The Storm in Canaday Basement

A women’s center in the Yard will undermine the fair apportioning of student space

Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06 has it right. A few weeks ago, the former Student Affairs Committee chair of the Undergraduate Council posted a long e-mail in part replying to my arguments about why a women’s center wasn’t right for Harvard College. I had argued that a women’s center was a bad idea on the grounds that it was, in part, driving the impending renovation of the Yard dorm basements (a very bad idea in itself), and because the idea of a women’s center in itself was either demeaning or useless.

I still maintain that I’m right on the first charge. With the renovation of Hilles starting soon, student groups have more than 300 percent more space to look forward to in the near future—space that will be apportioned based on need via a committee system. Harvard administrators, unfortunately, are citing this increase in space to justify the renovation of Yard dorm basements into space for freshmen social events (located conveniently in dank basements with 8-foot ceilings) and for their own, most favored organizations. One of these favorites is—you guessed it—a women’s center.

Contrary to popular belief, the Harvard College women’s center, slated as of now to open in fall 2006, is neither going to be a massive, student center-esque edifice nor a den of Planned Parenthood and sexual experimentation. The women’s center as currently envisioned contains little more than office and meeting space. These offices would house a director of the center, whose job it would be to coordinate the resources and the support available to women on campus. The meeting spaces could be used by women’s groups and, possibly, any other student group that is buddy-buddy enough with the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS).

This is all to say that the current conception of a women’s center is neither illogical nor offensive. Calling it a “women’s” center may be a stretch, as the idea is championed by a small minority of women at Harvard. But if it makes the aforementioned RUS members happy, then so be it.

Here’s where Chadbourne’s clarification comes in. The real issue is location, location, location. He wrote:

“If (please note the word IF) the Dorm basements in the Yard were to be emptied of all of the clubs that currently have offices there and are occupied instead by only freshman social space, the Foundation, this women’s center, the BGLTSA Resource Center, [and] prayer space for religious groups that need a Yard-centric location... what message does that send?”

To clarify, Chadbourne was referencing the Harvard Foundation for Race and Intercultural Relations, and the Bi-sexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Supporters Alliance resource center. Chadbourne’s question was rhetorical, so he didn’t answer it. I’ll give it a shot.

If the Yard basements were reserved mainly for targeted support centers, then that would send the message that Harvard is far more willing to recognize the things that make us different rather than the activities we share together. By granting these specialized organizations plum Yard space, Harvard would effectively privilege these organizations over the hundreds of student groups that achieve equally laudable goals every day.

I sometimes wonder which organization has a bigger impact on improving race relations at Harvard: the Foundation, or the Harvard Aids Coalition (HAC). On one hand, the Foundation gives out about 130 grants every year, of varying size, for events like an intercollegiate conference for Latino students. On the other, HAC brings together 50-plus students of all colors to work for the same cause. The Foundation celebrates difference. The HAC and similar organizations transcend it.

None of this is meant to demean the mission of the Foundation, nor the soon-to-be women’s center. Like I said before, I think they have their place. The key fact, though, is that a women’s center, the BGLTSA resource center, and the Foundation are not inherently more deserving of desirable student space than any other student group. Nor are they any more deserving of credit for increased integration and tolerance on campus than any other student group. Whether or not they get Yard space in the upcoming lottery should be determined by the number of students who will use their resources, and by the importance of their being in the Yard. As the Foundation’s (and the women’s center’s) only location-sensitive resource is its copier, I suggest that a common copier be made available in Thayer basement, and that the Foundation and any new women’s center be subject to the same scrutiny as any other club aspiring to own Yard space.

The reason this isn’t happening is because having a Foundation, a women’s center, and a BGLTSA resource center in the Yard sounds really good in brochures, on guided tours, and in the minds of administrators far removed from student life. These administrators think that if internationals, gays, Asians, Latinos, blacks, and women get their own insular support groups and dedicated Yard offices, then they will be happy. Maybe “they” will be. But the Harvard students whose common activities, shared academic interests, and co-mingled life goals matter more to them than their races, creeds, and sexual orientations will outnumber them 100 to one.

Alex Slack ’06 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.