Harvard's Fairness Issue


THE TYPICAL HARVARD STUDENT, who is already scraping the bottom of the barrel to plunk down $15,000 for a Harvard education this year, is increasingly finding occasion to fork over another $2,000 while he's at it. The personal computer bug has now officially bitten Harvard and while they aren't saying as much openly, the implicit message from Harvard officials is clear--buy.

The way Harvard has supplied terminal time to students in the first epoch of the computer age will likely soon be obsolete. Plugging increasing numbers of terminals into large, centralized mainframe computers simply doesn't make economic sense given the quantities of students and faculty interested in signing on.

The trend in this business is to smaller machines with greater computing power, and Harvard has begun to get the idea. In the past year, the University has cut three separate deals with major manufacturers to bring personal computers to students and faculty at cut-rate prices. Students have been beating each other over the heads to get a hold of one of the bargain basement Apple Macintoshes, and officials say sales of the other brands are going briskly too. No one is talking of blowing all the stuff in the Science Center out of the water tomorrow, but almost all the educational and administrative plans you hear about computers on campus today are based on pe's, not mainframes.

Thus, the plethora of committees and task forces devoted to the solemn tasks of establishing computer "priorities" and exploring new computer "possibilities." Thus, the frantic rush to put together the requisite software so that the Mac can be used in computer science courses this fall. Thus, the talk about how Harvard is going to link up all these pe's so that students can talk to each other, retrieve large chunks of information from data banks, and otherwise precipitate the next Scientific Revolution.

The personal computer craze may yet, as its eager avatars assert, revolutionize a college education, but it has done nothing to diminish the importance of the egalitarian principles a good education is supposed to stand for. And amidst the hoopla and anticipation over the impending computerization of the Harvard campus, it is precisely the idea of egalitarianism that may most be threatened.

Official statistics don't exist on the matter, but given the run on the Macintosh and what is known about the habits of incoming freshmen, it is likely that between one quarter and 'one third of Harvard undergraduates have desktop computers or word processors in their rooms. The precise number, whatever it is, will only get larger.

No one questions that the increased use of computers for the dredge work of education--number-crunching and word-processing--will free up students' time for more creative uses. The danger is that only a select class of students are having their time thus liberated--those who can afford it.

Computer experts have for some time now raised fears about a computer literacy gap in which children with access to the machines early on in their lives would have a leg up on their peers who don't. It isn't stretching the imagination too much to envision something of a similar situation happening right here at Harvard.

Thesis and paper writers at Harvard who have immediate access to pc's or word processors have an advantage over those who do not. Computer science students who can now roll out of bed to do their homework will have an easier time of it than those who have to trudge over to the Science Center and then brave the daunting lines and terminal foul-ups that show no sign of ceasing. These aren't the problems of some hypothetical future--they affect students now. And while Harvard may not be able to hand out pc's to everyone, it must find a way to minimize the inequality.

If indeed personal computers are to be the wave of Harvard's future, the University must arrange to factor their purchase its financial aid equations. Even more immediately, officials should be thinking of how to ease the current computing crunch, and in particular how to make sure all students have access to cheap and efficient word processing, currently the most glaring example of computer "deprivation."

The coin-operated, pay-as-you-go system in the Houses--whereby students frantically stick quarters into machines every 15 minutes--is, simply put, a pain in the neck and uneconomical. Students last year avoided the coin-ops in droves. Some kind of time-sharing or chit system makes a lot more sense.

Similarly, Harvard should make a much greater effort to provide terminals and computers in the Houses in order to loosen the strain on the central system and the inevitable mad crush in the basement of the Science Center.

The popularization of computers promises to make life at Harvard a lot nicer. But before Harvard's computer plans get the final OK, the Holyoke Center bureaucrats had better make sure that that nice life is not limited to a select few.