Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More about the Implementation

I hadn’t noticed Section 2 of Appendix H of the Implementation Committee Report until a student asked me about it. This section makes various recommendations about how Harvard space could be repurposed for undergraduate social life. Some of these ideas seem good, but I wonder how much thought has gone into them since they all seem to have problems.

Renew the Queen’s Head Pub. Great idea, but will Harvard really do a third major renovation of this space in barely twenty years? The original, very expensive Loker Commons was overbuilt architecturally, indeterminate socially, and a failure operationally. Then (after some more modest tweaks) the space was turned into a pub—an odd choice for a space close to freshman housing. The Report dismissively says it’s popular mainly with graduate students, as though graduate students are, if anything, overprovisioned and it wouldn’t hurt to give their space to undergraduates. Really? (What happened to One Harvard?) And with the FAS budget under pressure from the costs of renovating the Houses, would it make sense to undertake another renovation of the Memorial Hall basement?

Loeb House as event space. This is a fabulous idea. Loeb House has a beautiful, stately ballroom, often empty but occasionally used, at very high cost, for receptions after funerals. When I was dean I tried to get it for the Ballroom Dance Club and Team (not a hard-partying group). No, was the answer—they would scratch the floor. This is a great proposal, not just because it is a natural use for this space, but because it presents an opportunity for the Corporation (whose offices occupy the building) to address in deed as well as in word the problem of undergraduate social life.

The Smith Campus center.  Couldn’t this have been thought through just a few years ago when the Center was being planned? Or shall we embark on an immediate renovation to make it an “Agora” for undergraduates, to use the Report’s term, instead of whatever it is actually going to be?

Phillips Brooks House. A seductive idea which is never going to happen. First, it would surprise me greatly if the public service groups went along with it. But more importantly, that building has not just a history but a deed of gift. It was built thanks to a gift from the Randall Charities Corporation. As the 1896-97 Harvard President’s Report states, the gift was applied “to the construction of the Phillips Brooks House to insure in that building suitable accommodations for the charitable work of the organization known as the Student Volunteer Committee so long as the said organization retain the approval of the President and Fellows, or in case this work should be given up, for kindred work at the discretion of said President and Fellows ….” IANAL, but I wonder if this idea was checked out before it was put in the Report.

SOCH as party central. That is Hilles Library, for earlier generations of readers. Might work great for students in the Quad. It’s never worked as planned as the complex for student offices and extracurricular clubs since it was decommissioned as a library. (Was that even a good idea, in retrospect?)

Transition administrative offices into student space. Send offices like the Office of International Education and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships from their “impressive frame wood houses on Dunster Street” to somewhere less central. Repurpose these buildings as “a quasi-student union, with accessible study and hang-out spaces during the day and bookable space for student organizations and perhaps the dining societies to book for meetings and social gatherings in the evenings and/or on weekends.” This seems at odds with what we have heard at other times about the need to restore the centrality of the academic experience. It seems a little odd in particular to send fellowship applicants, who would have sworn not to be members of the nearby final clubs, off to some more distant location for conversations about fellowships, so that the fellowships office building could be used as a Harvard-banded club.

These are all details, of course. The biggest question, the one about the policy itself that lay behind the motion I made about nine months ago and then withdrew after the new committee was promised, remains on the table, awaiting the work of that committee.

But another big question remains after reading the Implementation Committee report in full. One of the complaints about off-campus social clubs has always been that they draw social life out of the Houses. Making them go co-ed would do nothing to change that, or to make them less exclusive, or elitist. (Vide The Hasty Pudding Club— the social club, not the Theatricals.) Won’t all these efforts to create social space outside the Houses compete with House social life rather than enhance it? The other two sections of Appendix H describe House-based activities. Does the whole picture really hold together—better social life in the Houses, and also better social life on campus outside the Houses?

1 comment:

  1. And no one is talking about the elephant in the room, which is alcohol. There are plenty of decent social spaces already in the Houses and, I presume, in the "renewed" Houses. On Harvard property alcohol may not be served to undergrads who are not yet 21. Repurposing the SOCH, or Loeb House, or parts of the Smith Center will not change this.