SCRATCHED rings, undersized beer mugs, and skinny submarine sandwiches have dominated this year's episode in the continuing controversy over the Harvard Student Agencies. The HSA has countered with a heavy-handed attempt to bolster its "image" by publishing a weekly "HSA Reports" feature in the Student Calendar.
Beneath all this surface rumbling, however, dubious trends of a more fundamental nature remain unquestioned. One of the most complicated, and potentially the most controversial, of these problems concerns the very rationale for the HSA's existence.
The Agencies were founded to provide jobs for needy students, to protect University customers from unscrupulous business practices, and to give the student businessman an opportunity to organize commercial operations in ways that will not conflict with the University's tax-exempt status.
The use of dormitory rooms and phones in operating businesses was forbidden long before HSA's first appearance in the fall of 1957. Businessmen in the Square complained that students, who didn't have to pay taxes for their "offices," were given an unfair competitive edge; the practice of using rooms for business purposes was consequently forbidden.
Student entrepreneurs were thus restrained from organizing complex operations, for the expense of renting a Cambridge office and of securing a post office box put the establishment of a business beyond the reach of most students.
The HSA, however, provided a cheap and effective method for students to conduct businesses legally. HSA would supply office space in exchange for a cut of the profits. Student business was thus freed from its greatest restrictions; HSA expanded from 144 employees in 1957-58 to 396 last year.
As HSA continues to grow, it may come to threaten the continued existence of many "amateur" undergraduate organizations. The Student Calendar now competes directly with non-professional student publications; and a new typing agency may end the independent, unorganized operations in this area.
More generally, however, undergraduate organizations which cannot pay students for participation may in the future have difficulty in attracting members among people who could do similar work with HSA for a profit. The student publications, PBH, Crimson Key, and the drama clubs, among others, try to operate with volunteer labor in fields which HSA could exploint for commercial advantage. Continued expansion may cause students to replace educational and social values in undergraduate activities with a purely commercial spirit.
Dean Watson last week emphasized the danger which this new commercialism represents. "If everybody starts asking, 'What's in it for me?', it may very well be the end of all undergraduate organizations at Harvard," he declared.
The commercial trend could, of course, be justified by the increasing tuition costs and the growing number of scholarship students attending the University. But the fact is that HSA hires without regard to financial need. Although officials maintain that they do consider financial circumstances when selecting managers, many people well-informed about HSA operations persistently complain that the Agencies give preferential treatment to certain athletes and to personal friends of Dustin M. Burke '52, general manager of HSA. Last year Charles Ravenel '61, then quarterback of the football team, ran the New York Times agency, a job which reportedly paid about $1,000 for work limited mainly to the first few weeks of the term.
And it can be proven that many managers hire personnel without even inquiring into their financial circumstances. Frederick Q. Rice '63, former manager of the Catering Agency, admitted to such practices in the Dec. 2 CRIMSON.
The Agencies have not threatened to produce plays, or organize a rides-service or ticket agency for profit, but they have entered the field of student publications rather massively. In addition to the Calendar, HSA now publishes Let's Go Guide to Europe, which is distributed free to Charter Flight passengers and sold nationally. The Guide advertised several weeks ago in the Calendar seeking competitors for "well-paid positions" on its editorial staff.
Burke pointedly remarks that HSA has not made, nor will it make, any commitment not to enter the creative publications field. The Agencies' position remains essentially what it was during the HSA-Yearbook struggle over the formation of Calendar in 1958: HSA will not sponsor any agency competing with the "central core effort" of an existing student publication. That is, HSA will not publish a daily newspaper, a humor magazine, a yearbook, or a literary magazine, as long as the existing publications occupy these fields "adequately." The Agencies will not, on the other hand, promise to keep out of creative fields entirely.
Indeed, Burke openly proclaims the need for HSA-type management of student organizations. He said last week, "I'm in favor of assisting students to find outlets for their talents in ways that will help pay their way through school. Students should be helped to see the money-making possibilities in their activities." He argues that student publications should (and soon will have to) pay their advertising solicitors. The CRIMSON, in fact, voted just last week to begin offering commissions to its advertising solicitors.
THE commercialization of student activities which Burke foresees is actually becoming a greater threat by day, especially in the publications field. The advertising market around Harvard has become so tight in the last few years that many publications (e.g. the Advocate) are having a hard time meeting their expenses while trying to retain a truly amateur spirit.
Part of the difficulty comes from the added competition of HSA publications, although the amount of advertising revenue taken in by the Calendar would hardly suffice to keep the many publications at the College solvent if it were split among them. The Calendar itself loses money.
Burke justifies the continued subsidy of the Calendar by pointing out that it provides a needed service to the University. It supposedly gives each Administrative department guaranteed access to students' rooms with all official notices and memoranda--a list of employment opportunities, for example. This, however, is a task for the University itself to tackle; there is no reason for a nominally independent student business organization to pay for a service which the University Printing Office could offer. Individual students pay the cost in higher HSA prices while student publications suffer from a needless loss of advertising revenue.
If HSA monopoly power continues to help the commercial spirit sneak into fields occupied by non-profit undergraduate organizations, the day may come when students view activities merely as a way to make money, and not as part of the educational process. Likewise, expansion into fields where a pool of workers can offer no advantages--professional typing is a case in point, is uncalled for. The HSA argument that students who need financial aid should be given opportunities for term-time employment is indisputable; but the incessent expansion of the Agencies (which continue to hire without regard to financial need) threatens some values more important than providing non-scholarship students with extra spending money. The need to limit further HSA expansion is obvious.
Burke complains that there are already "more restrictions on HSA than on any other living organization." The Agencies, he says, are not permitted to compete with Harvard Square businesses or with the "central core organs" of student publications.
But despite these restrictions, HSA still has a history of paying little respect to the wishes of the Harvard community. It agreed not to compete directly with student publications only after several months of prolonged and often bitter negotiation. This year it was only after a great deal of pressure from the House Committees and the Student Council that the HSA agreed to furnish a special committee with financial information. And of course there is the yard linen-depot affair, in which HSA pushed through an essentially administrative decision without informing important members of the Administration, or even the companies involved.
HSA has become a self-willed monopoly. Much that it does however, is laudable. It would be foolish to advocate a return to the undesirable situation before it was created. But this does not mean that the HSA spirit should come to dominate all College activities. It would be unfair to accuse HSA of actively plotting the takeover of every lucrative enterprise at the University; it would be foolish to leave the way open so that, by slow encroachment, the HSA could expand into areas where its activities are not essential.
The new HCUA permanent investigating committee can be useful in confining the Agencies to their essential services. But the committee will be helpless unless the HSA management decides voluntarily to heed its wishes, and unless the committee itself decides to concentrate on issues more basic than cracked beer-mugs and scratched rings. The HSA's employment practices, its expansionist tendencies and charges of monopolistic practices all need to be studied, and the HSA must learn to respond to the non-commercial needs of the community. Biographical Calendar vignettes alone will not solve the problem.
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