"WE MET EACH MORNING for a leisurely breakfast and to hear of the exceptionally depraved sexual adventures of one of our colleagues on the previous night," John Kenneth Galbraith, Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus, reminisces about his days as a Winthrop House tutor in The Age of Uncertainty, his most recent book. In Galbraith's days, breakfast served as an integral part of that great Harvard educational institution, the dining hall, where many a bumpkin has learned grace, style and the art of fine conversation. Today, meals later in the day fill that role, and breakfast consists of a quick, watery egg to keep you going till lunch. All the same, when Dean Fox announced that only four Houses would serve hot breakfasts next year and that Mather and Dunster House students would have to walk three blocks to Leverett for their morning meal he aroused considerable student ire.
Once Fox decided to close the eight Houses in the mornings for all but a Sunday-style continental meal, he assigned to Ann B. Spence, assistant dean of the College, the lonely task of picking out the four Houses. Spence drew "spheres of proximity" around four groups of three Houses, forming clusters of Houses like defense positions on a military map, with radii small enough so that no student would have to trudge more than an "acceptable" distance to breakfast. Spence in turn presented her "spheres of proximity" to Frank J. Weissbecker, director of Food Services, who picked a House form each group, with the twin goals of saving money and "minimizing the re-location of breakfast staffs," Spence said last week.
It was Weissbecker's considerations that led to the rejection of both Dunster and Mather as hot breakfast Houses. These two Houses share a kitchen of their own. By contrast, Leverett, Winthrop, Lowell, Kirkland and Eliot all receive food from the central University kitchen, which must be kept open anyway. Once the central kitchen has been geared up, opening one more hall is cheaper than opening a separate facility, like Mather-Dunster. So Weissbecker picked Kirkland, Leverett and Quincy as the hot breakfast River Houses.
The Quad Houses are an obvious "sphere", and University Hall initially chose to leave Currier open sinc its dining hall was the largest. Activist North House residents, students and masters reacted unfavorably to this proposal. Hanna Hastings, comaster of North, pointed out that proportionately more students--59 per cent--eat breakfast at North than any other House.
So the University performed its version of "student consultation." Spence agreed to try to make North the Quad's hot breakfast dispensory, but it turned out that the North dining hall is too small and food has to be served from several different lines in different rooms. Yet the administrators intend to rotate hot breakfasts within each of the four "spheres" every year, so that they'll have to squeeze all the Quad students into the North dining rooms pretty soon anyway--an apparent contradiction. So Spence went up to North and met with five or six students and a master and explained to them the financial realities the college administrators confronted. After the discussion all present agreed to offer the full breakfast in Currier, Spence said.
Administrators were even more cavalier in their regard for input on the subject from the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life. Last year, CHUL voted 20 to 2 against the limited breakfast option. To avoid this kind of conflagration this year, Fox presented the plan to CHUL for discussion after he had made the decision, an action for which the normally-meek student-master body reprimanded him. A similar reaction seems likely from the House committees, as they receive North House's petition to reinstate hot breakfasts at all Houses. And the student population as a whole--almost half of which eats breakfast each day--is not pleased either.
The real mystery of the tale is: why do Fox and Spence bring such misery upon themselves? Other options to remedy the situation with less student and worker discontent are myriad. Even with the Union open on weekends, the College could offer hot breakfasts at each House for only an $18 to $30 increase in per student board fees. It's hard to say whether most student$ would think this a smart buy. But the administration could have found this out by submitting the question for a vote to CHUL, a body designed to allow students to influence University policy on residence life.
The College could also begin to offer a 14-meal plan. This idea, which Fox says has been discussed since he was an undergraduate, has unfortunately yet to receive serious attention. The University recognized the justness of such an option when administrators began computing board fees on the assumption that the average student would only eat 14 meals a week anyway. Theorists of the Harvard housing system have argued that such an option would erode the House system, which encourages students to eat in their Houses, or at least on campus. However, if the 14 meals were limited to lunch and dinner, the prime educational benefits of the Houses would still be realized for 14-meal-a-week students. Besides, under the new limited breakfast plan, only the students from four of the 12 Houses would eat more than 14 meals in their own House. Whether it is reasonable to ask financially-squeezed poor and middle income students to subsidize the "House system" also remains open to question. Considering the popularity of optional meal plans at other universities, it is strange, Harvard has ignored the idea for so long.
Leisurely, aristocratic breakfasts at Harvard have gone the way of valets and gentleman's C's. And one wonders: will hot breakfasts altogether go the same way?