Will They Ever Understand Us?
The College struggles to comprehend student life
For some student group leaders, Harvard just doesn’t get it.
Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds may have named it one of her top three goals, but when students clamor for more social space, Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson—who leads the Office of Student Life—does not even mention the subject when listing her priorities.
While students complain about the difficult logistics of nightlife, Nelson praises Harvard’s alcohol policies as relatively generous.
But students and administrators both agree that the Office of Student Life should remain relatively hands-off, guiding programming run by students rather than engineering events for them.
While this freedom is extended to daytime events—such as conferences, panels, and meetings—the College’s reins tighten when the sun goes down, when the music starts blaring, and when the kegs are tapped.
“Their priority is for everyone to be safe, legal, and financially sound, and I appreciate all of the training they have for student group leaders. And they give a lot of support,” says Courtney L. Blair ’10, former president of the Harvard International Relations Council. “But where our priorities diverge is we also want to make our organizations social organizations.”
It is these divergent priorities that prove difficult for students and administrators to reconcile.
A QUESTION OF LIABILITY
Student leaders say they sometimes struggle to hold events that satisfy both Massachusetts drinking laws and their members’ desires for lax alcohol restrictions. Whereas the administration focuses on the former, student group leaders often emphasize the latter, bringing the two into inevitable disagreement.
“That’s always going to be a conflict that can’t be resolved,” Blair says. “You can’t blame them. That’s their job, and it’s our job to push back against the rules and not want to follow them.”
But some student group leaders point at certain restrictions—such as those involving Beverage Authorization Teams—as examples of a broader disconnect between the administration and undergraduates. According to some students, the administration’s attitude focuses on mitigating risk and minimizing liability for the College as much as possible, often at the expense of a typical collegiate nightlife.
“Harvard has a very strict ‘look out for number one’ policy in that respect,” says Thomas A. Johnson ’11, president of the Harvard chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. “They treat us like we’re children, like we’re all enormous liabilities—and quite frankly, that’s disheartening.”
In addition to requiring Harvard University Police Department detail teams to be present at events with 100 or more attendees, the Office of Student Life requires BAT teams at student organization events that serve alcohol, charging $21.50 per hour for a minimum of four hours. Nelson calls this policy “a great model” that allows for “the kind of responsible behavior that we want students and adults to have.”
However, this perceived focus on liability appears to limit the events allowed by the College, yielding activities that some find to be childish and sometimes preventing clubs from holding the events that they desire.
For instance, Qing “Emma” Wang ’12, co-chair of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, says the club tried to hold a party in mid-April in Adams House. After the College informed QSA that it had failed to meet the administration’s event registration specifications, the group was forced to cancel the highly-publicized event at the last minute.