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Harvard Ponders Adding a Pub To Boost Campus Social Scene

By Sarah Schweitzer
BOSTON GLOBE

Harvard College administrators long have racked their brains concocting merry-making schemes for a campus derided as overly serious and lacking in frivolity — to little avail. Surveys repeatedly have shown that Harvard students felt their partying potential was not being met.

Now Harvard’s officialdom is retooling its approach. Administrators say they want students to make and define their own revelry. As such, college officials are mulling the student-backed notion of creating an undergraduate pub — a departure for a campus steeped in the clubby tradition of parties confined to residence halls and exclusive private clubs.

“Obviously, we’re not Florida State,” said Caleb Merkl, a senior who has lobbied for the pub. “But we really don’t have a common space, a place where students can all go and just hang out. The pub would provide that.”

In a measure of how seriously they’re taking fun, administrators have hired a 2004 graduate, Zachary Corker, to study the pub’s feasibility. Corker comes with experience: He joined the administration ranks last year with the mission of improving student social life, a job unofficially dubbed “fun czar.”

Students say a pub, still in the preliminary planning stage, would create cohesion and provide sense of place for undergraduates. But the issue is tricky for the college.

Binge drinking is a growing concern on campuses across the nation, and Harvard itself has hired its first alcohol educator, who starts work on campus this fall. But administrators note that other top-tier colleges have successfully managed student pubs. And they say students drinking in a college-controlled environment is a better option than unregulated pub-crawls and keg-fests.

Students say the proposed location of the pub, Loker Commons, underscores the need for student input into Harvard’s social scene. The commons is a basement space in Memorial Hall where administrators envisioned, at its creation in 1996, a buzzing hub of student after-hours activity.

Yet some say it is anything but, serving as a study-group spot and pass-through space for e-mail-checkers. Indeed, Loker Commons has a decidedly adult imprimatur, with posters on wood-paneled walls touting Mahler concerts. Bulletin boards, marked for official campus business, are dotted with advisories like “Chess Club meets tonight at 8:45 p.m.”

Particularly off-putting to some students is the corner of the commons devoted to the “Math Question Center,” demarked with a large poster of Sir Isaac Newton.

The push for a pub comes at what some describe as a crossroads for Harvard’s quality of life. The student body is increasingly diverse and disconnected, with fewer preparatory school social chains and hometown-sown friendships. Meanwhile, increasingly gentrified Harvard Square has become an expensive night-time proposition, with $1 pitcher establishments replaced by cocktail sipping spots.

The result, some say, is dwindling common meeting space for a less-naturally cohesive student body — nearly all of whom live on campus rather than in fraternity houses or apartments that drive social life at many institutions.

“It used to be that everyone was a white male from New England and they all knew each other,” said Rohit Chopra, the former undergraduate council president who has advocated the creation of the pub. “Now so many of us come to Harvard knowing no one and it’s harder finding your way.”

For years, the administration and students largely worked apart on the issue, with some students organizing underground frivolity.

A group called Harvardparties.com in 2003 began hosting so-called “Harvard State Parties” advertised with pitches like: “Ever wanted to party like they do at that state school you could have coasted through?” In 2004, administration officials say, they decided to join forces with the fun-agitators, including Corker, one of three student organizers of Harvardparties.com and a sponsor of a renowned party in his dorm, Mather House, that he says was alcohol-free, but made use of a foam-machine and ended with police involvement.

“We knew Zac had a reputation,” said Judith H. Kidd, associate dean of the college, noting that her first meeting with him was to discuss the college’s allegation that the Web site infringed the college’s copyright. “But we knew that what we wanted was for him to translate us to his peers.”

The college tapped Corker, 23, to serve as special assistant to the dean of social programming — aka fun czar — and rehired him this year to study the feasibility of a permanent student pub in Loker Commons. (Another recent graduate, Justin Haan, class of 2005, will assume Corker’s former post.)

Kidd and Corker say the year of collaboration has been fruitful, resulting in the creation of a simplified online party permit system and the inauguration of a number of events, including a dodge ball tournament and a “Harvard State Fair” planned for the fall, complete with mechanical bull.

But most significant, both say, was the creation of pub nights, a series of six overbooked gatherings in Loker Commons where college bands played and alcohol was served.

“I had friends calling me from outside and asking if I could get them in,” Corker said.

Administrators, too, crow about the pub night success. Kidd recounted one student’s assessment she heard from another administrator: “Pub nights have changed the paradigm of social life at Harvard.”