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An Open Letter to Neil Rudenstine

By Liam T.A. Ford

Editor's Note: This is the first is an occasional series of open letters to President Neil L. Rudenstine to offer suggestions on how to spend Harvard's "Peace Dividend"--the money we will receive in the coming year as part of the $2 billion fund drive.


We haven't heard much about it lately, but I can only assume that you've begun to think about the University's $2 billion fundraising drive. Postponed after President Bok's departure, the fund drive will probably start in the fall. Now that you have your provost, you can settle down and start adding to the endowment.

A few of the things President Bok and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III wanted to do with some of the money should be reconsidered.

First, there's the conversion of the Freshman Union into a "Humanities Center." Second, there's the replacement of the Union with a dining hall in Memorial Hall. Finally, there's the use of the basement of Mem Hall as a student center.

These proposed changes are just plain silly, and I'll tell you why.

REMEMBER ALL those alumni from whom you plan to squeeze $2 billion? Well, most of them have fond memories of the Union.

Sure, it's a giant, impersonal dining hall. But we all met many of our friends there.

And if there's one thing Harvard's about, it's tradition. Since the 1930s, when the House system came into being, each new class of Harvard students has eaten its first meal in the Union. Back in the 1930s, if the "Freshman Redbooks" of that era are any guide, the Union served as a real cultural and extracurricular center for Harvard's first-year students.

When the thousands of alumni who still have fond memories of the Union hear that their money would go to take down Teddy Roosevelt's antler chandeliers, to remove the butter pats from the tin ceiling and to destroy the giant fireplaces at each end of the Union dining hall, they'll have second thoughts about giving you money.

Same thing with the use of Mem Hall as the first-year dining hall. It may be a return to age-old tradition--once upon a time, Mem Hall was a dining hall. It's not one, however, that any current alumni remember. And just think, President Rudenstine, what the grease of thousands of pan pizzas each week will do to Mem Hall. A permanent smell of pepperoni won't add to its cultural ambience.

Finally, the student center idea. This is perhaps the worst, at least from the viewpoint of the undergraduates you purport to care so much about. Take a short trip down Mass Ave. some day and peek into MIT's students center. Or think of Columbia's. Or even Georgetown's relatively new student center, completed a few years ago. All of these colleges lag behind Harvard in name recognition and prestige. They all have better facilities for undergraduate activities, however.

Aside from the obvious need to Keep Up With the Joneses, there are many reasons why Harvard should abandon the Mem Hall student center plan--and should think of constructing a real student center.

First, attracting students, Sure, the Harvard name alone serves to attract any number of intelligent students. But you must look to the future. Prestige alone doesn't attract faculty to Harvard; if it did, recent problems in filing the Afro-American Studies and History Departments with young scholars would never have occurred.

Eventually, attracting students will be more of a challenge, as Stanford. Yale, Columbia and other schools of our caliber attract higher number of students. A real student center would help attract students interested in more than just academics.

Second, Harvard is known for the diversity and vibrancy of its extracurricular activities. Yet student groups often voice frustration at the lack of office space and meeting space available on campus. Smaller student groups sometimes wait years to acquire offices. No matter what architectural machinations are used. I find it impossible to believe that the basement of Mem Hall can provide much more office space than it does now.

This lack of space makes it more difficult for student groups to keep in contact with similar student groups at other universities. It also makes it difficult for student groups to keep in touch with alumni and with those non-Harvard people who might be interested in fostering cultural and political organizations at Harvard.

The lack of office space also hinders continuity in student activities from one year to another. The rate of attrition of student groups, The rate of attrition of student groups, always large, is thus increased. The Conservative Club and the Subterranean Review lose half their members every year.

Although these groups function on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum, their problems are decidely similar. Because of a lack of facilities, the Conservative Club has had trouble keeping records from farther back than a few years ago, although it began functioning more than two decades ago. I don't know much about the inner workings of the Subterranean Review, but I do know that when it last published regularly, its editors complained from year to year because of the lack of office space.

Issues of continuity aside, a third problem solvable by creating a student center is that of coordination among student groups. Although some attempt was made three years ago to tie the leaders of student groups together, little came of it. Simply put, without a place to keep records of the association of student officers, the association didn't stand a chance of existing for more than a year or two. It didn't.

Today, those students wishing to start up or revitalize clubs have little in the way of resources which allow them to easily glean insight from the experience of the leaders of older, larger extracurriculars. A student center would provide a central meeting place and a tangible symbol of the continuity of student activities.

A real student center would provide more than just a place where students could socialize with students from other Houses. (Something which a Mem Hall student center, despite its office space, would still lack.) That, however, would be an important function. In the past several years, not one of the Undergraduate Council's all-campus parties has been successful. In fact, I'd be hardpressed to remember the last time the UC tried to have an all-campus party.

Why not? No real place to have one, and no tradition of campus unity. Deficiencies in student life such as these breed dissatisfied alumni. And dissatisfied alumni don't give money.

Having a student center would also allow the cross-fertilization of diverse student groups. Members of the Black Students Association and the Irish Cultural Society and the Polish Club would have routine contact with one another in a semi-organized venue. Political groups could have regular encounter with one another, thus promoting understanding of diverse political ideas. A student center would thus increase the impact of the College student body's diversity.

WITH ALL THESE and other possible benefits, the argument for a student center at Harvard should be compelling. Questions of how to finance its construction and where to put it remain. The first problem is relatively easy to solve. If you plan now to finance the conversion of Mem Hall to a new Union and a student center through alumni donations, you should realize that financing a real student center (and perhaps a real humanities center) the same way would be easier. Selling alumni on the creation of a student center will be easier than selling them on the destruction of the Union.

Now, to the second problem; an opportunity was lost when the Bok administration decided to build the Inn at Harvard. The Gulf Station site upon which the Inn sits would have been an ideal place to put a student center. Perhaps the site upon which the A. Lawrence Lowell Lecture Hall now stands unused (across Kirkland Street from Mem Hall) would suffice. The location is just as central as Mem Hall, and building there would make use of essentially unused land.

The Mem Hall plan won't solve the problems the lack of a student center creates. Alumni would most likely prefer to keep the Union and fund the building of a new facility which would function as the Union originally did: a place for Harvard students to participate in any number of extracurricular activities.

So if you want to make everyone happy, President Rudenstine, scrap the Mem Hall/Union plan and start raising money for a student center worthy of our University.

If you have suggestions for President Rudenstine, please submit them to the Editorial Chairs of The Harvard Crimson, 14 Plympton Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

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