At Harvard, Social Space Woes Have a Long Past

Part II in a Three Part Series

Social Spaces
Terrell Woods

The Barker Center for the Humanities used to be the Student Union.

(Part I of this series appeared May 6.)

At Harvard, the cry for social space is nothing new. In fact, the effort to create a building to unify all of Harvard’s disparate populations has been going on for over a century.

In an 1899 speech, Major Henry Lee Higginson, class of 1855, chastised “the old clubs, with their small membership and high expenses.” In response to what he saw as the increasingly fractured student body, Higginson donated $150,000 for the creation of the “Harvard Union,” intended to serve as a space to unify undergraduates.

As former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 recently put it, the Union was “the club for kids who didn’t have clubs.”

But even before the Harvard Union turned into the Barker Center in the late ’90s, students said that the Student Union did not sufficiently meet undergraduate needs for social space on campus.


For decades, the calls for more social space and possibly a student center have continued.

Over the years, the push and pull between students and administrators on the issue of social space has been a continual feature of student life at Harvard.

The patterns of the debate are clear. Over time, as student dissatisfaction with the current situation manifests in requests for a central student center, the administration responds with the creation of smaller spaces, an effort to find piecemeal solutions to a problem that never seems to go away.


Despite Higginson’s lofty goals for the creation of a centralized space to bring together undergraduates, over the past century, the changing nature of the student body and the spaces in which they lived, studied, and socialized have fueled persistent complaints about Harvard’s social life.

The end of Higginson’s dream came early, as the creation of the House system in the 1930s transformed the Union into the Freshman Union, a more institutionalized dining hall and social space for freshmen.

“The Union is dead between meals,” Phillip J. Parsons, then-director of planning in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told The Crimson in 1992.

Parsons was a significant player in one of the major transitions of undergraduate space in the past century. The University had just finalized its plans to convert the Union into a hub for the humanities—now known as the Barker Center—and move the freshman dining hall to Memorial Hall. A $7 million gift from Katherine B. Loker for the creation of undergraduate space in the basement of Memorial Hall seemed to provide an answer to the problem of social space.

But the pool tables and fast food in Loker Commons did not provide a lasting solution for students and the student groups to which they belonged.

“It was basically an uncomfortable study space,” former Undergraduate Council Vice President Samuel C. Cohen ’00 says. “While I was there, it never quite worked.”


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