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A More Efficient Approach


By Robert O. Boorstin

IT WAS ALL the administrators in Massachusetts Hall needed. As if everything surrounding their plans to provide cheap energy to the Medical Area hadn't already gone wrong, now the guys who run the plant had gone out on strike.

They just took off their overalls, picked up their lunch boxes and headed out the door. For the next ten days, 57 members of Local 877 of the International Union of Operating Engineers stood outside the giant Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP). When it got really cold, the engineers and operators huddled in one of their co-worker's cars with the heat going full blast. But when they were needed--to picket the entrance where the pipe fitters went in or to convince the Teamsters not to deliver oil to the plant--they forgot about the cold. The workers stood their ground until the police told them to "move or get arrested" or they grew hoarse from yelling about a University which had "said one thing and then did another."

Some of the workers on the line looked very tired--and with good reason. Since they'd moved into the new plant, they'd been working staggered shifts--switching from day to night shifts every other week. The union said that Harvard had offered them a two-year contract guaranteeing regular shifts and 10- and 9-per-cent wage increases but then had turned around on its promise. Harvard-hired officials denied that, saying they were offering the same wage increase, and wanted to leave the work schedules issue open to discussion.

But the specifics of the contract aren't really that important. For the people in Holyoke Center familiar with the project, the whole dispute was just another chapter in the long, frustrating history of MATEP. From the beginning, the idea had been a disaster, the project cursed and damned. The first administrative vice president to take charge of the project had hired an incompetent consulting firm--and Harvard had been forced to dump both of them. The power plant, at a cost of more than $230 million, was already the single most expensive project ever undertaken by any university--and Harvard's officials were still struggling to settle long-term financing. For four years, Harvard had been paying through the nose for the best Brahmin lawyers it could find--and the state's petty bureaucrats still stubbornly refused to let Harvard run the plant the way it wanted.

Publicly, the administrators remained calm, expressing satisfaction with the way the company they'd set up to run the plant--the Medical Area Services Corporation (MASCO)--was performing. But privately, they had to be questioning their scheme, wondering what had happened late Saturday night when the plant, under control of MASCO's higher-ups, stopped functioning and the emergency switches had to be thrown. They had to know that the 13 hospitals and institutions which count on the plant for heat, chilled water and air conditioning would not be reassured if the lights started to dim or the incubators started to cool off. They had to worry about the strike continuing longer than they'd like, about local news films showing Harvard-hired security agents throwing picketers to the ground as unmarked oil trucks delivered their booty inside.

None of that happened. The University's informal team of plant-watchers and labor negotiators drove down to Mission Hill and came away with a signed contract. The users probably didn't even know the plant went down until they heard it on the 11:00 news. The MASCO higher-ups got everything under control and ran the plant fairly smoothly for the duration of the strike. And the plant's oil supplies never even got near the danger point.

WHEN HARVARD gets involved in the business of producing power--just as when it manages its own real estate or thinks about selling what its professors invent--it creates a company. The University chooses the corporate line, administrators say, because it makes things more efficient. "I am about as qualified to manage real estate as I would be to manage the Food Services," Joe B. Wyatt, vice president for administration, said when asked to explain where the idea for a real estate company came from. "I don't have the faintest idea of what to do in a kitchen."

In this case, the company is MASCO--in other cases, it is Harvard Real Estate and, who knows, maybe Veritech--and its business is producing power. And true, MASCO's temporary troubles are over--the workers are back on the job. The incident, however, is symptomatic of a disease familiar to Harvard's corporate offspring: insensitivity. "We've got nothing against the University and its power plant." one worker said as he rubbed his hands together. "It's just that Harvard doesn't know how to handle its employees." "The strike should never have happened," a Harvard official said after it was all over. "It was simply an utter failure in communication." That failure was ostensibly MASCO's, but establishing bureaucratic layers between employer and employee or landlord and tenant hardly seems the best way for Harvard to improve communication.

THE MATEP STRIKE also demonstrates the vulnerability of Harvard's plans to build a power plant. The 57 workers who picketed outside the plant two weeks ago were walking ground familiar to the citizens of the area. For four years the University has been trying to install six huge electricity-generating diesel engines it needs to make the plant cost-and energy-efficient, and for four years the people who live in the shadow of the giant smokestack have warned that the engines will produce pollutants that are dangerous to their health. The state agency which looks after such things has supported the citizens and the engines are gathering dust in a South Boston warehouse.

Without those diesels, the power plant is still a hollow shell, a $230 million testament to Harvard's failure to realize that striving for efficiency sometimes leaves people angry. Two weeks ago, 57 people who spend eight hours a day inside MATEP decided that they'd had enough, and put a temporary crimp in Harvard's plans. But in another two weeks, a state bureaucrat who has spent eight hours a day for a year thinking about MATEP will tell Harvard whether it can install its diesels--a decision that could ruin those plans permanently.

If Harvard wins this decision, it will be proof, more than anything, that the right combination of money and lawyers can do just about anything. If it loses, officials will be angry and probably talk about a breakdown in communications between the University and the state. But as the University's lawyers march off to court to challenge the decisions, the officials who dispatch them should realize that a more sensitive approach to their problems, from striking workers to dusty diesels, might have been more efficient in the long run.

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