For the Students, By the Students?
In the mid-1960's, any Harvard student who was an avid go-go hand fan could have been pleasantly surprised, upon attending a concert, to find Radcliffe's own women providing the evening's dance entertainment.
Such ambitious and sometimes controversial endeavors--of which the "go-go pool" was one of the shorter-lived--have characterized Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) since its founding in 1957. Now, employing one-fifth of the undergraduate population and doling out $560,000 a year in wages, the student-run organization is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary with plans for a gala day-long celebration, invitations to 400 alumni, and the production of a special "HSA History."
But at the same time, sentiment has grown among past and present management level employees that opportunities within the organization have lessened for student initiative and student control. Student managers express concern that decision-making has become overly top-heavy in recent years, dampening entrepreneurial spirit and frustrating some managers into apathy or resignation.
Winding your way down into the basement of Thayer Hall, you stumble upon a carpeted beehive of activity which acts as the nexus for HSA's 11 agencies, each run by a separate student manager. In total, these 11 agencies employ about 1400 students bartending, catering, driving linen trucks, delivering refrigerators, writing travel guides, or, if a new project moves out, acting as Boston-Cambridge couriers for Harvard administrators. Student managers, hired selectively through a system of "posted" openings for which anyone can apply, earn an average of $4000 a year. HSA pays more student wages than any other student-run corporation in the country--about half of its projected yearly income 1.300.000. And its 1400 jobs make it the third largest employer on campus, behind the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the federal governments Work Study Program.
The statistics have not always been so rosy. Following a period of expansion in the late sixties. HSA 'encountered rocky times which kept it in the red for four years until '1974. At that point, the University agreed to bail out the student corporation by loaning it $60.000 over a two year span--a loan which has since been paid back in full.
Besides the fear of falling into similar financial straits again. A fear particularly real for small businesses confronted by the uncertainties of today's economy. HSA must endure 75 percent turnover of its employees each year, as people graduate or leave the organization. Such uncertainties, members say, may be what has contributed to an increased centralizing of jurisdiction over approving new projects, hiring and firing employees, and setting bonuses into the hands of three top positions at HSA--the president, the general manager, and the operations manager.
This triad is supposed to serve a monitoring role and act as a sounding board for faculty ideas, under the guidance of a Board of Directors composed of seven students, seven faculty members and seven alumni. In addition, the permanent positions are intended to add continuity and smooth over the problem created by HSA's unavoidable turnover each year, says Harold Rosenwald '27, who has served as a board member and the corporation's legal counsel since its inception.
If students ran HSA entirely, a "state of chaos" would take over as each class graduated. Rosenwald avers.
"What the general manager gives to HSA is continuity," he says, adding. "He is intended to work with students; students' voices are heard and their votes are counted."
But one former HSA manager says he left the organization because his independence had been clipped to the point where "nothing could be done without the general manager's approval." The entrepreneurial spirit was "tempered" in the process, he adds. And several current employees, who ask not to be identified, speak of a developing "favoritism" made more possible by the centralization of decision-making. Such complaints crystallized recently around an unprecedented evaluation of each manager at the midpoint of his one-year term, conducted by the president, general manager, and operations manager, and used in awarding bonuses that range from nothing to $500.
"It was a totally subjective evaluation," says one employee who says he was unaffected by the bonus plan. Previously, members say, managers of the 11 agencies have been awarded bonuses based on how well each division does. The new evaluations were intended, says HSA President Michael O'Brien '83, purely as a form of incentive and reward; bonuses were offered "to keep the managers on their toes."
The evaluation was intended to be "constructive" and a learning process for the managers, adds General Manager Daniel Del Vecchio, a professional businessman who has held the post for seven years. But another employee noted that an appearance of favoritism could damage the "working atmosphere" even if the incentive system worked.
Another former manager, Randall S. Yanker '83, points to the unusual twofold burden borne by the triad, who must both monitor a business and educate the managing operators. Calling it a "luxury" to work with already trained managers. Yanker notes that without that luxury, students must often simply accept what "upper management" wants.
"Top management tries to tailor their managing style to each individual." Yanker says, noting that this means giving more independence and greater purview to a manager who shows a stronger sense of responsibility or who learns the trade more quickly.
"The real trick is to retain some of that entrepreneurial spirit and provide a structure at the same time," president O'Brien points out, adding that for now, "people have to be more managerial and administrative than entrepreneurial."
Another reason for decreased student autonomy may be traced to a wide trend--the increase in pre-professionalism and seriousness among students nationwide, a tendency HSA has encouraged and emphasized in recent years.
"There is more real pressure now to maintain your office hours, for instance," explains John Nevin '84, manager of the Linen Agency, not traditionally the most formal in comportment of the services. HSA looks much more professional now than in its previous "released" days. Nevin adds.
"A whole degree of professionalism is coming into it," observes Brian Mullaney, manager of HSA's newest agency, advertising, who is encouraged by the fact that he sees "better managers" working at HSA. Mullaney, who plans to make advertising design a career, adds that a "corporate image" is developing at HSA simply because "it's the way the real world is."
Del Vecchio suggests that the normal college student is "more professionally oriented" than in the past, so that the student managers themselves take their jobs more seriously as providing experience and training for the real business world. In a summer poll taken at HSA of student managers, 45 percent said they plan to attend business school in the future.
Under Del Vecchio's direction. HSA has continued to move in the direction of "business." It has been pared down from 35 different agencies to the current 11, allowing the group as a whole to operate more efficiently. And since the general manager's appointment. HSA has continually ended the year with a surplus--around $21,000 for the last fiscal year.
Non-student interest of a different form comes from College officials, some of whom sit on the HSA board. Partly because HSA provides important opportunities for employment for students who need help financing their education an intention contained in the original HSA charter the College keeps a proprietary eye on the corporation to "minimize the financial risk" of it, says Archie C. Epps III, dean of students and an ex office board member.
And I. Fred Jewett '57, dean of admission and financial aid and also a board member, notes that HSA is a good source of employment for those who "fall just over the line for financial aid" who need money but technically don't quality for the University's direct and packed of the federal government's work study option.
The financial lure is actually stronger for the 1400 workers who may earn anywhere from $5.00 to $30.00 per hour, than for the managers, some of whom say the yearly pay is low compared to the number of hours they wind up spending on their work. "HSA's great from the viewpoint of the laborer," a former manager notes.
But the reasons that would lead people to sign up for bartending courses juggling stints or shifts as doormen are likely to go beyond a simple need for financial aid. And the outlook for entrepreneurs, in the end, will have little effect on whether the customer can count on HSA's promise never to allow your cat to get lonely."
Managers at Harvard Student Agencies say they wonder if centralization and pre-professionalism are costing them their independence