Campus & Community

Undergraduate life

5 min read

Chance to reshape Harvard experience for generations to come


The Task Force on Undergraduate Life found that anchoring Harvard’s future in Allston to the undergraduate experience would be a very positive development, helping to enhance the undergraduate experience through academic, cultural, and artistic activities.

“I encourage all of us at the FAS to engage seriously with the ideas raised by

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the Task Force on Undergraduate Life,” said William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Geisinger Professor of History. “A College presence in Allston could tremendously enrich the lives of our undergraduates; they in turn contribute so much to this University, and to the local communities in which they live and learn. I thank the task force, the other task forces, and the other offices at Harvard who have so illuminated our own work. Collectively, as a University, this is our chance to reshape the Harvard experience – not just for ourselves, but for generations to come.”

That thought was shared by Matt Mahan ’05, president of the Undergraduate Council and one of the two student members of the task force. “In my opinion, the most important aspect of the task force’s work was the way that we pushed ourselves to think holistically about the Harvard undergraduate experience in all of its complex and interrelated aspects,” Mahan said. “It would have been easy to separate out residential or academic life or the question of what to do with the athletic facilities – indeed, this is something Harvard does regularly – but in striving to take the undergraduate experience as a whole we devised recommendations that, if implemented together, cohesively address students’ needs as individuals who live in each of those worlds.”

The idea of moving the student population from the three Houses in the Radcliffe Quad to an area along the Charles River would help create a more cohesive undergraduate living experience in the tradition of the Harvard River Houses, the report noted. In addition, the Undergraduate Life Task Force gave a strong recommendation that there should be a solid presence of undergraduate and University-wide intellectual and artistic activities in Allston, including afternoon and evening instruction incorporated into new Houses (e.g. tutorials, seminars and section meetings); undergraduate science-related laboratory work incorporated into space designed for potential new science research and teaching facilities; student organization activity located in a potential new student center; improved athletic and fitness opportunities; and new drama, dance, and music opportunities.

“We tried not to be constrained by present-day realities or even projected costs,” said William A. Graham, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, former Master of Currier House, and dean of the Faculty of Divinity, who serves as co-chair of the task force. “Our mandate was to think creatively and carefully about the possibilities and opportunities offered by Allston for the long term – at least a 20-year minimum horizon and more likely a half-century or full-century one. The task force was remarkable in keeping this long-term perspective in view and not allowing present realities or perspectives to cloud our thinking and imagining.”

Graham noted that in analyzing the key components of undergraduate life and formulating options, “We used a variety of sources and methods, from ‘benchmarking’ research on other universities, to the solicitation of input from students through an online student survey, student focus groups, and outreach to House masters, to formal studies (e.g., athletics, Radcliffe Quad feasibility study on housing conversion possibilities for graduate living, etc.).”

From the academic perspective, a science and technology presence in Allston could create enhanced opportunities for undergraduate research, giving undergraduates a chance to experience experimental research leading to “real discovery.”

From the extracurricular perspective, different options for performance, rehearsal, and support space in Allston; improvements to athletics facilities; and the possibility of building a student center in Allston to respond to needs of the many student organizations at Harvard were considered.

From the social life perspective, the task force considered ways to create more social space for undergraduates, from additional space in undergraduate Houses to more open grassy spaces, to social space in a student center. As Director of Athletics and co-chair of the Undergraduate Life Task Force Robert Scalise noted, the Web survey results were important in understanding student habits and the kinds of environments toward which they gravitate.

“How and where do undergraduates spend their time today? They spend a lot of time in their Houses, but they also want space outside the House system for activities – especially recreational, social, and artistic. We also learned that food matters and serves as a magnet for our undergraduates. Input from students on the committee and from focus groups confirmed the survey results. It should be noted that this data reflects student input at a point in time. As we get further along, the planners will likely seek even more data.”

The task force focused its work on identifying how different programmatic elements can enhance the overall undergraduate experience. “We looked at the kinds of things we felt were important for Harvard undergraduates,” Scalise said. “We didn’t focus on specific locations, but rather activities.”