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.