A committee of the Undergraduate Council last night launched an investigation into computer use at Harvard, following a recent administrative decision to keep students from using the University's Macintosh computers for word processing.
The investigation was sparked by problems surrounding the use of 38 Macintoshes located in the Science Center basement. Following a fist fight and several confrontations last year between students who needed the computers for classes and students using them for papers, the computers were placed off limits to word processing students.
The new policy has provoked heated response from undergraduates and council members who questioned Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 about the decision at a recent council meeting.
Jewett said he was looking into the matter, but members of the council's Students Services Committee last night also decided to investigate the ban.
Council members said they are concerned that the ban creates an economic bias against students who cannot afford to buy their own word processors.
Committee members discussed a draft letter to be sent to Jewett and Lewis A. Law, director of computer operations, requesting that the College reopen the Macintoshes--which were available for word processing last year--for general use. The draft letter also discusses the possibility of having the University buy extra personal computers exclusively for word processing.
"I think this is a very serious problem," said committee member Douglas A. Winthrop '86. "There is a vast difference in accessibility to computers and word processing at Harvard, and [the closing of the Macintoshes to word processing] is making it worse."
Winthrop said that the committee would have to look into the different academic experiences of students with and without word processing, to see whether the problem would disappear with time, and possibly programs at other colleges.
"It would equalize an inequality," said Audrey G. McFarlane '86 who wrote the letter. "This is something that affects all students. Computers are becoming an integral part of life, and if we all had access, it would improve the quality of academic life."
The letter calls for a priority system in the Macintosh room where students who need the computers for classes have priority over students who are word processing.
"This alone will not solve Harvard's word processing needs, but it will help," Winthrop said.
The letter will probably not go to the full council until larter this month. The full council must vote to send the letter out.
"Many students find that they are able to produce better quality works if they can edit a printed version of their paper. A student with a typewriter does not have this option." the draft letter reads
"Even if word processors do not increase the overall quality of work, they certainly decrease the amount of time necessary to produce it. Consequently, students with word processors have a definite advantage over those who do not," the letter continues.
The Macintoshes are guarded by proctors from noon until midnight. Proctors keep students who are not in Computer Sciences 11 or Math 21a from using the computers for word processing. About 400 to 600 students need to use the computers for course work.
Law said there are not enough Macintoshes to handle the demand and that the faculty voted against providing funding for word processing. But last year the computers were available for word processing because the Science Center staff was willing to let students use empty computers.
"I think what we have to do is demonstrate that this is a major concern. Hopefully, if we demonstrate it there will be a change in policy," Winthrop said.
Students have the option of opening low priority word processing accounts on Harvard's larger VAX computer system or buying word processing time from the Office of Information Technology. But council members on the committee said those options were either too difficult to use, unreliable or too expensive.
In other action the committee selected student representatives to the four faculty standing committees. Anita Ramasastry '88 was elected to the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility. Joel A. Getz '86, Jennifer O'Connor '87 and Timothy A. Welsh '88 were elected to the Committee on Advising and Counseling. Daniel A. Simkowitz '87 was elected to the Committee on Athletics. Simon J. Frankel '86 and Lisa J. Schkolnick '88 were elected to the Committee on the University Library System