to be learned from mistakes. Students were pleased with the CEB’s choice for Pep Rally artist this year, popular DJ Girl Talk, but a combination of poor planning, a dangerously flimsy stage, and an unusually high student turnout prompted HUPD to prematurely cancel the concert. Fortunately, the CEB was able to redeem itself for its botched execution of the Girl Talk event by putting on an impressive Yardfest concert this spring. The CEB deserved praise for picking up-and-coming artists this year, Sarah Bareilles and Ratatat, and taking the time to poll students about their preferences.

Obviously, with the financial issues the University is currently grappling with, this year has been a particularly tough one for carrying out even the best-laid plans. There is no shortage of creative ideas on campus for dealing with everything from budget cuts to student social life, but open communication and concrete plans go a long way toward smoothing relations between students and administrators as those ideas become realities. For real improvements to student life, it’s not just the thought that counts.