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It's not surprising to find Harvard Student Agencies engaged in questionable commercial ventures which exploit their Harvard connection and the "motherhood" of student scholarships for personal financial gain. But for sheer effrontery and tackiness, it would be difficult to top their most recent excursion into entrepreneurial sleight-of-hand.
The occasion is the world premier of Dealing, a movie based on a book by Michael Crichton '65--Harvard's second-most-successful pulp author--concerning, fittingly enough, a slick young Harvard entrepreneur who pays his club dues by engaging in Cambridge drug traffic. ("Financing Higher Education through Student Enterprise," as they say.) Sack Theatres, the Boston outlet for this creation, decided that a real-life Harvard tie-in would be just the thing, so they wrote to the President offering to make the premier a Harvard benefit. But the idea of the University affiliating itself with a business venture concerning drugs at Harvard was a flop at Bok's office; and Phillips Brooks House, the Alumni Association, and the Crimson, which also received offers were similarly squeamish.
Not so HSA, which agreed to play the worthy cause. Ads soon blossomed in the Boston media announcing that proceeds from the Dealing premier would go in part to Harvard Student Agencies "to be used for financial aid to students." This may sound like scholarships, but HSA doesn't give out scholarships; instead, the money will go into the conglomerate's general operating fund where, President Michael L. Ryan '72 explained lamely, it will help bolster a couple of their more struggling agencies.
This incident beautifully points up all the enigmas and contradictions which HSA manipulates for gain in its other operations: Its affiliation with Harvard brought the Sack offer in the first place, yet it is officially beyond the reach of those who had sought to prevent Harvard's name from being associated with such a tawdry affair. As a "worthy cause" it can accept charity contributions and special privileges from the University, yet as a private organization its student executives can pocket thousands of dollars of monopoly profits. There is, in fact, no connection at all between a student's financial need and the amount of money he or she can make from HSA; many HSA agency heads and Presidents in recent years have not been on scholarship at all, yet have made more money in a single year than their entire tuition-room & board bills. (Often the relationship is even murkier: Boston matrons paying more than $5 an hour for an "authentic Harvard scholarship student" bartender are not told that the student--who probably really is on scholarship--is getting as little as half of what they're paying, the rest going to HSA overhead, including the salaries of the agency head and president.) To put forth HSA's central operating budget as worthy of charity support contradicts not only the basic premise of a profit-making student enterprise, but the reality of HSA's balance sheet. HSA's arrangement with Sack Theatres concerning the Dealing premier is an out-and-out fraud perpetrated on those who buy tickets thinking that the proceeds are benefiting scholarships. If it's too late to cancel the whole sorry arrangement, HSA's part of the proceeds should be offered to the scholarship committees or, if neither Harvard nor Radcliffe will take it, to the Red Cross for Bangladesh relief or a similar genuine worthy cause.
But further, this episode points out the need for a major re-examination of HSA and the University's relationship with it. Unless the Agencies are willing to submit to severe restrictions on who may profit from their activities, and how much, they should be denied all special privileges from the University. And conversely, any other student group willing to submit to similar guidelines should be given similar privileges.
In particular, we record with dismay Vice President Steven Hall's decision last summer to give HSA a monopoly on the right to arrange charter flights for Harvard-affiliated groups. We assume that Harvard men and women are intelligent enough to be able to make independent decisions about the relative prices and reliability of various charter outfits, and see nothing to be gained by forcing them to deal only with HSA, HSA, though it fought tooth-and-nail for this monopoly right, and though its rates are higher than the cheapest available, claims it makes no profit from charter flights. Michael Ryan's Minderbinderesque explanation was that "We get a cash flow out of Charter Flights rather than revenue," which--even ignoring questions of prevailing short-term interest rates--strikes us as bullshit.
Three years ago freshmen parents received an HSA letter offering, for a not-so-slight fee, to surprise their offspring with boxes of goodies to help relieve the pressures of exam period. The letter, a classic of its genre, evoked Dickensian images of gaunt orphans on scholarships assembling goodies all night in dank cellars, while completing math problem sets with their toes. The goodies, of course, were actually preassembled by one of the many fly-by-night outfits which, with the help of inside units such as HSA, annually rip off students and their naive parents for millions of dollars. (This was the same year HSA almost succeeded in getting free copies of Boston After Dark banned from campus on the grounds that their own entertainment calendar deserved a monopoly. Competition immediately put the HSA publication out of business.) The president of HSA that year, Andrew Tobias, went on to help assemble several of these outfits into a $100 million student rip-off conglomerate called National Student Marketing, about which, following its collapse last year, he wrote a cute, self-effacing book called "The Funny Money Game." Now he's at the B-School learning how to do it better next round. It's time for Harvard to recall HSA's halo, and force them either to play the game by the rules or not to play at all.
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