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Much ink has been spilled about the recently announced sanctions on unrecognized single-gender social organizations, but relatively little has been said by both students and the administration about what will become of the social scene. The administration has promised to “invest in social alternatives and increase its social programming budgets.” It is unclear, however, what the University believes will allow students to “reimagine their social options while reinforcing community values of inclusion.” The pledge to increase funding for the social scene is praiseworthy, but it must be done wisely if the College hopes to truly accomplish its missions of safety and inclusivity. Rather than focusing on efforts to create a social scene from the top down, the administration should give students the resources and the freedom to create an inclusive alternative to final clubs.
In her letter accepting the recommendations of College Dean Rakesh Khurana, University President Drew G. Faust criticized single gender organizations for “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion.” This sentiment was echoed by Elm Yard Resident Dean Jasmine M. Waddell in an interview, who defined “safety and inclusivity” as worthy goals for social spaces and pointed out issues related to dangerous drinking and the unsafe behavior resulting from drinking. Although safety and inclusivity are necessary goals, the College has pursued them while simultaneously limiting on-campus spaces available to students. For example, the College has chosen to replace in-suite common rooms with public ones throughout the more than $1 billion House renewal project.
While such moves appear to address safety and inclusivity, they have served instead to increase the popularity of unrecognized social clubs. These organizations provide a physical location for students to socialize free of administrative oversight, at a time when administrative oversight is quite extensive. If the administration truly wants to reimagine social life on campus, it will have to recognize that its negative pressure on unrecognized groups alone cannot remake Harvard’s social scene. Students must have real alternatives to their current options.
Therefore, we propose two measures to compete with off-campus social life and improve Harvard’s general social scene. First, to satisfy students desire to socialize within their tightly-knit groups, Harvard should invest in and bolster the House Committees to facilitate social life within the House. This first step is straightforward: increase the HoCo budgets so that House events are as well-furnished as possible. The quality of social events should not suffer due to a lack of resources if the administration truly wants to compete with exclusive, off-campus spaces. Second, College administrators should streamline the party-throwing process for upperclassmen and freshmen as much as possible so that students can socialize with each other within the comfort and privacy of their own dorm rooms. In the event that students don’t have the space to do so, common rooms should be available for student use, just as they are for student organizations. Finally, as it undertakes future renovations, the administrations should be aware of the aforementioned points and strive to maintain in-suite common rooms. If already existing space is being used as efficiently and effectively as possible and more House common space is truly needed, then it should be private enough for students to host their own events.
Giving students the ability to create social spaces comes with the responsibility to make those spaces as safe as possible, and the administration should ensure that students have the tools and training to meet that obligation. In the process of streamlining the party training process, the administration should incentivize training, just as the existing “fast-track” program is only available to those who have completed sexual assault and alcohol training.
Moreover, in order to address the desire for regular socialization beyond one’s usual social circle, the administration along with the Undergraduate Council should centralize inclusive social events. A social scene driven by student organizations that throw events all by themselves—often at the same time—splits the student body and makes off-campus social life seem more popular by comparison. Instead, student organizations and the UC should regularly aim to throw a single open and inclusive party—perhaps on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. Students and student organizations would, of course, host private events on the same evening, but in order for this alternative to compete with off-campus social life it needs to be consistently well-attended. If funding such events is an issue even with the promised increased investment, the organizers could charge admission. In order to maintain inclusivity, a Student Events Fund-eligible “semester pass” to all events should be available. While this proposal may appear to contradict the goal of student empowerment, an effective and regular partnership between students and the administration will pool resources and create events for the whole community.
Finally, no discussion about social life is complete without a frank consideration of the role of alcohol. Although alcohol often serves as a social currency and incentive for events, the legal drinking age limits what Harvard can do. Harvard can, however, acknowledge this incentive, give greater flexibility to students organizations, and serve alcohol at larger events. We are not arguing that the administration should ignore the law; we do hope that it will try to expand its tolerance of on-campus drinking. The amnesty policy, for example, serves the important role of allowing students to address unsafe drinking, but the administration must also create opportunities for and incentivize safe drinking by being more flexible with alcohol on campus.
The administration must be careful in its desire to provide a safe and inclusive alternative to off-campus social life, lest it be seen as just that, an uncool, University-sanctioned alternative. Ultimately, administrators should strive to give students the freedom and resources to create their own competitive alternative and incentivize them to do so responsibly.
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