Maybe it was fate. Just as we seniors pack our belongings for good and reflect on our experiences at Harvard, a new dean will arrive in town promising to focus on improving undergraduate social life. As reported in The Crimson recently, incoming Dean of the College Dean Benedict H. Gross ’71 will take on the issues of social space and alcohol next year.
Let us be the first to say: Most excellent. It is crucial to make such social issues a priority, for it is easy to forget, in the midst of a prestigious academic institution that this is more than just an academic institution. For four years it is also the place we call home, a place where our emotional and social well-being must be looked at with equal, if not greater, significance than the academic work we do.
When we say “emotional well-being,” we mean, in part, creating an atmosphere where students can have a good time and meet other students in safe environments. The administration has long beleaguered final clubs and other social organizations for their excessive use of alcohol and for providing a generally unsafe place to party. Alcohol is, in the words of incoming Dean Gross, a “gigantic” problem. Yet the College has an opportunity, if it chooses to accept it, to create more safe and friendly party spaces so that students do not need to trek to the clubs.
Let’s first take a look at Harvard’s social menu. As a first-year, one is limited to clandestinely gathering in dorm rooms or searching aimlessly for upper-class parties. In the Houses, those students who by some stroke of luck have a (decent-sized) common room, who are 21, and who are willing to shell out the necessary dough can apply to have a party which will end at 1 a.m. sharp. As often as not, something will upset the delicate balance: it will be “too noisy,” or there will be difficulty removing people from the hallways, or hundreds of first-years will show up from the Yard because nothing else is going on.
The easy way out to address this situation for Gross and the administration to drag out the tired refrain: “We would like to give more power to the students, but you have not demonstrated that you are responsible, and we have the statistics on binge drinking to prove it.” Yet binge alcohol is the symptom of a larger problem: a campus without commitment to designing safe student party environments. It’s time to confront this problem head-on with creative thinking from both students and administrators.
The key is increasing the availability of social space without increasing the restrictions. Columbia’s new student center, for example, was built with a dance floor and DJ booth in the basement, so students could bounce to parties there. At Wellesley and Stanford, there are campus pubs where students can go and enjoy a pitcher of beers in the safety of their living space. Yale is far more active in encouraging their students to throw parties in dorm common spaces—and allowing the students to include alcohol, unlike many House-sponsored parties here. One very easy solution would be to allow Harvard parties that are properly cleared with House administrators to last past 1 a.m., providing students with a safer alternative to final clubs.
Students are craving some social outlet at this school. During our last four years here the alternative social clubs—including Greek organizations—have increased in membership while their presence on campus has expanded significantly. This should not give Gross cause for alarm. These new, less elitist organizations challenge the notion that social lives belong to the few and the privileged.
Ultimately, unless students have a stronger hand in the shaping of campus policy, success will elude the Harvard administration and satisfaction will elude Harvard students. We know what can work. A keg ban at Harvard-Yale does not work: students drink more hard liquor. Taking a tough-guy stance on alcohol in first-year dorms does not work: it sends them elsewhere. Blaming final clubs does not work: they are free to ignore the warnings.
Administrators from House Masters to the President must be willing to sit down and talk to students about how they can create safe partying spaces and more fun for all involved. Honest and open dialogue is the first step to meaning full change that recognizes students need for their own space—and sanity.
Kenyon S.M. Weaver ’03 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Margaret C. Anadu ’03 is a computer science concentrator in Cabot House. Krishnan N. Subrahmanian ’03 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.