At Harvard, Social Space Woes Have a Long Past

Part II in a Three Part Series

Despite the projects of the last decade designed to increase available social space—including the opening of Lamont Café and the Cambridge Queen’s Head pub in the basement of Memorial Hall—these complaints are familiar to current Harvard students.

“If you go down to the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center, every table is taken up by students with their laptops,” former Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 says. “I still think it’s a pretty bad situation.”



For many Harvard students, an all-encompassing student center has been seen as the ultimate solution to the space problem. As a 1988 Crimson editorial succinctly put it, “students at Harvard have been asking for a Student Center since the end of World War II.”

Even while the Freshman Union was a functioning space for students in the Yard, the desire for more space pushed student leaders to petition for a student center.


As early as 1958, a different social need—interaction between Harvard men and Radcliffe women—pushed students to ask for a student center. In 1964, the two student governments asked the University to create an undergraduate student center in Lehman Hall—now home to a center for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences contemplated the transition from the Freshman Union to the Barker Center in the late 1980s, student leaders feared that the change would hurt student life.

With the loss of meeting rooms in the Union and some group spaces already in the basement of Memorial Hall, campus leaders worried about the future of undergraduate space in the Yard, leading to the creation of the group Students Concerned for a Student Center.

“I remember noticing the plans for renovation of the basement of Mem Hall and that it involved elimination of a lot of space,” Jeffrey A. Camp ’89, who was a co-chair of SCSC, recalls. “The undergraduates’ interests didn’t feel like they were strongly emphasized.”

Ten years later in the late 90s, Camp’s efforts were renewed by the Undergraduate Council.

In a report to the College community, the Council’s Student Center Working Group outlined their vision for the center—a building with student group offices, meeting rooms, performing arts venues, and a mall area with informal social spaces. The UC even allocated $25,000 in 1999 toward the creation of a student center as a symbolic gift, meant to show the administration the gravity of the cause, according to Cohen. By the end of the school year, the money was folded back into the UC budget and the Council shifted its efforts toward looking for spaces in existing buildings.

Over the past decade, the Council has periodically taken up the cause again, and promises of better advocacy for the creation of a student center have been a perennial presence on the platforms of UC candidates. Locations floated for the building have included Lowell Lecture Hall, the Inn at Harvard, Boylston Hall, and a lot at 90 Mt. Auburn St. that was eventually taken over by the Harvard University Library.

Most recently, a 2009 UC Social Space Task Force attempted to raise funds to purchase a space in the Square, most seriously considering a building at 45 Mt. Auburn St., the current location of the Democracy Center. After a summer fundraising campaign turned up only $700, the Council spun off the Student Community Center Foundation. By the end of last school year, this most recent cry for a student center had lost momentum.


In the past, the College maintained that the space needs identified by Cohen and other student leaders can be solved by creating a number of smaller social spaces.


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