Forgetting its promise to confer with the Harvard Council on Undergraduate Affairs on any policy decision affecting undergraduates, the Administration last Spring sought and obtained Corporation approval of the principle of uniform room rents in the Houses. On Tuesday it officially announced the substitution of a single $510 a year rent for the current, confused multilevel assessments.
The speed of the action, which quickly followed President Pusey's announcement in April that the three year moratorium on the subject had ended, indicates that the Deans had few doubts about the plan. They have said their own certainty is strongly bolstered by the unanimous support of the Masters for the new standard rent. Such assurance, however, does not excuse omitting students from this discussion, and some serious questions about the philosophy and application of the system stand unanswered.
The case for uniform rents remains inadequately argued. It will not do to say a flat fee saves the Masters a lot of secretarial work unless such work can be shown to be unnecessary. It is unquestionably easier to remove a rent differential as a basis for room allotment, but not necessarily wiser. For in addition to allowing students some discretion in planning their budgets, the multiple rent system also provided a reasonable way to allocate a scarcity in the University--highly desirable rooms.
The snarls in administration that developed during the past decade were not necessarily inherent in the system, as the preliminary studies of the HCUA rent committee demonstrated, but rather a result of continued negligence in revising the rent structure. Unfortunately the Administration had little desire even to look at the committee's work.
Although the Administration has pointed to the Yard and other colleges as examples of smoothly functioning standard rent plans, the argument from analogy is not completely successful. In the Yard, for instance, remodeling of old dorms has removed severe inequities in room arrangements. And the fact that there have been few complaints is probably more a result of freshman bewilderment and a feeling that all will be better in the Houses.
Although eager to replace the confusion of 28 different levels of rents with one standard rate, the Administration and the Masters have not yet produced a rational alternative way to allocate rooms. The few hazy ideas presented involve some combination of seniority and a lottery. Relying on a blind draw is not an attractive way to distribute rooms of varying quality, and seniority will only result in constant room switching, as often occurs at Yale. Perennial moving is not only inconvenient to students, but it also inevitably defaces the Houses, as refrigerators, couches, and trunks are squeezed in and out of rooms. Neither of these approaches is admirable, but both are far superior to the other idea mentioned so far--that priority be awarded to some students for service to the House. Such a policy would emphasize inappropriately House Committee service and friendship with the House secretary.
Assuming the rooms could be reasonably allocated, the problem of financing remains. In adopting a standard rate the University has abandoned a moderate form of progressive income tax. Half of all students, presumably able to afford higher rents, were paying more than $510 a year. They will now be assessed the same amount as those less able to pay. Those on scholarship and a few others will receive full or partial help, but not, as previously, from the higher rents charged to wealthier students.
The total rent pool remains the same, but now the scholarship office will, in effect, have to provide some of the money previously gleaned from high priced rooms. The money required to increase scholarship stipends, therefore, is available and could have been used for purposes other than rent compensation had there been so change in the rent structure. It might, for example, have helped to soften the effect of the new tuition increase or the board raise which will necessarily come within the next few years.
The new rent adjustment fund will be of some help to those not on scholarships, but a revision of the current sent adjustment system might have worked just as well. In any event, the standard tariff removes one of the few remaining flexibilities in a student's budget, and that flexibility could have served both the student and the College.
No one expects the University to reverse its decision without trial. The general accord in the Administration and among the Masters should not be lightly dismissed, nor should the advantages of the system be overlooked. But before the system can yield positive results a great deal of additional thinking and planning must be done. In the end, a carefully devised multi-level rent plan may look attractive after all.