When I first arrived at Harvard as a transfer student, I was given a key to New Quincy room 305. I entered the suite expectantly, surveyed the large, open and dusty common room, and climbed the stairs, Bedroom A was occupied. As was bedroom B, C and D. A sudden sense of discomfort gripped me. Where, then, was I to live? "In the common room, I guess," was the answer I got from Scott, one of my new roommates. And so for ten days, I slept on a bed in the common room, with no furniture, no privacy and no quiet.
Fortunately, a chance vacancy in another suite provided me with a room for the year, but if the former occupant hadn't run into a wee bit of academic trouble I would have been faced with the dubious and expensive proposition of building a partition.
My situation is not unique. Every year a large number of students are placed in just such a dilemma. The problem itself is understandable. In order to accommodate a population larger than the number of available bedrooms, Harvard must jump up and down on the suitcase, so to speak. When this manifests itself as bedrooms used by more people than they were designed for, the situation may be cramped and crowded, but at least it's acceptable.
And often a student can make the choice between living in a cramped bedroom or a common room. However, there are many situations in which bedrooms simply can't reasonably accommodate more students (this often happens in the case of "n minus one" rooms), and it is then that hapless individuals are stuck in common rooms and left to flounder. Harvard is doing an inexcusable disservice to its tenants, who have no choice but to pay thousands for a room and then hope for the best.
The problem with common rooms is best realized simply by looking at them. To begin with, they almost always open in several directions. At least, they contain a main entrance and a passageway to the rest of the suite (as in New Quincy). At worst, they contain the main entrance, the door to the bathroom and the door to each bedroom (as in Adams).
To gain privacy, a common room occupant must build a partition. But this is an expensive and time consuming proposition. First, students must obtain permission from the Master's office to build. Then, they must acquire the materials and construct it themselves, or hire an outside contractor to do it for them. For the mechanically inclined, the cost of materials itself can be high, in the hundreds of dollars. But those who must hire another to build for them may pay as much as $800 for their privacy.
And once the partition is built, the occupant must still deal with common room noise.
Unfortunately, until Harvard gets around to building another House or two, students will have to remain in common rooms. What Harvard can and should do right now, however, is to become much more supportive of these students. Quite simply, the university needs to subsidize the construction of partitions. At the very least, the university should provide easily accessible advice on how to build partitions. This should include direct contact with Harvard employees who can instruct students on how to go about the process of construction.
Thomas A. Dingman '67, who is associate dean of housing as well as Allston Burr senior tutor of Dudley House, argues that partition subsidies would inevitably get passed on to the Harvard population in the from of higher housing costs and that this would be unfair to students in general.
But I would contend the reserve; that it is unfair to make certain students who have the bad luck to wind up in common rooms bear the entire cost of partitioning. In fact, a small increase in our housing bill might be the just and equitable thing to do. Dean Dingman also suggests that if Harvard started to remedy this particular type of housing discrepancy it would be deluged by student complaints demanding compensation for other types of inequalities. However, it is better for Harvard to have to pick and choose which students to compensate rather than to compensate no one for the sake of simplicity.
What Dean Dingman and I do agree upon, though, is that Harvard could become more helpful, if not more financially accountable, to students placed in bad housing situations.
One solution he mentions lies in the realm of the Master's office. Houses often have more real estate available for undergraduates than they choose to utilize. This space, often given to visiting scholars and other non-students, can be used to ease a housing crunch.
Dean Dingman also mentions that his office maintains overflow housing in Apley Court to ease overcrowding. Finally, he says that the superintendent of each House should be a "resource" to students in terms of where to find construction materials and how to build their partitions.
However, the first two of these solutions are largely out of the control of the students, and while they may act to prevent overcrowding they do not remedy it once it occurs. And most superintendents hardly go out of their way to make themselves available. I know students who have had to bug their supers for weeks before getting basic pieces of furniture that weren't in their rooms at the beginning of the year, let alone any sort of advice.
Which is why Harvard still has a way to go before it treats its tenants fairly. The university should subsidize partitions. If it refuses to do so, the least it can do is be more vocal and active in providing support and assistance to those students who absolutely need partitions, and also to those who would like to build them in order to gain a little more space, privacy, and sanity. A pamphlet giving information on partitions would be a nice thing to find in our mailboxes on the first day of school, and would be a good start towards fixing the faults in Harvard's housing policy.