Social Life Moves Off-Campus

Part III in a III Part Series

Social Spaces
Crimson file photo

Social Spaces

(Part I of this series appeared May 6, Part II appeared May 9.)

Mt. Auburn Street is a testament to the proliferation of off-campus social spaces at Harvard—scattered among University-owned buildings are five separate final clubs and The Lampoon, with four other final clubs and The Crimson in close proximity.

The shortage of on-campus social spaces—due, in part, to the absence of a central student center and restrictions on the use of campus space—has been a perennial student complaint and a frequent topic of discussion among student leaders in recent years.

As a result, many students are turning to off-campus spaces—with their copious square footage and distance from the rules of the College—as new hubs of social life, filling the role of a student center during the day and a party space at night.

“[Students] see Harvard not resolving it, so they think, 'Let me seek some other group that’s going to resolve it,'” says the president of a male final club, who requested anonymity in order to protect his relationship with the club’s alumni. “I think a lot of students solve problems by pursuing off campus establishments.”

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THE SPACES

Final clubs are some of the most visible off-campus spaces frequented by undergraduates, but other options have recently flourished.

Over the past few years, the chapters of Harvard’s burgeoning Greek scene have increasingly secured independent space in Cambridge.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi fraternities occupy property on Harvard Street and Mass. Ave., respectively, and the Delta Gamma sorority recently acquired a venue on Other Greek organizations are currently looking for their own spaces, according to members of the organizations.

In addition, several officially recognized student publications—including The Crimson, the Harvard Advocate, and The Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine—have their own buildings in the Square.

A SPACE OF THEIR OWN

For many of these groups, having an independently owned and operated space is one of the defining features of their experiences.

Free from the constraints of having to reserve highly sought after meeting spaces in Houses and the prohibitive costs of renting some of the larger on-campus social venues, recognized student groups have found that having a space all to themselves has eased the functioning of their organization.

Joseph B. Morcos ’12, a member of The Advocate, says that although the primary purpose of the organization’s building is to play host to the production of a magazine, it serves a social function as well.

“Everyone in the organization has the keys to the building, so people can go there to drink on a Friday night or to do homework during the day,” Morcos says.

And for unrecognized groups—who enjoy none of the benefits of being an officially recognized organization, such as the privilege of using College spaces for group functions—having an independent venue can be crucial to their success.

Delta Gamma recently moved into their new space, giving the chapter a place to hold weekly meetings and their members a place in the Square to gather more informally.

“A lot of the girls who live in the Quad are saying that it’ll be a really good place for them to hang out, do homework, watch TV,” says Caroline T. Quazzo ’12, the president of Delta Gamma.

THE RECOGNITION QUESTION

Official recognition for final clubs, fraternities, and sororities—revoked by the College in 1984 due to the gender-discriminatory recruitment policies of the clubs—is a topic that has been repeatedly discussed, most recently in the election campaign platform of current Undergraduate Council leaders Senan Ebrahim ’12 and Bonnie Cao ’12.

Suzy M. Nelson, dean of student life, says that the gender discrimination issue—as well as sorority and fraternity ties to national organizations—make it unlikely that Greek life will be recognized in the near future.

However, some groups say that the acquisition of an independent space actually negates the need to pursue a relationship with the College.

Once reserving common room spaces or having dorm parties is no longer an issue, club leaders say the recognition may just lead to more unwanted scrutiny from the College administration.

Assistant Dean of Student Life Susan B. Marine said in an interview in February that fraternities have been less involved than sororities in the attempt to establish an official Greek presence on campus, adding that the fraternities—most of which already have established spaces in the Square—may have less reason to seek official relationships with the College.

“Being officially recognized by the university just makes more of a hassle for groups,” says the same president of one male final club.

A PLACE TO PARTY

Given the oft-mentioned dearth of on-campus social options for undergraduates, the most obvious presence of these off-campus options may be their function in Harvard’s party scene.

While students at other colleges rely on off-campus apartments and a thriving bar scene to get their party fix, the Harvard social scene is very different. For many Harvard students looking for a large-scale party free from the oversight of the administration, final clubs and Greek organizations present the only viable option.

“At final clubs you know that there’s always something going on,” says Alexandra P. Berman ’13. “If you’re looking for something to do, and you can’t find any other party, you know there’s always something happening there.”

However, student leaders say that strong interest in off-campus venues should not be viewed as a solution to the lack of a robust campus-centric social scene, and that the administration should continue to work towards fixing the campus social space issue.

“Harvard owns a ridiculous amount of land and real estate,” says the same male final club president. “When you look at the amount owned by Harvard and the clubs, it’s not even a comparison.”

Tara D. Venkatraman ’11, a leader in the Harvard Students for Safe Space Campaign—a College-recognized group that advocates, among other things, increased transparency and inclusiveness on the part of final clubs—agreed, adding that the College should create more on-campus alternatives.

“There’s a common crisis of social space at Harvard,” Venkatraman says. “The administration can do a lot more to confront that.”

NOT JUST A PARTY THING

Members of groups with off-campus space say that although having a space to party on weekends is a draw, it is not the only social benefit of off-campus areas: their spaces also give them a place to hang out and socialize with friends.

“The social aspect of a club is a very small part of it,” says the same male final club president. “It gives you a type of affiliation.”

But whether it is for parties or informal gatherings, students agree that the real estate plays a large role in making these interactions possible.

“If you ask social club members, what’s the best thing about being in a social club, they’ll say the people,” Ebrahim says. “But where do you go to meet the people? It’s the place.”

—Monika L. S. Robbins contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Julie M. Zauzmer contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at sgarlock@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

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