Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson recently announced that she will step down from her office and accept a position as vice president and dean of Colgate College. Nelson was the first to occupy the position of Dean of Student Life, a position that was created in 2009. While we are glad that the position exists insofar as it has the capacity to invigorate student life and demonstrates a commitment on the part of the College to improve its performance in this area, it has, unfortunately, pursued this goal in all the wrong ways. Regrettably, the Office of Student Life is often all too eager to penalize student groups that are within its reach rather than those unaffiliated with the University that present a real threat to student wellbeing. In doing so, the OSL harms those groups that are not a big part of the problem and make social life at Harvard even more dependent on those outside organizations. This runs counter to the office’s ideal role as a proponent of student life. In this spirit, we hope that Nelson’s successor will serve as more of an advocate for student life and make the OSL a more accessible and cooperative resource for students.
While it often seems that there are too many deans and officers overseeing their own little fiefdoms at Harvard, the Dean of Student Life is one whose existence is truly necessary and welcome recent creation. For the vast majority of students, extracurricular activities are an enormously significant component of life at Harvard, and for many, extracurricular commitments are even more rewarding than academics. The Dean of Student Life and the OSL are thus uniquely poised to enrich one of the most important aspects of a Harvard education.
Unfortunately, the OSL has in many ways squandered that opportunity. The office has taken to targeting student organizations in an attempt to make a clearly visible effort to stem dangerous drinking. However, like so many other programs designed to look good but not confront the real problem, these initiatives do nothing to target final clubs or groups like them that really lie at the center of Harvard’s alcohol woes where and when they occur. Indeed, by attacking these largely benign college-recognized organizations, and turning them into scapegoats for concerned parents and alumni, the OSL makes it only more likely that the social scene at Harvard will slip farther out of their purview into less regulated and less safe spaces.
The treatment of student organizations is in large part problematic because the OSL has placed a disproportionate emphasis on alcohol in regards to their duties. While alcohol use is understandably a concern for all, the OSL’s exceedingly narrow focus on this issue prevents them from addressing many other concerns that they really ought to be working on.
With this in mind, we hope that the new Dean of Student Life will be one that has had experience working as advocates for student groups
The new dean should also make the OSL more transparent and accessible to students. Currently, the OSL and its services are notoriously difficult to deal with. It is a common complaint of students that the OSL responds slowly or that administrators are difficult and unfriendly. Indeed, the OSL is notoriously bureaucratic, which has made it difficult for students to communicate with the office effectively. This must be improved.
Also difficult to interact with are many of the OSL’s most basic services for student organizations. Its room reservation portal, for example, is cumbersome and difficult to understand. The Student Organization Center at Hilles, already inconvenient for most students because of its location in the Quad, is made even more so by the restrictions imposed on students to using it. The SOCH Cinema, for example, cannot be reserved by organizations without obtaining licenses for films that they would like to screen, a process that is unreasonably expensive for students to take on.
The OSL’s focus on policing rather than supporting student organizations has been detrimental to student life at Harvard. While we understand that it is OSL’s responsibility to step in when student welfare is demonstrably at risk, we urge the office to understand itself, first and foremost, as the proponent of student life that it should be.