Cabot House
Cabot House

From a Distance

It was not until 250 years after Ann Radcliffe donated 100 pounds sterling to the University that Harvard finally found
By Rebecca D. O’brien and Lauren A.E. Schuker

It was not until 250 years after Ann Radcliffe donated 100 pounds sterling to the University that Harvard finally found a place to stick her name. Harvard’s nascent women’s college was in desperate need of a name change in 1893—before then-University President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, dubbed it Radcliffe, it was known as “X College.” A century later, Harvard’s wayward daughter has been fully merged into the University, but its physical legacy—the dormitories up Garden Street—remains an X factor.

The Radcliffe Quadrangle (or “Quad,” to all) has never escaped its legacy of marginality. Historically it provided a distant home for fringe groups on campus : first women, then eccentrics, then racial minorities. Today, the Quad is as distant and divisive as ever, but the roll of the dice determines which students are exiled there. Although Quad residents no longer have to walk miles to play tennis at six in the morning, as they did in the early days of Radcliffe, College administrators continue to struggle with the inequalities that characterize a limb of Harvard that remains tenuously attached. Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 says one of his priorities is the “revitalization” of the Quad, which he hopes to accomplish by moving important student services up Garden Street.

Does this mean that, in the wake of randomization, the Quad is dead or dying? Most residents say no. The Quad fares well in senior exit surveys—two of the top five Houses in the survey last year were in the Quad. But it’s hard to see how the Quad will ever escape its raison d’etre—isolation. And with this Tuesday’s announcement on the future of Allston, it now appears that University President Lawrence H. Summers may build new undergraduate housing closer to the river, leaving Currier, Cabot, and Pforzheimer behind. Under this plan, undergraduates won’t be cut out of the picture when the focus of campus shifts across the river. “The concept of undergraduate housing lining the river is a nice one,” says Associate Dean for Planning and Physical Resources David A. Zewinski ’76. “It creates a nice environment for houses...and residential houses are less expensive to build than science labs.” The stakes, of course, are high—and the administration knows it. “Undergraduate life is the most important, and most speculative, part of the Allston decision,” Summers says.

Given the obstacles the administration must overcome to build anything in Allston—high costs, difficult town/gown negotiations and the moving pre-existing athletic facilities—Quadlings will stay put for at least another decade. But until the move, the tug of war between short-term appeasement of Quad residents and the long-term relocation of housing will be a major drain on the College’s administrative energy—and its coffers.

In a sense, the Radcliffe Quadrangle might be the most successful project in Harvard’s history. It was built with the intention of separating one group of students from the rest of the community, and it has done just that for over 100 years. “Radcliffe was designed to keep the women away from the men so they wouldn’t be distracted,” says one former Radcliffe administrator.

With Radcliffe dependent on Harvard for resources, faculty and facilities, female students at the Quad were systematically short-shrifted. Until World War II, Radcliffe women were educated at Radcliffe Yard instead of Harvard Yard. Through the beginning of co-education, they received second or third-hand athletic equipment from Harvard male sports teams and were only offered inconvenient practice times.

Even their safety wasn’t ensured. “Harvard provided nothing in way of security,” says Betsy Munnell ’73, who lived in what is now Pforzheimer House. “It didn’t occur to them to have a shuttle, that it might be unsafe for women to come home on their own. The Radcliffe Quad could never compete with the River. It lacked the tradition, it had a different architecture.”

“When I was there, people stuck their noses up at the Quad,” says Andronike Janus, who was assistant to the president of Radcliffe for special projects fro 1970 to 1980. “The Quad was known as a no-man’s land. It was isolated from the Square and from all the Harvard programs.” The first shuttles to the Quad came only when men had established a presence at the Quad, in the early 1970s.

After housing Radcliffe women for three decades, the Quad houses opened to men for the first time in 1969, on a volunteer basis. Women, in turn, were allowed to transfer to the river houses. “The merger of the dorms happened in a certain environment, when everything that happened at Radcliffe was second-rate,” Janus says. “Nobody really knew what they were doing up there.”

Female quad residents at the time remember the first male arrivals at the Quad as anything but a normal sampling of Harvard men. “The boys were unusual,” Munnell recalls. “They were not boys looking to meet cute girls. They were different—no jocks, no preppies from the [final] clubs.” Adds Janus, “The kids who moved to the Quad weren’t into drinking and drugs, but fruit and chocolate.” “I remember being struck by that.” According to Eric S. Roberts ’73, a former Currier House tutor, the Quad housed more public school graduates, academics and feminists, and offered greater interaction between first-years and upperclass students due to their status as four-year Houses. One of today’s key Allston players was one of those “unusual” initial male immigrants to the Quad—Dean Gross. “In the early years, people chose the Quad because it was quiet,” he says. “I liked that at the end of the day, I walked home to a residential neighborhood.”

As the gender ratio evened out in the Quad, residents, particularly male athletes who had been relocated to the Quad to rectify the gender imbalance in the early 1970s , demanded equality with the river houses. Once-a-day shuttle service was introduced in 1973, and the QRAC was built in 1978. But the Quad’s heyday as a bohemian haven ended with the controversial Fox Plan of 1977, which introduced a ‘limited choice’ system by which students could list their top three residential choices. Then-Dean of the College John B. Fox ’59 instituted the plan in order to minimize the random selection that sent students to unpopular Houses, citing the unpopularity of the Quad dormitories. Fox also initiated major improvements of the Quad residences to rectify the disparity in college experiences from House to House. The plan incited an outcry from administrators, staff, and students, especially in the Quad. Roberts, who resigned as a tutor because of the plan, says that opposition there was nearly unanimous. The Crimson, citing the “Quad point of view,” editorialized against the plan, defending the status quo for offering “an alternative for many to the overbearing, ‘old Harvard’ atmosphere of the River Houses.”

But the plan passed the Faculty, moving all freshmen to the Yard and pushing the Quad toward a much more visible form of segregation. The Quad’s unpopularity made it ideal for self-imposed isolation. “[The Quad] became students of color,” Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 says. “Students could put four unordered choices, and the sense was that if they wanted to live together somewhere, they could all put the Quad and end up there.” Sure enough, by 1996, the percentage of black students in the Quad Houses was five times as large as in the MAC Quad “White Triangle” of Eliot, Winthrop and Kirkland—24.6 percent versus 4.8 percent. The racial disparity between the Quad and river was practically unthinkable, but real, and it left administrators little choice but to randomize housing to correct it. As then-Administrative Dean of FAS Nancy Maull and computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote with in a 1994 report, “our Committee is troubled that pronounced variations in the populations of the various Houses—with some Houses still having disproportionate numbers of varsity athletes, or members of certain ethnic or religious groups—result in those students being, as one person put it, ‘educationally deprived’ because they have contact only with a somewhat homogeneous group of their peers.”

The Dean of the College at the time, L. Fred Jewett ’57, instituted the change in housing assignments from a system where blocking groups could rank their top four House choices to a completely randomized selection process. According to Dingman, randomization solved the chronic problem of self-segregation at the Quad. “It used to be about have and have-nots,” he says. “Now I think the Quad Houses are truly representative of the student body as a whole.”

Just because the Quad no longer isolates a particular constituency doesn’t mean it doesn’t isolate at all. While it may be a small-scale representation of the College as a whole, with the same ratio of varsity sports players, artists and pre-med students as the other houses. The Quad still splits the campus. And while Harvard’s Houses divided have managed to stand, the distance between them makes it more difficult for Quad students to attend classes and participate in extracurriculars, strains many first-year friendships to the breaking point, complicates Harvard’s relationships with its Cambridge neighbors, and hinders the intellectual and personal cross-polination that results from a single, large community. Students know it. “When students are lotteried to the Quad, some of them are not entirely happy at the beginning,” said former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. “They feel they’ve been banished.”

One major concern not addressed by the administration is truancy. Some Quad residents say they go to fewer classes because the annoyance of the trek outweighs lecture, particularly on cold winter mornings. “Someone should do a survey—classes are definitely way less attended by Quad students. People around here chill out more—that’s what makes it fun,” says Daniel H. Lassiter ’04. The same obstacles affect students with major extracurricular commitments. “The Quad is just too inconvenient,” says Ivona Josipovic ’06, who, after just five weeks in the Quad, has decided to transfer to the river as soon as possible. “I’m heavily involved in extracurriculars. When my schedule is particularly crazy, I sometimes sleep over [at the river].”

Given the distance from final clubs and popular Square bars, Quad denizens say they feel pressure to throw big parties each weekend. “This is where work ends and beer begins,” reads a sign on the wall of the “Meatlocker,” the Pfoho suite famed for its large rooms—and larger parties.

The raucousness of Saturday night soirees in the Quad this year has caused tensions with locals in the Quad’s largely residential neighborhood. Dingman has planned a meeting between the House Masters and the neighbors in the upcoming weeks. “There have been some complaints, filtered through the Dean’s office,” says Cabot House Master Jay M. Harris. “I spoke to a resident on the street today, and it has been better, as midterms and projects come and the weather gets colder. It seems as though a lot of the issues around the Quad are first-years coming from the Yard. I have heard claims about freshman running from party to party in Pfoho and Cabot, and obviously that is an issue. For freshmen, this is their first chance to go out and drink, and they are looking elsewhere because they are under tight control in the Yard.”

Regardless of how happy seniors say they are at the Quad, few dispute that it makes first-year friendships difficult to maintain, and leads to social self-segregation even in its randomized form. Many Quad residents don’t mind the trek. Likened by some to “moving to the suburbs,” the Quad’s distance forces its inhabitants to get to know each other, according to Currier House Committee President Lacey R. Whitmire ’05, and encourages a tight-knit, somewhat insular community. “To us, it’s weird that people live at the river. Being here is normal,” says Lassiter. “With some teams going up there and being charismatic, people want to transfer to the Quad,” Dingman says. “It happens more than you think.”

According to Knowles, as a “kind of compensation for being so far away from the Yard,” the quality of housing is far higher in the Quad than the river: 39 percent of students living in the quad are in singles, he says, while only 15 percent of all students do. The spacious accommodations are yet another impetus for Quad students to stay removed from the rest of campus, and to throw larger parties.

“My entire social circle, besides my roommates, lives in the Quad,” says Lindsay E. Crouse ’06, a Kirkland House resident. “And as much as I love riding my bike to the Quad though Cambridge Common at 1 a.m., to see my friends, my team and my boyfriend. I really wish the Quad didn’t exist. I have a feeling that when it gets cold, this might prove difficult.”

Finally, the Quad circumscribes the benefits of randomization by limiting interaction between river and Quad dwellers. Despite the improved shuttle service and the spread of student activity, the inconvenience of commuting still presents a barrier to movement between the College’s two housing hubs. The Quad has little attraction for the students who call the river home. “There would have to be some serious incentives to get me to go up to the Quad,” says Alexis C. Madrigal ’04. “It’s just not worth it.”

For now, the administration has stated its commitment to “revitalizing” life at the Quad by bringing more student services up Garden Street. “We have the opportunity to drastically enhance the life of the Quad,” Gross said in an interview last month. “There could be a new exercise room, a late night social space, a place to get food.” The initiative that has support from Quad House masters. “The Quad is away from the center of campus,” says Harris. “Many of us feel could bring a little more vitality to the Quad. Even though people complain about the MAC, the QRAC cannot compare. Hilles cannot compare to Lamont. I would love to see a food/music type place, a jazz coffeehouse in Hilles, to make it a center for student activity, or life.”

When University Hall unveiled a plan last month to convert Hilles from a library to student social space, administrators said they hoped the change would lure more river students to the Quad. But given the pressures College leaders were under, it’s hard to say whether the goal of integrating the Quad with the river was a cause of the renovations to Hilles and the QRAC or a justification.

The transformation of Hilles into long-sought social space was hardly a University Hall directive. The Harvard College Library could no longer afford to retain the space, and the College simply inherited it by default. Conversely, the impetus for the QRAC renovations was not too much space but too little. The non-negotiable loss of the Reimann center in 2005 would have left the College’s dancers without a home, and Gross settled on the renovation of part of the QRAC as the most expedient way to solve the impending crunch. But this change too was a response to an immediate crisis, rather than a long-term vision of putting important student services north of Shepard Street. And the reshufflings that will accompany the Hilles renovation—moving the music library to Lamont and parts of the Social Studies offices to an undetermined location on the river—suggest a countervailing push toward Quad self-sufficiency.

The 83 percent of undergraduates who don’t live in the Quad should be thankful that Gross is not forcing them to take plans for integration too seriously. The Quad is a problem because it is a 15-minute walk from most destinations on campus. If the administration put important College-wide resources there, then everyone would be forced to deal with the inconvenience that is now limited to Quadlings. “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 says of the plans to renovate Hilles, drawing a comparison to Loker Commons, which Gross has called a “huge failure.” Chopra continues, “The Quad is never going to be the Harvard Square, and I think we have to recognize that inherent limitation. It lacks the critical mass to make the space efficient.” Integrating the Quad wouldn’t make it any less of a problem—on the contrary, it would make it a problem for most students, instead of just a minority.

This week, Summers announced that he is considering both building new undergraduate housing in Allston and converting the Quad to graduate student housing. The President has suggested that relocating undergraduate housing to Allston would help to foster a new community in Allston, as well as allow for increased enrollment and more breathing room for undergrads.

So far, the plan has met with mixed reviews from the Faculty. But if new Houses are built across the river while the Quad still accommodates undergraduates, students may be scattered too widely. “I’m not sure that our students should be dispersed among three different centers, which is what they’d be if some new undergraduate Houses were built in Allston and we maintained the Quad,” says Knowles. “I hope we can have just two main loci for the undergraduate Houses, wherever those are.”

“Houses in those three locations would spread things out a lot,” Currier House Master Joseph L. Badaracco says. “Having Houses by the athletic fields is quite imaginative, but these Houses are not just like checkers on a board: it is a really expensive undertaking, and there would need to be a real game to motivate the University to spend all that money and cause all that disruption.”

The College has three options to remedy the segregation of the Quad. The short-term plan is to preserve the Quad and pursue integration. However, this stopgap approach conflicts financially and geographically with the two longer-term strategies. One of Summers’ proposals is to eliminate the Quad and move all undergraduate housing to the river; alternately, the buildings vacated by FAS sciences and the education school could be converted to undergraduate residences close to the Yard. Summers says reconfiguring that space for Houses would be challenging. “It doesn’t appear that there are feasible locations for new Houses in the Harvard Yard environs,” he says. “Any possible new Houses would be along the river. Just where along the river is not something we know yet.”

“Just where along the river,” however, has substantial implications for whether the prospective ‘Allston Houses’ could become just another Quad. Anywhere farther along the river than the athletic fields directly across the JFK Bridge would actually be more distant from the John Harvard statue than the Quad is now. Admittedly, several blocks of residential Cambridge separate the Quad from the Yard, while the Allston development could create a contiguous campus hugging the Charles and relocating Harvard’s geographic focus. But the distance to classes would remain problematic. While the obstacles to reincarnating the Education School and science facilities as Houses might be substantial, the advantages of providing housing so close to the Yard cannot be underestimated.

But while the overall benefits of a united campus clearly outweigh the advantages some residents see in the Quad lifestyle, it’s easy to lose sight of them in the Allston shuffle. “To me, the River is kind of hectic and a little impersonal,” says Doug G. Mulliken ’05, also a Crimson editor, who just transferred from Quincy House to Currier. “The Quad is more like a college atmosphere.” If the Quad stops housing undergraduates, it will be the final step in Harvard’s fifty-year-old project to homogenize College residential life. And as evidenced by the uproars over the Fox Plan and randomization, there is something to be said for distinct, close communities within the larger whole. The Quad does offer a unique outlook and atmosphere, and while its loss may be justified, it would be a loss nonetheless.

Charles Eliot accepted responsibility for “X College” only after painstaking negotiations, presumably concerned about the perils of overseeing a divided campus. Today, nearly half of Harvard students are women. But by planning to unite the College’s physical space for the first time in a century, Larry Summers seems to be turning back the clock.