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World's School, Bad Neighbor

By John Pitkin

Harvard’s request to build a tunnel under Cambridge Street has created an unusual confrontation between the city of Cambridge and the University. Since a City Council hearing on April 3, the proposal to link the two buildings of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) has been stalled by a council vote for further study and negotiations with neighbors. The outcome of this impasse is very much in doubt.

Its resolution will not only affect the CGIS project but will also have implications for future relations between Harvard and Cambridge.

For a variety of reasons, these relations seem now to be at an important turning point. Harvard has a new president who has brought in a new vice president for government and community affairs. There is also new leadership in the city. Only two of Cambridge’s city councillors have served more than seven years. With the creation of a new Committee on University Relations, the current council has put town-gown issues near the top of its agenda.

However, the significance of these generational changes pales in comparison with the change in the Harvard-Cambridge relationship brought about by the University’s Allston land purchases. What the effects of this tectonic shift will be are far from clear, however.

The prevalent view is that the availability of new territory for campus expansion will lower the pressure for growth on the Cambridge side of the river and reduce friction between Harvard and Cambridge. Although there is no question that large-scale development of any kind in the midst of a dense, well-established city causes considerable friction between neighbors, this view may be too optimistic.

One reason the Allston purchase probably will not ease town-gown tensions is that Harvard’s ambitions for major facilities currently planned for Cambridge will, if they are realized, produce a campus building boom of a scale not seen since at least the 1960s. Things will not even improve after the Allston land is integrated into the campus if the University’s plan includes a major reconfiguration of its Cambridge campus. Large-scale renovations can be almost as disruptive as new development.

A second reason the Allston purchase will not be a cure-all for town-gown tensions is that it actually worsens a more serious problem that has nothing to do with construction. It further erodes the bonds of community association between the University and its neighbors in Cambridge.

The fraying of these bonds was well underway by the time Harvard became “America’s University” in the 1950s and 1960s. It continued into the 1980s. Prince Charles’ presence at the 350th anniversary celebration in 1986 implicitly recognized Harvard as the Free World’s University. If anything, it accelerated in the past decade. In the last year, Harvard’s status as the “Whole World’s University” has been validated not by a British royal but by the 1.1 million purchasers of a best selling book in China about how to get your teenager into Harvard.

Harvard’s successful pursuit of its sacred goal of excellence in education and research has dramatically weakened its ties with Cambridge. Its scholars are increasingly eminent, but the demands of the national and global stage draw them further and further out of touch with their sometime neighbors in Cambridge. This became painfully obvious in some of the public discussions about the CGIS project.

Moreover, as the tangible benefits of the University’s activities are diffused ever more broadly, doubts about the fairness of the University’s exemption from local taxation increase. This concern was raised in the 1991 report of the Cambridge Mayor’s Committee on University-Community Relationships. “A unique element of the ‘town-gown’ linkage is that [the] benefits of the universities’ activities flow freely across local, state and national boundaries, while the impacts of institutional presence are felt almost exclusively in the local community,” the report stated. “An important goal…must therefore be to…maintain a mutually acceptable balance so that local impacts are balanced by local benefits.”

The continuing rapid globalization of the University’s mission sharpens this concern and blunts local enthusiasm for the projects that advance this mission.

Paradoxically, a “better” university does not make a better neighbor but a more problematic and, in many respects, a worse one. Right now, the road ahead for Harvard and Cambridge looks rough, with or without a tunnel under it.

John Pitkin is a Cambridge resident and president of the Mid-Cambridge Neighborhood Association. In 1991, he served on the Cambridge Mayor’s Committee on University-Community Relationships.

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