A Better MAC at Our Fingertips

On those occasions when I overcome the shock of being accepted to Harvard, I am even more shocked by our institution’s ability to combine incredible opportunities with some markedly sub-par “amenities.” Surely substance is more important than window-dressing, but there are a number of quality of life issues that substantially and negatively impact the health and happiness of our campus community. For instance, the Undergraduate Council and, ultimately, the University’s administration have failed to address our community’s exercise and recreational needs adequately. The recent improvements in House gyms, spearheaded by the Council and later by Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, are an important step forward—but there is no substitute for a first-rate Malkin Athletic Center (MAC).

Unlike rooms in individual House basements, this centralized campus-wide facility has the space and staffing to host a broad offering of recreational options. Moreover, as a non-academic space that is open to the entire campus it serves an irreplaceable social function. Regardless of our House gym expansions, we must not underestimate the MAC’s ability to relieve stress, promote health and create social space for the whole community. Since this last election for the presidency of the Council was rife with rhetoric—my campaign as much as any other’s—I want to take a moment as we set goals for another semester to lay out a specific, reasonable plan for improving the MAC.

I am willing to concede that there are obstacles to making the MAC a superb recreational facility immediately. In fact, for the moment, let us assume that the three varsity sports and dozen coaches’ offices currently housed in the MAC are immovable until construction begins on the new campus the University intends to build in Allston—though sensible Allston planning would make moving these teams a priority. Let us also assume that our campus’ general welfare demands that the facility continue to serve the non-undergraduates who currently make up more than half of the MAC’s patrons—though the MAC was intended primarily to serve undergraduates. Finally, let us assume that Harvard cannot now afford to spend the $30 million that HNTB Corp., a Boston consulting firm, recommended to former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles in May 2002 for complete MAC renovations—though $30 million is 0.15 percent of the University’s endowment.

Even with these fairly generous allowances, there remains much that could be done to substantially improve the facility. In the long run, the University must consider costly renovation options, such as filling in the pool-side bleachers and even removing most of the long walls between practice rooms that are now used for varsity teams. But in the short run—especially given the Allston variable—the University’s immediate goal should be simply to expand popular services as much as possible without embarking on prohibitively expensive structural changes to the building. That is, keeping in mind the limitations above, administrators should optimize use of the space we have, more or less as it is currently constructed.

This is within our reach right now. The University should take the following four steps, which are based upon professional renovation proposals that have been developed by MAC staff, and even an independent consulting firm, and repeatedly sent to Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise and the Faculty administration.


First, it should set up a second cardio-vascular exercise room on the relatively empty balcony overlooking the north side of the MAC’s pool by carpeting the floor and adding air-conditioning units. This new cardio room should be filled with the kind of equipment that is most heavily used in the original room.

Second, the University should expand the size of the MAC’s free weights room and the machine room by a third or more by removing the small wall—roughly 25 feet long—between those rooms and the men’s and the women’s locker rooms. The displaced locker space could be moved farther back into the underutilized drying rooms or simply consolidated.

Third, it should add air conditioning units to the mezzanine to make exercise classes held there bearable in the early fall, late spring and summer months.

Fourth, it should offer exercise classes into reading period and exams. Students do not stop needing exercise or a mental break during stressful periods of the semester—quite the opposite, in fact.

These four changes would substantially expand the most popular aspects of the facility, thereby reducing unsafe crowding and enabling the MAC to better serve the entire campus until more far-reaching solutions can be implemented. The MAC has long been a serious quality of life issue at Harvard and the administration is doing a great disservice to our community by waiting for the perfect moment to undertake a fix-all, $30 million renovation. By the time that moment rolls around, half of our campus may be over in Allston anyway. This plan should be pursued because it is cost-effective, requires few physical changes to the structure, is compatible with potential future renovations and is not contingent upon Allston planning.

According to past MAC staff proposals, the total price tag for making these changes is roughly $2 million dollars, or 0.01 percent of the endowment. The value of a healthier and happier campus? Priceless.

Matthew W. Mahan ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. He is the incoming president of the Undergraduate Council.

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