Making Cents

Can UC candidates deliver on their technology proposals

This column began in my mind as an attempt to understand and evaluate the various technology-related campaign promises of the Undergraduate Council presidential candidates. In case you haven’t been carefully following the most important political battle of 2004, I figured I’d bring you up to speed on what’s on the table. Apparently, Matthew J. Glazer ’06 and Clay T. Capp ’06 have proposed putting course sourcebooks, the add/drop procedure and the student space reservation system on-line, implementing a free printing system, delivering cable television to dorm rooms over Ethernet wiring, and exploring legal music downloading services. Tracy T. Moore’06 and Ian W. Nichols ’06 echoed the demand for cable over Ethernet and free printing, and I couldn’t quite tell what Teo P. Nicholais ’06 and Samita A. Mannapperuma ’06 were proposing, because their non-standards-compliant web site didn’t render properly in my browser.

But as I sat down to think through these questions, it dawned on me that doing so would be a remarkably dull process: There’s nothing to think through. Harvardian snootiness towards cable television and pop culture in general aside, they aren’t in the least bit controversial. What student would really oppose these things? Never mind that some of them seem antithetical to other promises made by the candidates—making printing free surely encourages much more wasted paper than would be saved by switching to recyclable cups in the dining hall. The real issue is, while these are promises whose success might rely on the particular force with which a given administration will lobby for them (a claim of dubious value given that all the campaigns whose platforms I was able to see listed a number of promises that is clearly unreasonably large for a single year in office), they are promises whose success definitely relies on one thing: money.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the council, the student body, the administration and money is completely indecipherable. Certainly we (the institutional we) have money, and we (the students) like money a lot — the Crimson proudly compared our twenty-something billion dollar endowment to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Haiti (which it dwarfs. Actually, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook our endowment sits comfortably between the GDPs’ of Afghanistan and Jordan. But who’s counting, really?). But the council campaign issues at hand are not new — they’ve almost all been in the platforms for candidates at least since I arrived at this hallowed institution three years ago—and every year when discussion comes up among the responsible officials, the answer is always that the projects would be too expensive.

Could this really be true? Well, I don’t understand how. In 2001 Northwestern University deployed a system for delivering 20 cable channels over the college network. According to articles in the student daily paper at Northwestern and in the online trade publication Network World, the server hardware cost $13,000, and the licensing fees were $8 - $15 per student per year. This comes out annually to something like $65,000 annually plus some $20,000 initial investment. Now, Harvard officials have said the real cost would be in upgrading network infrastructure to handle the additional traffic—an expense of two or three million dollars perhaps but one that will surely be necessary in the near future anyway.

How about free printing? Well, computer services officals put the current cost of printing at around $250,000 annually, and this cost is covered by charging Faculty of Arts and Sciences account holders for use of the service. But it’s estimated that if printing were made available free of charge, increased use would drive that number up to a bit more than twice it’s present value—a cost which would then be entirely in the hands of the administration.

Similar cost calculations for all the proposals can be done in roughly this manner, and they all come out to numbers at this order of magnitude. They’re pretty big numbers—far larger than the council’s annual operating budget when all is said and done. But Harvard has a lot of money. I mean no disrespect to Northwestern, but we’ve made more money in endowment returns since I was admitted to the college than the entire value of the Northwestern endowment. Or the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) endowment. Or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology endowment. We have somewhere between two and 10 times as much money in the bank as do almost all of our close competitors (Yale and Princeton might be exceptions to this rule—we only lead them by a paltry $8 billion or $9 billion each). And we’re not that much larger than these other schools—our annual operating budget is quite similar to that at UPenn, to the tune of about $2 billion.

And while I don’t share the animosity of a few members of the class of 1969 towards our investment fund managers, who are clearly doing a very good job and probably deserve high salaries, the cost of one fund manager for one year could easily pay for all of these proposals. In fact, the salary for even a single fund manager, put into a bank account which earned no interest at all (and not accounting for inflation), could pay the entire operating budget of the council at its present value for nearly a century.

I understand that Harvard is a complicated institution, with a complicated budget structure, and I understand that all these different projects would have to come out of specific allotments laid out for technology or student services or whatever. What I’d like to be able to understand, however, is the apparent disconnect between the size of these budgets and the enormous amount of money which Harvard has in its name. Cable television is probably not an important part of the undergraduate experience here. Maybe we don’t really need wireless Internet access on every square foot of campus. Harvard certainly does spend money in the truly important places: We have the best paid and arguably most distinguished faculty of any school in the country (or maybe even the world), and I’ve had, overall, fantastic experiences with the teachers, tutors, house masters, and dining hall workers I deal with here daily. But these proposals aren’t really that expensive when looked at in the context of our budget and our bank account. Other schools have cable television. And student centers. And more money for student groups. It’s time that we asked the administration for a real answer to the question, “Why don’t we?”

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.