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The Changing Face of the Quad—And of the College

By Jessica R. Stannard-friel

The Harvard College administration’s recent announcements of their decisions to make major structural and usage changes in the Quad Recreational and Athletic Center (QRAC) and Hilles Library have been met with strong resistance from Quad students who fear that they will essentially lose these important resources.

The College Dean’s office paints a picture of a revamped QRAC, with a new dance space for the myriad of undergraduate dance troupes and replacements for the pitifully out-of-date exercise equipment, to benefit the broad interests of the Quad community. Across the street, these administrators envision a Hilles that houses a much reduced library collection, and that instead makes room for, among other things, student groups, which are currently crowded into far too few offices beneath the freshmen dorms. Quad students, on the other hand, fear that, while dancers gain crucial practice and performance space, the rest will lose important recreational and intra-mural sports space, along with access to texts and study space. We worry that we will now be making the walk down to the river for basketball and books, along with the current classes, extracurriculars, and social events. We would love to dream with the deans, but we fear a nightmare alternative. Which of these conceptions will be realized?

The QRAC and Hilles have the potential to be everything the deans envision, venues that would contribute greatly to the vitality of Quad life. Between the dance studio and the potential student group space in Hilles, we could see a marked increase in traffic flow to the Quad, and we who live here might finally be able to convince the River-dwellers that residential Cambridge boasts an attractive way of life. Many of the activities that send us trekking down to the River for the fourth time in a day might relocate closer to home, leading to a more equitable balance in College commuting patterns. More importantly, student groups will finally begin to gain the elbow room they so desperately need, and, of course, the many student dancers will be able to continue the strong program that they fought so fiercely and rightly to defend last spring.

But what of the concerns that quickly flooded Quad e-mail lists and shuttle gossip immediately after Friday’s announcements? Some of our concerns have been assuaged by further information that came after the vague initial press release. When we discovered that only one of the basketball courts would be converted into dance space, for instance, leaving another free for IM and recreational use, some of our panic died down. We are also beginning to contemplate the exciting possibilities that the changes could engender. While we look forward to such improvements, though, they have not blinded us to the costs that accompany them.

We worry about the library collections, for instance. As many have argued, the duplicate copies not only keep Quad residents from having to travel to Lamont or other libraries for their books, but also increase the likelihood of our finding the books when we actually get to the libraries, as many books are often highly in demand. Given the current inefficient use of space in Hilles, the collection could be preserved on a single floor perhaps, still freeing up space for student activities, and also requiring far less staff and maintenance, the initial concern of the Harvard College Library system that brought about the proposal in the first place.

While administrators may be interested in such student concerns as the preservation of the stacks, the full range of student needs and worries will only be addressed if students are integrally involved in the process of revamping both Hilles and the QRAC. Commendably, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and his office have already appointed a committee to address the creation of the dance studio. This committee will deal with the technical requirements of turning a basketball court into a dance space worthy of Harvard’s diverse and stellar dance program and rightly includes student dancers themselves. The Quad at large will be less impacted by such details as acoustics and flooring in the dance studio, and far more concerned with concepts such as the remodeling of the rest of the QRAC and the still-undefined revamping of the Hilles space. To that end, Gross has agreed to an Undergraduate Council proposal to create a second group, the Committee on Student Space in the Radcliffe Quadrangle, to explore the best use of Hilles and the QRAC, outside of the dance studio. Gross and the Council agree that such a committee should involve a strong student presence, alongside faculty members and administrators. Such a committee should represent the varied needs of Quad students, and Harvard students in general, with thought to student groups, HoCos, IM athletes and more.

Such a committee has the potential to remake the QRAC and Hilles into the best possible spaces to meet the needs of the Quad, the student body at large, and the administrative and budgetary constraints. In order to make this decision-making process a success, student members of the committee must engage the campus in critical thinking about these challenges, the faculty members must give serious thought to student input and the resulting report must be treated with the due weight by administrators in their planning.

The student reaction to the plans announced last Friday was telling. Students felt betrayed and kept in the dark. We were justifiably angry that such an important decision, that affects us so profoundly, was made without our input. While there is widespread agreement that the dance program needs and deserves space, the broader student body was not consulted about either this solution or the Hilles plans. This is a troublesome trend at Harvard in which students are left out of key decisions that affect them directly; from the reorganization of the College’s structure to the efforts aimed at curtailing shopping period, the concerns about administrators ignoring students are well-founded. However, Gross’s recent willingness, indeed eagerness, to include students on a Hilles-QRAC committee has the potential to set a precedent for decision-making at the College. Thus far in his tenure, Gross has showed a marked willingness to listen to students and meaningfully include our input in decision-making, a tendency that should be applauded—and continued in his future decision-making.

The Hilles-QRAC committee will serve as a test of how deeply the Dean’s Office’s commitment to student inclusion really runs, and hopefully these efforts will prove fruitful, as such a commitment will not only address student fears but also provide for the best possible use of the facilities. If both students and administrators hold up their ends of the bargain, this committee has not only the potential to create exciting and dynamic new facilities in the Quad, but also an equally exciting model for participatory decision-making in the future.

Jessica R. Stannard-Friel ’04, a social studies concentrator in Currier House, is vice-president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council. She is a member of the Committee on Student Space in the Radcliffe Quadrangle.

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