Two Steps Forward...

Office space in Hilles won’t be enough, so Yard basement space must be preserved

In 1999, former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III aroused student ire by preserving the Yard-based offices of the defunct Harvard Philosophy Review (which hadn’t published in two years) even though student space was scarce. Epps had made the Review’s offices a “priority.” In 2006, College administrators’ priorities on student space have changed. But they remain no less foolish.

After May 27 of this year, roughly 20 of Harvard’s most important student groups will leave their offices in Yard basements for newly-assigned space in the Quad. Following plans overseen by Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II, the College will then renovate the Yard basements to house its own hand-picked organizations and provide “social space” for freshmen.

This plan is rotten because it makes University Hall the sole arbiter of Yard space. As arbiter, the administration has prioritized space for non-student run organizations that focus on racial, sexual, and gender differences between students. In place of student groups with diverse memberships, the Yard will soon host organizations that promote a politically-correct image of diversity at Harvard. Tour groups will eat it up. Yet this image is cynical and utterly incorrect. McLoughlin’s plan is forcing Harvard’s largest student groups out of the Yard in favor of, among other things, a new women’s center. The last meeting held on planning for the women’s center attracted all of five undergraduates. The International Relations Council, Harvard’s largest student group and an evictee, boasts a diverse membership numbering in the hundreds. Which is a more accurate window into diversity at Harvard?

Another piece of University Hall’s plan fell into place Friday, with the release of student group office assignments in the Quad’s Hilles building. These assignments provide even more conclusive evidence that McLoughlin’s plan must be scrapped. Office space in Hilles is simply inferior to office space in the Yard. And even with Hilles’ conversion, demand for office space is so great that preserving Yard space is necessary to house all student groups satisfactorily.

The assistant dean has consistently and unconvincingly argued that the office space in Hilles will be superior to Yard office space. There will be little privacy in Hilles offices that boast five-foot doors (to satisfy fire codes) and, improbably, translucent walls. The recently released office assignments show that many student groups will be sharing the office space between these light-permeable pieces of plastic. Some of the office assignments have an air of hilarity. From them, you can almost reconstruct what must have been agonizing discussions by the committee charged with divvying up Hilles’ offices. Perhaps Harvard’s World Model United Nations and International Business Club—which share the same office—will join forces to embezzle profits from a model Oil-for-Food program. The Society for Creative Anachronism shares space with Harvard’s anime and sci-fi clubs, a fact that is funny only when one learns that the Society is dedicated to re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century civilizations. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Battlestar Galactica, and the ancient Phoenicians—what a combo!

Maybe unforeseen synergies will indeed arise from these student space shotgun marriages. But many of them raise serious concerns. Harvard’s three competing satire magazines share the same offices, which will make it hard for the magazines to retain the independence of their operations. Cohabitation could help coordinate the efforts of Fuerza Latina, RAZA, and other Latino advocacy groups, which will all share a large, third floor office. It could also lead to intense political power struggles over the use of office space and influence over members with conflicting allegiances. Horses are known to become cannibalistic if forced to live at too high a density. We’ll see what happens with Harvard students.

Bottom line: Hilles office space is both inferior to and more inconveniently located than Yard space. Some evicted groups considered dipping into their endowments to buy space in the Square rather than move to the Quad. Hilles is a boon only to student groups who lacked space before. And even then, many formerly homeless student groups will now find themselves awkwardly grouped with competitors or complete strangers.

University Hall deserves credit for giving offices to these formerly homeless student groups. Over 90 student groups will be housed within Hilles’ translucent offices, the majority of which operated out of dorm rooms and Junior Common Rooms before. The space allocation committee, for all the criticism it will receive in the coming days, was a far better alternative to other approaches of days past. In the late 90s, the aforementioned Dean Epps considered each space request personally, leaving groups in the dark about the criteria he used. McLoughlin’s committee stuck to its guidelines, even if some of its decisions—like giving the Harvard Dems and Republicans the smallest offices available—seem ludicrous.

But McLoughlin’s successes cannot hide his conspicuous failure to fix the student group space problem at Harvard. The fact that the space allocation committee needed to group many student organizations together in the same Hilles offices only underscores the continued dearth of office space on campus. In these conditions, it seems only fair to preserve as much office space in the Yard as possible. At the very least, McLoughlin should cancel plans to add freshman “social space” to the basements of the Yard dorms. With the Loker Pub and the Lamont Café providing new, alternative hangouts, and with Hilles’s meeting space relieving pressure on Yard common rooms, freshmen already can look forward to more social space than ever before. If McLoughlin and University Hall won’t scrap their plan to handpick the organizations in Yard basements, the least they can do is keep open enough office space to fulfill the needs of those organizations that Hilles can’t serve adequately.

Alex Slack ’06, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.