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DeWolfe: Typical Harvard Mess

By J.d. Connor


Two days ago, a federal court order banned new sewer permits in Massachusetts, cramping administration plans to move 200 students into the housing complex under construction on DeWolfe St. Now it appears Harvard will have to wait for state authorities to decide on the location of a new sewage treatment plant before DeWolfe can be hooked up.

But whatever the administration finally does about the sewage creek it is up, it finds itself in a double bind. The clientele who are supposed to want to live in DeWolfe this fall (seniors) probably don't want it in sufficient numbers. The sophomores who probably want it aren't supposed to--they're supposed to want to be integrated into the houses and preserve the vigor of house life. (How the administrative ideal of a house with 30 to 50 absent seniors is supposed to be vigorous is left unsaid.)

Students are disgruntled for their own reasons. Very few relish the idea of being affiliated with Eliot and living 500 yards away. No one wants to have a kitchen that entitles them to spend money over and above their usual board costs. And no one enjoys agreeing to live in a building they haven't seen finished.

Living upstairs from a junior faculty member (which will happen in one of the buildings) is, at best, a mixed bag. The "enriching experience" of it all runs headlong into noise complaints, schedule conflicts and the more general problem of social asymmetry.

Be that as it may, many administrators tell me, think of the benefits. First, we have placed transfers into houses right away--a move that DeWolfe facilitated. Second, we have centralized affiliated housing and compensated for the loss of space due to renovation of the buildings near the Radcliffe Quad. Third, according to Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 we have "the most flexible housing to serve changing needs."

ALL THIS would make for a very interesting panel discussion, I am sure: "DeWolfe: Administrative Dream or Housing Nightmare?" But what the emerging debate between Winthrop House Committee member Paul Henrys '92 and Dean for the House System Thomas A. Dingman '67 hides is the origin of this mess--the political conditions of the institution that made this possible and that will determine DeWolfe's future course. Secretiveness and inaccessibility have resulted in government by damage control.

In 1988, the Planning Committee of Harvard Real Estate (HRE) completed its preliminaries for the development of the DeWolfe St. lot. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at that time said it had no desire to build a dormitory and that HRE should build affiliated housing. Everyone agreed the building would house primarily junior faculty.

And everyone agreed that it would also house some students. Nevertheless, the design was left unchanged. The bedrooms were too large to be normal student singles, and all the rooms were kitchen equipped. No one approached any students to find out what they thought of the design, and Dingman--as the adminstration's representative for student housing--was not at that meeting.

In March 1989, Cambridge approved the building plans. In April, HRE met with representatives of the College and FAS, who expressed "interest, but made no commitment," according to Kathy A. Spiegelman, director of planning at HRE.

HRE met with FAS after the building was designed and approved for construction. FAS or the College could have sent HRE back to the drafting table, but that would have meant a big fight, and since FAS wasn't sure at that point that it wanted the building, it let things slide.

But why did HRE meet with FAS and the College in April if it was going to make no difference? Jewett says "they decided to investigate other possibilities," but "they couldn't make a fundamental change" in the design. So he is as uncertain as anyone--and he was there.

FLASH FORWARD to the end of 1989. The house masters met with Jewett to ask him to consider placing transfer students in the houses and housing the subsequent overflow in DeWolfe. FAS, until then a major player in deciding DeWolfe's fate, was not involved. The decision rested with Jewett, and Jewett alone.

A year later, the Committee on House Life (COHL) finally agreed that the 120 transfers in Dudley House and all future transfers should be allowed to live in a house immediately (thus formally recommending the masters' plans). Jewett ratified this proposal, saying "We," (this is the royal We of Jewett-as-The-College speaking), "certainly will follow the spirit of the recommendation."

At the same time, the decision was made to house 202 students and eight tutors in 58 units in DeWolfe. As Dudley House switched from an undergraduate-affiliated house to a graduate-controlled house, DeWolfe became an undergraduate building.

This latter change was glossed over until the impact hit this spring, and it has still been given little attention. In part, it means the problems that FAS and the College could have forseen two years ago have now grown to the point where DeWolfe is a certified Harvard-sized mess.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Two changes that have been waiting offstage through all this will, I imagine, become the star housing attractions in the next couple years.

1. Randomization.

With housing authority more firmly centralized in Jewett's office, the institutional mechanism has come more in line with what he has wanted for several years. The immediate placement of transfer students weakens the element of housing choice even further. And the withering away of house vitality as a result of DeWolfe makes a proposal for change seem more attractive to masters and largely irrelevant to more students.

2. Expansion of the undergraduate population through an increase in the number of international students.

No one talks about a 200 student increase in undergraduate population anymore, largely because of the furor the plan raised when Dillon Professor of International Security Joseph S. Nye put it forward for discussion by the Faculty Council last October.

And no one--Nye, Jewett, Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons '67, or Nancy S. Pyle, associate director of the Harvard Institute for International Development--has plans to start the expansion and add 50 first-years anytime soon.

But that doesn't mean that it couldn't (or won't) happen anytime soon. After all, it only took two years to invert the composition of DeWolfe, and only one year to reverse the status of Dudley House.

The mentality is there: Fitzsimmons has the power to let the number of international students "creep up" (Nye's phrase) as he finds more "excellent candidates," (also Nye's phrase). And the space could be there as soon as the affiliated housing near the Quad is renovated.

Nye, however, says the use of DeWolfe "is unrelated to the number of international students," and is "a poor example" of a way to accommodate the expansion.

Well, how poor an example is it? DeWolfe, as it so happens, can house 280 undergraduates if fully occupied. Subtracting out the 120 newly affiliated transfers leaves just enough room to house the 150 upperclass students that the major international expansion would require. A nice fit.

But this would mean, in all likelihood, recrowding the Quad, putting increased pressure on the river houses, leaving those junior faculty facing high rents and long commutes back at square one and magnifying all the problems DeWolfe has now.

Be that as it may, an administrator could say in the spring of 1994, 'imagine the benefits.' First, we have decidedly enriched the Harvard experience by increasing the international population, a move DeWolfe facilitated. Second, we have nearly equalized house populations, a long-sought goal. Third, we have preserved one of Harvard's age-old traditions. We have made a mess.

The DeWolfe St. building will not be popular with students......And it has fast become an administrative nightmare.

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