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Eliot House Sucks

And other lessons from the Ben Folds concert

By Hannah E. S. wright

On Sunday night, I realized a newfound love for tire swings. Flying high above the Tercentenary Theatre, I could see hundreds of undergrads reclining on Widener’s steps and picnicking on blankets spread across the turquoise dirt.

I usually use this space to vent whatever frustration happens to be bouncing around my brain—to paraphrase Anna Quindlen, I try to walk the fine line between being pointedly eloquent and being a pain in the butt. But there are times when even a curmudgeon like myself should give credit where credit is due, and so I find myself devoting my 800 words to asking not what went wrong but what went right.

After three years durring which the Undergraduate Council’s (UC) attempts at social programming have been decidedly hit-or-miss, a College-wide social event organized by the Dean’s Office has largely succeeded for the second time in as many tries (the Harvard State Fair being the first). With the elections for the newly-created College Events Board scheduled to begin any day now, the challenge for future social planners will be making sure this pattern continues.

The first step will be identifying what has made these events such a success. Let’s start with the basics: the weather was great, and they had all the food. The former is beyond our control, and the latter should be obvious. Nonetheless, proper planning can guarantee that both are accounted for (and last year’s abysmal Afterparty proves that a rain location should be near the top of any logistical to-do list).

The more complicated lesson to be learned from this year’s success, however, is that attempts to build undergraduate community should start and end with undergraduates.

This year’s transition from the University-wide Springfest to an undergrad-only Yardfest shifted the focus from six-year-olds to college students. And by holding the event in the Yard, organizers could allow undergrads to interact freely without serious concern that unruly behavior would trouble Cambridge or Allston residents. The result was an afternoon that included alcohol at UC-sponsored House stein clubs—incidentally, a clever strategy to tie House life to College community—but didn’t require a contingent of supervising cops à la Harvard-Yale. Next year’s organizers might consider adding a Pub Night-style bar that sells beer to of-age upperclassmen (one common complaint was that the afternoon’s buzz was long gone by 8 p.m.), but only provided the increased supervision doesn’t ruin the event’s laudable informality.

A second important factor in Yardfest’s popularity was that it was free, a must if you’re really going to have a little something for everyone. Undergrads could come and go as they pleased with no financial consequences, which meant that avid Ben Folds fans could close in on the stage and relatively disinterested students could still attend, enjoying the concert as background music while they caught up with friends over dinner.

Finally, the Harvard Concert Commission picked the right sort of artist. For all the complaining that we don’t get big names compared to peer institutions—Folds played Yale too, but as the opening act—we’re not really here because Harvard offers the best concerts. College-wide social events should build College community, and while you will never find an artist that everyone loves, you can pick acts who are enthusiastically college-friendly. Folds was selected in part because his tour schedule included a large number of other college venues and informal polling (perhaps something to be better systematized in the future) suggested he would be well-received.

As it turned out, Folds more than met expectations, interacting with the audience, jumping on top of the piano to lead crowd choral participation, and then, after playing for longer than scheduled, even returning for an encore. Contrast this to the (also free) Busta Rhymes show two years back when Busta showed up so late that a decent portion of the crowd had already left for home and then walked off the stage as soon as his 90 minutes were up.

So what does this tell us about the future? First, the College Events Board needs the financial and logistical resources to put something like this together—Yardfest was funded by the President’s Office, and a number of the most significant bureaucratic hassles (reserving the Yard, for example) were handled by College administrators. For its first year, the Board has been promised $200,000 from the College, but it’s unlikely such generosity will continue. Though fears of another termbill increase loom, the most important thing to remember is that any solution must allows planning to begin one, or even two semesters before events are scheduled to take place. In addition, the Board will need structured relationships with both future Campus Life Fellows and other institutional resources, like the Office of Student Activities.

Perhaps most importantly, this year’s success has bolstered the hope that successful College-wide social programming is possible. The College Events Board is inheriting great expectations, but a little bit of reflection should provide the foundations upon which an even better College community can be built.

Hannah E. S. Wright ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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