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?

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