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STUDENT AND TENANT activists may come and go, but Harvard always endures. University officials fully realize this maxim of Harvard politics, and use it to their advantage in devising "problem-solving" strategies. Those critics who attempt to force change on the University thus face the formidable task of achieving reform in a perilously short time span.
Time is on Harvard's side particularly in the area of its real estate holdings, currently the largest in the city. Tenants who complain of heavy-handed treatment by the University, of renovation work performed on a no-bid basis, of Harvard Real Estate's profit-maximizing policies generally, may work for reform for several years, but eventually decide to move away. You don't need a Ph.D in business or public administration, then, to come up with the most efficient policy for the money hungry landlord. Some basic basketball strategy will suffice: spread out your offensive resources into four corners, and stall.
Last week, the President of Harvard's Board of Overseers--who should serve as suspicious watchdog of administration policies rather than as an accomplice--showed he has been recruited into the stalling maneuvers. Herbert P. Wilkins '51, a Massachusetts State Supreme Court Justice, blatantly contradicted a public statement he made last year promising the release of a long-awaited report on all facets of "friction" between Harvard and the city of Cambridge.
Wilkins now says there will never be such a public disclosure of the blame for Harvard's past mistake with Cambridge residents, especially for its controversial policy of increasing its real estate holdings and displacing city tenants in the process.
President Bok and Robin and Robin Schmidt, vice president for government and community relations, both deny that Wilkins ever promised a report. But their denials are also part of the continuing attempts to divert public attention from problems until the people who care move out. Schmidt, for example, was told that Wilkins' comments had been published last April. "That may mean something to you," he said. "But it doesn't to me. I used to be a reporter, too."
Wilkins, for his part, does not deny his last year's comments. He merely says now that the Overseers work more effectively without publicity behind the scenes. "To rake over the coals and assess blame" would not be productive, Wilkins said last week.
But as City Councilor David Sullivan noted, back room discussions between Overseers and Harvard officials effectively exclude public concerns and public accountability. A formal statement by the University on city issues is needed now as much as ever because of growing discontent among Harvard's tenants.
Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, who holds claim to probably the longest political memory in the city, has not forgotten the city council's effort three years ago to prod the Overseers and Harvard generally into assuming public accountability for its influence on city tenants. The Overseers stalled against a report for three years, and now Wikins has called off the whole shebang, but Vellucci has pushed for a meeting between Harvard and city officials this spring.
Although at least one councilor has expressed doubt that Harvard will ever show up, we think that the meeting--which should includes press representatives--could be a starting point for a comprehensive study of the University's role in the Cambridge real estate market, its tax-free status, its paltry in-lieu--of-tax payments, its immediate plans for future expansion.
We hope that this time the University will not succeed in stonewalling one of the most serious issues it now faces: the basic contradiction between Harvard the respected institution of higher learning and Harvard the always nasty and often brutally profiteering landlord.
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