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A Student Center for Students

Harvard must not repeat the mistakes it made with Loker Commons

By The Crimson Staff

The story of Loker Commons is a real tragedy. In 1992, Harvard received a $7 million donation from philanthropist Katherine Bogdonovich Loker to transform the basement of Memorial Hall into a student center. The plans were explicitly designed to fill a void in student social life—originally calling for a late-night coffee house as well as refreshment areas “conducive to socializing.” Loker Commons was part of a massive synchronized renovation on campus—turning what was once the Freshman Union into the humanities complex now known as the Barker Center while simultaneously creating a new first-year dining hall in Memorial Hall and adding a student center in its basement.

It is especially telling that Harvard succeeded in providing the Faculty with a dynamic, beautiful academic building in the Barker Center, but failed so miserably when it came to Loker Commons. Through poor consultation with students and wrong-headed decisions about how to salvage the space, the University ended up giving students an ugly, poorly utilized embarrassment. While many colleges have built impressive student centers to dramatically enhance campus life and attract new students, for too long Harvard has managed to use its prestigious name to get away with below-par campus offerings. As the competition between universities for the top students inevitably increases, Harvard will soon be forced to reconcile its long inadequate approach to student life. A new student center in Allston, which has begun to seem increasingly possible, is by no means a gift to the student body; it is a requirement to bring the Harvard campus in line with 21st century standards of college life.

On Thursday, the Undergraduate Council’s Committee on House Life met with the Assistant Director of Harvard Planning and Allston Initiative to discuss the possibility of a student center in Allston. We wanted to offer our own thoughts on the subject.

Why Loker Went Wrong

When the idea for Loker Commons was first announced, The Crimson Staff was enthusiastic. Undergraduates had been decrying the poor state of Harvard social life for years. Even then-Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III had admitted to “a weakness in social life,” and Loker seemed like the logical antidote. The University spent a total of $25 million to build it.

Over a decade later, little has changed. Improving social life on campus is still a major issue among candidates for the Undergraduate Council presidency, and it has of late become a significant priority in University Hall as well. Loker Commons failed because the administration did a truly reprehensible job of eliciting student opinions about what was needed in a student center. A paternalistic “we know best” attitude squandered Katherine Bogdonovich Loker’s donation, and we worry that not enough has changed in Harvard’s decision-making practices and planning procedures to prevent this mistake from being repeated.

It was this mindset that initially led Harvard to design Loker so radically different from student needs. The administration made its first mistake when it decided to cater Loker’s dining options to the larger University and Cambridge community—instead of tailoring offerings primarily to undergraduates. At one time, Harvard thought it could make restaurants in Loker profitable by marketing them to non-undergraduates, but this decision, which undermined the student-centric purpose of the space, quickly led Loker to be (briefly) overrun by outsiders, and the College soon made Loker into an undergraduate only locale. But the restaurants, which were neither particularly good in the first place nor appealing to students, soon failed without outside customers. Since then, the space has seen numerous iterations of dining choices flop. This year, Harvard gave up on its desire to offer alternatives to dining hall fare and renovated the serving area to install a more permanent “fly-by” serving area instead. Calls for late night fast food options like Taco Bell and McDonalds—what students overwhelmingly wanted and still want—were routinely (and still) ignored.

For a time, Loker’s one success was its late-night coffee house. It briefly hosted numerous performance events—a tradition recently revived—but because so few students besides first-years regularly even think to frequent Loker, these performances do not attract much attention. In an editorial in March 1996, the Crimson Staff wrote, “We only hope the performances become more frequent as time goes by, in order to make Loker’s appeal even greater. Then we can really call it a student center.” Sadly, the opposite happened. Loker’s poor proximity to the Houses made it destined to serve miserably as a setting to unite the student body.

Furthermore, the space so inadequately took student opinions and future needs into consideration that the original Loker Commons was designed with just a handful of computers, and no televisions or couches (those were added in 1997). Even the decor of the basement seems to have been designed as an artistic-cultural statement with students as an afterthought. The pixilated light-emitting diode display was as much an affront to students in 1996 as it is today. The makeshift, eclectic Loker of today, with its noisy jukebox, open iMac work stations and haphazardly placed televisions, is amazingly still utilized as a study and meeting space—not because it serves these purposes well—but, rather, simply because there is no adequate alternative space.

Shortly after Loker debuted, its sad future had become increasingly clear. In 1997, students sought to revive the space and give the rest of the campus a reason to visit it. They called for installing a pub (which council presidential candidate Teo Nicolais ’06 has campaigned on this year). Last time around, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 nixed the idea for a bar out of a misplaced desire to preserve an alcohol-free alternative social space on campus—a fine priority in its own right, but a decision that sealed Loker’s demise. Last November, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 told The Crimson regarding Loker’s story, “All one can say, in one word, is it failed.”

The Promise of Allston

Harvard’s expansion into Allston has ignited the possibility for a truly inspiring new building to fit the new and modern needs of the College. Loker Commons was meant to be a small and unimposing student center, which handicapped its viability. Phillip Parsons, then director of planning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was especially cognizant of the desire not to undermine House life—the perennial complaint about the notion of an inter-House social center. But since the advent of randomization in blocking, College social life no longer revolves around the Houses. And because of the College’s shortage of rehearsal, practice and meeting spaces, House spaces are no longer capable of accommodating their own communities. A student center today is needed in order to save House life, to preserve House spaces for House-related events and groups.

A central location for student group offices and meeting spaces also has the potential to form new bonds between clubs and markedly improve coordination between like-minded organizations. Proponents of such causes as a women’s center argue that the benefits of situating meeting and office space in close quarters are immeasurable. In addition, Harvard is in dire need of rehearsal, art studio and exhibition space for academic and non-academic use. Providing these spaces in a centralized complex will aid students in building community through student-group cross-pollination.

Students are in desperate need of 24-hour study space. Despite the fact that students today keep much later hours than they used to, the College’s facilities operate on an antiquated schedule. Unlike many colleges with all-night library access, Lamont Library closes, on its latest nights, 45 minutes after midnight. A student center in Allston must have a 24-hour reserves desk and a place to study at any hour of the night. M.I.T.’s student center includes an all-night coffee shop; why should Harvard offer anything less?

The College also needs new social spaces besides students’ cramped dorm rooms and the Final Clubs. A pub, which some universities include in their student centers, would be a great addition for campus socialization—as would social spaces for large club-sponsored formals and parties. Other amenities such as late night fast food, alternative performance venues (besides the prohibitively expensive Sanders Theater) and a movie theater that shows discounted second run films (also providing student groups with a place to feature regular screenings) could all be wonderful additions to a student center. Some schools have gone so far as to include bowling alleys, arcades, water slides and fitness centers, and we would certainly welcome any or all of the above.

Why Not in Pieces?

Some skeptics of the student center have asked why all these items necessarily need to be housed in an ambitious new multimillion dollar complex? Why can’t they be placed in separate locations wherever there is space in Allston—in the new Houses or by retrofitting existing buildings. They could be. But by putting these components together, the product is incalculably greater than the sum of its parts. Student life today at Harvard is terribly fragmented; a centrally located student center situated on the river between all the future undergraduate Houses has the potential to unite the campus.

Doing so would also amount to a much-needed statement from the University that undergraduate life is a priority. Today, many students are distrustful of an administration they see as only interested in providing education as economically efficiently as possible. They are tired of being viewed as customers in a machine—especially when Harvard’s prestigious name allows it to skimp on services relative to its counterparts. Students are supposed to call Harvard home, and the College is supposed to be central to the University’s mission. For too long, Harvard has defaulted on that responsibility for the simple reason that economics allow Harvard to get away with it.

There are some who believe that if there is student demand for a service, the market economy will provide. They argue that if the administration were to construct a student center, it might inevitably make the same mistakes it did with Loker Commons. Instead, they say, as long as Harvard brings students to Allston, the city and the market will do the rest. But as Cambridge’s puritanical licensing restrictions have shown—not to mention Harvard Square’s prohibitively expensive rent—the presence of students does not automatically guarantee the presence of social amenities. Harvard must plan for Allston in a way that encourages establishments such as groceries and late-night dining and that picks up the slack when circumstances introduce market failures, often invisible to administrators, that diminish the quality of life for Harvard students.

If none of these myriad reasons satisfy the stubborn critics in University Hall, we offer, finally, the simple argument that providing these various components in a centralized building is the most economically efficient way to ensure they get maximal use. Students are far more likely to attend student group events and utilize study and social spaces if they pass by these spaces and offices in their daily routine. Harvard students are notoriously busy; a centralized place to ground the essence of the College’s effervescent extracurricular life is imperative. Moreover, an imaginatively designed student center—that actually excites students by providing what they want and even what they don’t yet realize they want—has the potential to be the kind of place that draws students there by the nature of the building alone. Architecture can bring students together in a way that is deeply needed right now in the College’s history. Other schools have such buildings; Harvard does not.

The lessons of Loker Commons are undeniable. Just months after the Commons opened, students stopped showing up. Administrators began to scale back unprofitable features and restaurants. The cut backs produced an unfortunate, though predictable, vicious cycle, and today the University is understandably nervous about building another over-priced and underutilized basement.

Loker demonstrates that building a successful student center requires real leadership from the Harvard administration. It cannot be a watered-down compromise, and it cannot be planned according to a few administrators’ conceptions of what students want. If Harvard College thinks it can continue to coast by on its name alone—without providing the sort of top notch facilities and social life consumers of higher education have come to expect—it is surely mistaken. The College’s future is by no means certain, and the laws of demand and supply will not remain in Harvard’s favor forever.

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