Masters Swipe Hopes for Access

House Masters' ill-conceived resistance to universal keycard access hurts campus community

When students are walking alone late at night and feel unsafe, the doors of Harvard’s Houses should not be closed to them. Unfortunately, the House Masters don’t seem to agree.

Harvard students fell frustratingly short of winning a major victory for campus safety and community this year when the House Masters refused to allow 24-hour access to the Houses for all students. At the start of the spring term, the advent of 24-hour universal keycard access seemed all but certain. For a two-semester trial period, the Houses had kept their doors open to all upperclass students except between the hours of 1:00 and 8:00 a.m. The experiment was a success—students were able to move freely among the Houses, and there was no evidence of any threat to safety. On Feb. 11, the Undergraduate Council unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the Masters to make universal access available round-the-clock. Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 supported the plan, and students were optimistic that the Masters, too, would sign on.

But that hope proved premature. At a Feb. 15 meeting of the Committee on House Life, all of the Masters besides Quincy House Master Michael Shinagel opposed 24-hour universal access. Lewis withdrew his erstwhile advocacy and declared himself “back in the middle again.” And in spite of the fact that every House Committee has voted in favor of letting in their peers, the Masters remain unmoved. As the academic year closes, the prospect of 24-hour access finds itself impaled on the Masters’ obstinacy.

At the very least, round-the-clock access would make the late-night campus safer for students, allowing them to escape any pursuer by swiping into the nearest entryway. But setting considerations of safety aside, we believe that trusting Harvard students enough to let them visit other Houses is a necessary step toward improving social life at Harvard.

What has been particularly bewildering about the keycard debate is the Masters’ utter failure to produce a convincing reason for their opposition. They have voiced concerns that extending keycard access would compromise students’ safety and increase the likelihood of property damage. But the comments of the Harvard University Police Department on House safety have not described 24-hour access as posing any significant danger. Moreover, Quincy House has allowed 24-hour access without any sign of increased disruption. Harvard students do not pose a threat to their peers.

But by far the weakest argument against 24-hour universal keycard access has come from Eliot House Master Lino Pertile, who said that the Houses needed to maintain their individuality for at least part of the day. One is left to assume, of course, that this part of the day comes precisely between the hours of 1:00 and 8:00 a.m. We have no quarrel with the Masters’ desire to build a sense of community. But the idea that residents are awash in a sea of House spirit while they sleep, party and do whatever else people do during the dead of night is, well, just a little bit hard to believe.

Simply put, there is no good argument for keeping Harvard’s students out of Harvard’s Houses. Harvard students pose a threat neither to each other nor to House community. As the members of the Class of 2001 graduate from the College, they will take with them friendships formed both across Houses and within them. The Masters should encourage such friendships for future classes rather than seek House individuality by isolating their students.