“You scan some Houses: Mather, Kirkland, Quincy. Nothing. The only signs of life are from solitary souls with loud tape-decks and pre-meds scurrying through the night for warm, secret places to study.” Sound familiar? This description of a Harvard weekend was written in 1985 and is only dated by its reference to tape-decks. While much has changed in Cambridge over the past 25 years, at least one thing—the paucity of parties—seems to have stayed the same.
In fact, complaining about student life is one of Harvard’s oldest traditions, going back to the Great Butter Rebellion of 1766, when students rioted to protest meal quality under the presidency of Edward Holyoke. Nowadays, undergrads are more docile, but it’s unclear that they have a more charitable view of the school’s social offerings. One survey found that Harvard ranks almost dead last among 31 peer institutions in student social life. And it doesn’t take data to convince anyone who’s seen the typical Cambridge Friday night or heard the litany of complaints that it inspires.
Every story needs a villain, and Harvard students typically identify a series of injustices that condemn them to lives of work and celibacy. First on anyone’s list is the oft-lamented “lack of social space,” perpetrated by the amorphous and sinister “administration.”
This complaint is understandable. In all sorts of ways, Harvard students get the short end of the social stick: The school has no properly functioning student center (with all due respect to Student Organization Center at Hilles); Cambridge maintains notoriously strict liquor laws; a staggering 97 percent of undergrads live on campus, ruling out apartment parties; the clubs that control a substantial portion of Harvard Square’s best real estate close their doors to most potential partiers. And over the past couple of years, that familiar bogeyman, “the administration,” has taken steps to crack down on drinking, ending the UC’s Party Fund, restricting liquor at Stein Clubs, and creating new liability for student group leaders when their events go awry.
Yet while the narrative of a student body hampered by limited resources and a fun-hating administration has a kernel of truth, it mischaracterizes the problem.
Harvard’s social resources may not be on par with its academic offerings, but they’re not as shabby as many assume either. For one thing, the physical plant doesn’t get enough credit. Everyone agrees that the lavish—albeit exclusive—mansions that line Mount Auburn Street have top-quality social space. But there is no room in any final club nicer than half of the house junior common rooms and dining halls that frequently host Stein Clubs and house committee-sponsored events. An honest assessment reveals that common space at Harvard is arguably better than at most other colleges.
Meanwhile, those bold enough to venture off campus will find that Harvard sits smack in the middle of the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. Cambridge’s liquor policies may bear the stamp of the Puritans, but the city is no social wasteland.
Above all, it’s unclear that any administrator really deserves blame for the dearth of social options. Harvard could do more to let its students enjoy themselves, notably by changing its perverse student group liability policy and turning a blind eye to innocuous traditions like River Run and the Harvard/Yale Tailgate. But on a regular weekend, what exactly is the school failing to provide? The most common answer is some sort of large, flexible social space. Yet this complaint seems to ignore the Queen’s Head Pub, which is about to celebrate its three-year anniversary. University funds also subsidize Stein Clubs and larger weekly dining hall parties open to all.
This supply doesn’t silence demands, but that’s because there’s an unbridgeable gap between what students want and what the College can give them. The socializing that most undergrads envision involves underage drinking. In that regard, though, the administration has its hands tied by Massachusetts law. The drinking age is 21, and no one in University Hall is responsible for this. So while ID-checkers at the Queen’s Head may ruffle some feathers, Harvard cannot reasonably be expected to directly sponsor illegal activity. Following the termination of the Party Fund in 2007, Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin challenged students to locate “any other school in the country who gives alcohol to students,” adding “you won’t find it.” It’s a tough pill to swallow, but McLoughlin is right. Dean Hammonds doesn’t hand out 40s to freshmen, but neither does any other college administrator in America.
What really sets Harvard apart isn’t the place but the people. Our social life problem is, first and foremost, of our own design. Harvard students simply aren’t a very party-hardy bunch. When facing a decision between the Kong and a Chinese history midterm, we typically pick the latter, and that choice wouldn’t change even if a coup unseated Drew Faust and replaced her with Captain Morgan. For the sake of honesty, we should acknowledge that what really keeps us chained to our desks is not around us, but within us.