What If It Were All a Lie?

HSA micro-waves goodbye to myth of legality

It’s been a mantra for so long that no one really remembers how it got started. The only cooking appliance allowed in Harvard dorm rooms is the microfridge, rented from Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) for the low, low price of $250 a year plus deposit. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. HSA’s microfridge is just as illegal as any other microwave, rice cooker, coffee pot or teapot that students might secret away in a corner of their room. But Harvard administrators don’t know this, and for about seven years, they’ve been protecting HSA’s virtual monopoly on the devices by repeating the mantra in entryway meetings and confiscating other cooking appliances when students are careless enough to leave them out in plain sight.

HSA says its microfridge is allowed in dorm rooms because of the low wattage it draws from electrical circuits, making it less of a fire hazard. But that’s not true. For one, other microwave ovens run on lower wattage than HSA’s and retail for about a third the price of HSA’s device. Second, the real obstacle to having cooking appliances in dorm rooms is not the city fire code but the state sanitary code, which expressly forbids cooking appliances of any kind in dorm rooms. HSA was never exempted from these regulations.

FM contacted Robert Bersani, the head of Cambridge’s Department of Inspectional Services, to find out what specifications a microwave would have to meet to qualify for use in dorm rooms. Were there microwaves other than HSA’s microwave that might qualify?

No, Bersani says, all cooking appliances, regardless of whether they are energy-efficient or affixed to the top of a refrigerator, are forbidden in dormitories by the state sanitary code. “A microwave is considered a cooking appliance and, therefore, they are not allowed regardless of the brand,” he writes in an e-mail.

But what about HSA’s microfridge—is that forbidden as well?

“Yes.”

But HSA says they got permission many years ago to rent the microfridge for use in dorm rooms.

“I don’t care what they’re saying. I don’t care what happened many years ago. Microwaves of any kind are not allowed in dorm rooms,” Bersani says.

So what went wrong? How has HSA convinced the entire college it has the proper permission for the microfridge when it really does not? No one’s really sure. HSA first started selling the microfridge seven years ago, eons ago for a company whose employees turn over every four years. Institutional memory just doesn’t go that far back. Robert Rombauer, HSA’s general manager and one of the company’s six full-time adult employees, says he doesn’t know who was in charge of getting approval for the microfridge, or with whom they spoke to try to get that approval. Z. Anthony Ekmekjian ’03, the manager of HSA’s rental business, initially told FM the microfridge was approved by Ranjit Singanayagam, assistant commissioner for inspectional services, who works under Bersani. But he only enforces the building code, not the sanitary or fire regulations. In any case, Singanayagam says that even if it were possible to exempt someone from the state statute, the exemption would have to come from Bersani or the state legislature. Ekmekjian and Bradley J. Olson ’03, HSA’s president, refused comment once they realized the direction this story was taking.

If Harvard officials ban the microfridge, it will leave undergraduates without any cooking appliances at all allowed in their rooms.

Operating under the assumption that microfridges are legal, the College has increasingly enforced the HSA monopoly in the last year by cracking down on other cooking appliances.

After a fire in the Eliot House grille last December, the College announced it would inspect rooms more carefully over winter break. There were rumors that superintendents were even going to open closets and check under blankets, eviscerating several easy hiding spots that students had grown accustomed to using.

In January, The Crimson e-mailed Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 to ask why the College felt a need to crack down on microwaves after the Eliot House fire, given that the fire began when heavy-duty appliances in the House grille overloaded electrical circuits, and had little to do with student microwaves.

Lewis wrote: “Fire codes are fire codes, and the Cambridge Fire Code does not allow microwaves in student rooms. It is not up to us to challenge the Cambridge fire code.”

Of course, Lewis’ answer avoided the real question. Everyone knew microwaves were not allowed in dorm rooms. But why was the college now enforcing a city ordinance it had long ignored?

The crackdown was nothing new for first-years, who have long born the brunt of Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley “Ibby” Nathans’ delight in the vigorous enforcement of College policies. But upperclassmen had come to expect a certain leeway—that the college would turn a blind eye. There were always room inspections, of course, but they were few and far between, and House superintendents didn’t look in closets or under blankets. And there were warnings, and second chances, and if a student was particularly slow on the draw, maybe even third and fourth chances to hide the microwave somewhere it wouldn’t be so easy to find.

After the Eliot fire, officials from Cambridge’s Department of Inspectional Services contacted College officials, urging them to double-check their compliance with all fire-safety standards.

The question is: What obligation does Harvard have to ensure its students are complying with state sanitary codes, instead of just making students aware of the codes and leaving the enforcement of government regulations to the government?

“As the owner it’s our responsibility to enforce the codes,” says Merle Bicknell, an assistant director of Faculty of Arts and Sciences physical resources, who oversees House superintendents and, by extension, dorm-room inspections. “We’re required to inspect every building once a year.”

But that explanation sounds a little hollow when you consider that Harvard’s enforcement of city and state codes is spotty at best, and full of double standards. For example, a microwave oven in a dorm suite occupied by a tutor is just as illegal as one in a student room—the law makes no distinction about who’s living there. And presumably it presents the same fire hazard in a tutor suite as in a student room. But the university doesn’t inspect tutor suites. “That would be a question for the College whether they wanted to inspect the tutors,” Bicknell says.

Specifically, it’s a question for Associate Dean of the College for Housing Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

“Good question,” Dingman says. “We’ve written to the tutors in the contracts they get for housing saying they have to comply with the same regulations the undergraduates are required to comply with, and we point out the relevant sections of the handbook.”

But without enforcement, individual tutors decide whether they are going to keep microwaves and hot pots in their rooms, while students are afforded no such luxury. Dingman says it’s an issue of privacy—tutors live in their suites year-round, and House Masters are hesitant to invade the private residences of their full-time employees.

As far as the law is concerned, however, Harvard has the same obligation to inspect tutor suites and undergraduate suites, and Dingman grants that the College’s double standard on inspections doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “You’re right, if you’re really concerned about safety, you should be treating them the same,” he says. “The policy is under review.”

But how dangerous is your teapot, anyway? FM called The Cambridge Fire Department’s Fire Prevention bureau to ask them why microwaves were considered a fire hazard in dorm rooms.

“Who told you they’re a fire hazard?” asked Lt. Frank Tealy. He thinks for a minute. “Sometimes they can overload the electrical circuit. Maybe that’s it. Offhand I don’t think it’s a violation of the fire code,” he said. A second inspector, Deputy Chief of Fire Prevention Lester Bokuniewicz, also said that if microwaves weren’t allowed in dorm rooms, that was news to him.

It was still unclear as of press time whether the Cambridge Fire Code has much to say about cooking appliances in dorm rooms at all. But regardless, the fire department is not breathing down Harvard’s neck about it.

The real reason you can’t have a microwave in your dorm room is the state sanitary code, which is more concerned with whether you have a full kitchen for proper sanitation than it is with fire safety—which makes the College’s sudden enforcement of cooking appliance rules after the Eliot Grille fire all the more perplexing.

Where does all this leave HSA? In a pretty pickle. It’s unlikely that Harvard will continue to officially allow microfridges in dorm rooms. “I could tell you that if [Cambridge] Inspectional Services said these are not up to code, we could no longer sanction them,” Bicknell says.

HSA’s rentals agency owes most of its cash flow to the microfridge’s success. They rent it for one year for almost the same price it would cost a student to buy one new from the manufacturer, and the rest is profit. Without the microfridge, HSA Rentals would be left hawking window fans, lamps, and computers, and they don’t have a monopoly on any of those.

“The microfridge is a major part of their business—well, over 50 percent of their business,” Rombauer says. “[HSA Rentals is] an agency that couldn’t possibly make its business plan without it.”

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