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If April’s ill-fated “Mather Lather”—the foam party which attracted more than a thousand undergraduates to Mather House’s inadequately-sized dining hall—acts as any indication, Harvard students are looking for more than stimulating classes and enriching extracurricular activities.
Over the years, Harvard’s student body has changed drastically. With admissions more exclusive than ever, students are more intense and competitive than their predecessors. An increasing focus on academic achievement has created a student body that needs to find a more realistic balance between work and play. The most recent University Health Services survey revealed that about half the undergraduate population had experienced feelings of depression last academic year. During an Undergraduate Council meeting last fall where University President Lawrence H. Summers was pelted with questions about the social scene, he admitted, “I’ve heard enough concern about the social life issues to think that it’s a real concern.”
Adequate socialization is a requisite for a healthy undergraduate experience—and a key function for a university that has responsibility for its over-stressed student body.
Summers’ efforts to bring greater attention to family-friendly entertainment social experiences, such as Springfest and Its Movie Time at Harvard, are laudable. And funding support that the University provides to student-organized social times, such as Freshmen Week and Senior Week are a step in the right direction. But more needs to be done. The long-promised headliner concert at Bright Hockey Center has yet to materialize, party hours are still overly restrictive and the University can clearly do more to advocate later hours for popular Square eateries.
But space is the key concern. As Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 explained, students face a “1 a.m. choice” that occurs each weekend night when College-sanctioned room parties are shut down. With even Tommy’s House of Pizza forced to close its doors at 2 a.m. because of the draconian Cambridge Licensing Commission, most students find final clubs the only available option.
And yet the nature of final clubs—private, male-only, member-exclusive—precludes the University from having an official relationship with the groups. This lack of University oversight allows problems such as alcohol abuse and sexual assault to persist within some of the clubs, leaving the only post-2 a.m. partying option for students one that is lacking in accountability.
Dean of College Harry R. Lewis ’68 did met with alumni of several final clubs last summer to discuss patterns of behavior he viewed as dangerous. “Where I have perceived systemic dangers to Harvard students, I have not hesitated to point them out to the relevant authorities in an effort to prevent students from coming to harm. [T]here are serious risks associated with the Final Clubs—both the possibility of students getting hurt after getting drunk, and of women being sexually assaulted because of the combination of alcohol and atmosphere at the Clubs.”
While Lewis’ concern is valid, it omits half of the problem: the fact that a healthy social scene is not created simply by reducing abuse—it also demands the development of proactive and creative alternatives to those dangerous patterns. This latter concern continues to be ignored by the University, to the chagrin of many students.
But because of the lack of school-supported outlets for entertainment, more and more students have been turning to single-sex social groups—a trend that has led to a rebirth of fraternities and sororities on campus. With Kappa Kappa Gamma’s announcement last month that it will join Delta Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta to become Harvard’s third sorority in the fall, the demand for more social outlets is clear. And other all-female groups such as the Seneca, the Bee, the Isis and the newly-formed Sabliere Society are part of an effort to counter the male-only final club scene.
These unrecognized social groups and the events they provide to members and non-members also act as a buffer to surprisingly undergraduate-unfriendly Boston. Though Beantown teems with bars, pubs, music clubs and a population comprised of 25 percent college students, 21-plus age restrictions on entries into many bars and nightclubs, as well as exorbitant prices for food and entertainment make nightlife inaccessible to many a Harvard student. Which makes on-campus space all the more important.
With an urban city that is seemingly inaccessible to the underage, financially-burdened college student, many at Harvard are motivated to advocate for an on-campus student center—a student-driven facility with extended hours that could provide food, fun, entertainment and increased, meaningful social interactions. But the administration time and again has shown itself reluctant to pursue such a prospect. Says Associate Dean of College David P. Illingworth ’71, “I am not in favor of a student center, but I am in favor of more student space.”
Even if the University continues to adopt an anti-student-center stance, efforts to find other forms of student social outlets are still needed. Replicating the Quincy Grille—the popular, late night student-run House diner, which stays open until 4 a.m. on the weekends—is just one example. Another option is to financially support socially minded-students—the First Year Social Committee, with financial aid of the University, successfully planned a scavenger hunt, Red Sox game outing and the first-year formal. Regardless of the approach, administrators must genuinely commit themselves to improving students’ social experiences.
The needs of current Harvard students are drastically different than those of even 25 years ago. More than ever, students look to the University to provide safe, affordable and fun social spaces and experiences. The University can not simply turn its back on this important responsibility.
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