I walked past the door a few hours after I had finished filling out the online questionnaire about what the Smith Campus Center should be. Foosball tables or a bowling alley? Formal dining or an informal cafe? Open largely to the public or largely restricted to the Harvard community? Hanging out space or space for dance rehearsals? Quiet space or busy? Piano practice rooms or yoga studios? Health services or ID card services? (You may check all that apply.)
So many choices. So little apparent vision.
Here's the way the questionnaire, which seems to have been sent to thousands of people, frames what is intended.
"The Smith Campus Center will strive to:
"promote a more integrated campus through the creation of indoor, informal and formal gathering spaces that bring together all members of the Harvard community. The Smith Campus Center will welcome undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff; affiliates of all of Harvard's schools; and visitors to Harvard;
"provide flexible, accessible spaces that permit a wide range of uses for all, including spaces for relaxation, places for eating and gathering, study areas, performance and display facilities for the arts, and meeting spaces;
"develop the existing one-stop shop for the delivery of essential services for faculty, staff and students (both graduate and undergraduate);
"establish a welcoming and vibrant entrance to Harvard University for visitors, Cambridge community members, and current and prospective affiliates of Harvard; and
"work with the design of the existing building to restore and modify Sert's architecture, and further contribute to the dynamic urban environment of Harvard Square and Cambridge."
I have said it before: The Smith Campus Center is the solution to no known problem. My guess is that the Smith Campus Center will do two things, neither good, if the result of this plebiscite is handed to the architects as a planning document. It will draw undergraduates away from the Houses. And it will draw the Harvard community away from the buzzing, blooming confusion of Harvard Square--which is, in case anyone had forgotten, one of the cool things that draw people to Harvard. (See also this post.)
What I had not said before, because I didn't notice it until I was reading Harvard Magazine's news updates last night, was the cost: $80 million. My goodness. That used to be considered real money. Money enough to build a new building, or two. Money enough to endow a score of professorships, maybe in VES so they wouldn't have to lottery their courses all the time. Money enough to endow a significant amount of financial aid, relieving pressure on the unrestricted budget, and maybe making life a bit easier for some graduate students. Maybe even money enough to knock a few hundred dollars off the cost of attending Harvard.
Some day maybe I will write a book about why higher education costs so much. I have lots of good examples, but I won't ever be able to use most of them. Sometimes the costs come from bad decisions. Sometimes the costs come from not making any decisions at all but using up a lot of people’s time not making them.
Someday, perhaps, we will understand how in an era of budget deficits, the Smith Campus Center became a high priority at a high price.