Unfinished Business

This year’s most pressing student life issues are here to stay

Last week, my brother and I had lunch with twins from our hometown who had recently been accepted to Harvard but had other offers on the table. For an hour and a half we sat in Quincy dining hall giving them the good, the bad, and the ugly about life at Harvard. The need to distill four years into a conversation over tater-tots was a refreshingly introspective one. It allowed me to recognize how the institution has changed over the past four years, which reminded me that places like Harvard are in constant flux. They go through cycles of personalities, attitudes, and priorities. So, this column, my final one, will serve as the epilogue to that discussion in Quincy dining hall, a forward-looking stab at what I believe will be the most pressing student life issues in the coming four years.

The Office of Student Life has followed a clear trajectory since the 2009 departure of Dean of Student Life Judith Kidd. Limiting the College’s liability seems to be the ultimate goal in student life policing (programming is too generous of a term), even when it comes at the expense of common sense, fun, and fairness. The decision to eliminate hard alcohol at off-campus house formals, for example, is as paternalistic as it is misguided and as infantilizing as it is ineffective. When did it become the OSL’s job to monitor the type of alcohol consumed by of-age students at an event they paid as much as $30 to attend? The OSL seems increasingly unable to recognize that each move to limit drinking in public, monitored settings where students are interacting with tutors, faculty, and House staff, pushes students further into the recesses of their rooms and off-campus locations where pre-gaming and dangerous drinking decisions become the norm. Tensions will escalate between attempts to standardize alcohol policies across campus and students’ abilities to make their own decisions.

Next, look at the unfair and uneven application of the College’s amnesty policy to extracurricular groups and their leaders. The OSL simultaneously relies on student groups to power social life—in their eyes, a preferable alternative to final clubs–and forces those groups’ leaders to live in constant fear of being put in front of the Administrative Board when an already intoxicated student ends up at UHS after passing through their parties. The amnesty policy becomes more about assigning blame than putting safety first. Blame is removed from students who are unable to make safe drinking decisions on their own behalf and transferred to extracurricular leaders, who spend every party obsessing over whether drunk students present are going to get them into trouble. This incentivizes exclusive and invite-based extracurricular parties that make group membership a prerequisite for attendance, significantly limiting students’ options. I foresee a growing inability of extracurricular groups to serve as social hubs because the OSL’s conflicting desire to have student group leaders simultaneously create social life and accept all liability for the many students who, for better or worse, do choose to drink.

A lot of talk across campus centers on the prominence of purely social organizations, such as final clubs, at Harvard. But these discussions overlook the increasing intersection of social life and service, ethnic, or pre-professional groups. From PBHA programs to publications, involvement often entails parties, pre-games, and happy hours. While mixing work and play is not necessarily a problem, the OSL will face challenges in policing a growing number of extracurricular groups that use evening events to build community and camaraderie. Still, these groups will not meet demand for social life on campus: I predict a growing sorority network that will become more difficult for the Administration to recognize. I also hope for increased collaboration in the form of standardized rush policies between the male fraternities that, this year, received a record number of rushes.

Yet these observations, which seem to be by now widely acknowledged by everyone except the out-of-touch OSL, point to a broader shift in campus atmosphere that is cause for concern. An atmosphere of negativity, foreboding, and pessimism surrounds social life at Harvard. There is a pervasive feeling that the demands of students fall on deaf ears. Traditions are dismantled and choices limited, but we are given nothing in return, no replacements, and no alternatives. Among student group leaders there is a certain degree anxiety, among final club members a significant amount of defensiveness, and, among others, a palpable sense of frustration.


Still, when my brother and I spoke to those prospective students, I could not help trying to sell Harvard. Despite these warnings of future conflict, I maintain a strong conviction that this school can be great. In August, both twins will move into the Yard. Their Harvard experience will be different than mine has been, in large part because their Harvard will be four years down the road when they start. I simply hope that this column and the five that have preceded it serve as much-needed primers in realities of student life for the Administration, and add a student voice to the debate on important decisions. Only when these issues remain in the community discourse, when students are willing to advocate for preservation of the things that made their Harvard careers great, can the University change for the better.

Tobias S. Stein ’11 is an urban studies concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.