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Harvard Should Buy the Final Clubs

By William M. Rafey
William M. Rafey ’13 is a graduate student in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Harvard should consider acquiring the property on which the eight final clubs reside and repurpose these social spaces as senior houses for the 12 undergraduate Houses.

The Houses have always been our first line of defense against the final clubs. An important aspect of former University President A. Lawrence Lowell Class of 1877’s push to finance the House system in the 1930s was unequal access to the final clubs, which predate the residential houses by roughly three decades. At the center of Lowell’s vision was the hope that the Houses would provide to every student the public goods once reserved for members of clubs: dining rooms, private libraries, pool halls, and places for study, work, and community.

As Lowell described in a 1907 lecture in New Haven: “Any system of societies or clubs, is incapable of supplying an opportunity for the best kind of social life to the great mass of students.” If “we allowed the boy to select his group on first coming to the university,” he continued, “the students would mainly be segregated on the basis of origin, of geographical sections, of preparatory schools, of home surroundings; and thus we should have — as people have said — a college for western men, a college for southern men, a college for millionaires. Now this is the very worst scheme of division that could possibly be devised.”

Acquiring these properties seems a natural extension of Lowell’s vision for “a system of grouping that will bring into each group men from different parts of the country, men with different experience, and as far as possible social condition,” which he contended was “one of the chief advantages of the great university.” It may help to circumvent the continued debate over the morality and legality of the current administration’s sanctions against single-gender social organizations. It is consistent with a positive and creative spirit — to lead by example, not proscription — that aims to recycle and preserve the spaces for future generations of Harvard students (of all genders).

Repurposing the clubs could also help to serve a separate purpose: making the random allocation of students to Houses fairer. Harvard could allocate the highest-quality spaces in inverse proportion to the distribution of quality across houses. For example, the three Quad Houses — Cabot, Currier, and Pforzheimer — might have the most centrally located spaces, with the rest ordered by reverse date of renovation or distance from Harvard Yard.

Regardless of the allocation, introducing accessible spaces for Quad Houses closer to most meetings of student organizations, office hours, and social gatherings will help to remedy the inequity between the Houses on the river and those in the Quad. This is especially important given that the new campus in Allston is likely to diminish the relative position of inhabitants of the Quad. The unprecedented distance it creates between Quadlings and new classroom locations may discourage concentration in the School for Engineering and Applied Sciences and related fields for these students.

No doubt this proposal would be — perhaps prohibitively — costly at market prices. It may be impossible for the College to make the necessary compromises to respect the history of the spaces and their former inhabitants without relinquishing the principles Harvard hopes to embody. Whether such deals would improve upon the status quo is an open question. At market rates — $35.1 million using 2019 assessed tax values from the City of Cambridge — the cost would fall below 4.1 percent of the $873.9 million that the Harvard Management Corporation has allocated to House renewal.

A more radical form of this proposal is one that also includes the Signet Society, the Harvard Advocate, the Hasty Pudding, and the Harvard Lampoon. Each organization has prominent real estate and valuable alumni networks. These organizations could continue to use their original spaces to hold events. Most satisfyingly, arithmetically, this arrives at 12 properties — one for each house — though the moral grounds for collectivization of this extent may be weaker.

In 1902, then-University President Charles William Eliot, Class of 1853, was asked by a group of alumni whether or not he would help them to acquire land along the river for the founding of Lowell House. He declined, citing concerns over tax obligations to the City of Cambridge. As one alumnus recounts: “I do not know at what stage I approached the Corporation but I did write to President Eliot and asked if he would join us. In any case I remember well that he sent a courteous reply saying, ‘No.”’

The alumni went ahead without him. Led by Edward Waldo Forbes Class of 1895, the grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, they founded a trust, the Harvard Riverside Associates Trust, to acquire the land with the intent to transfer the property to Harvard, which they did in 1912 after Lowell became president.

Will we ever see any similar such lasting transformations of Harvard College again? The final clubs occupy a small corner of Harvard’s social life — one that contracts each year as the student body becomes ever-more talented and diverse. If these buildings can be made to serve a greater purpose by drawing Harvard's students closer together, as the land along the river once did, they will fade less swiftly from Harvard's memory than they might otherwise.

William M. Rafey ’13 is a PhD candidate in Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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