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Oh, how we Harvard undergraduates are blessed with the wonders of technology. The potential wonders, that is.
The new electronic card key system--now activated in Quincy, Mather and North Houses and the Yard dorms--enhances security but sacrifices the quality of student life.
The principal flaw in the University's gradual shift to electronic security is the limited access it offers to student residences. In short, students' card keys permit them to gain entry to their own houses, but to no others.
This house-specific system makes it more difficult to visit friends and attend activities in other houses, and detracts from students' sense of a greater Harvard community.
For example, take the case of a friend of mine in Quincy whose girlfriend lives in Mather. My friend recently attempted to construct a chute to send his card key from his sixth-floor Quincy suite down to the ground outside, because her card doesn't work in the Quincy system. Is this necessary?
Admittedly, the general concept of the new card keys is appealing. In contrast to the traditional, metal keys that irresponsible students misplace each year, card keys provide better security. It's easier to change a computer code and issue a new plastic card than it is to change a set of locks for an entire house.
Indeed, Michael N. Lichten, Harvard's director of physical resources, says the university's ability to maintain security by "responding efficiently and quickly to lost keys was probably the foremost issue" in its decision to switch to the new system.
In addition, the card keys have spiced up the otherwise humdrum Quincy atmosphere. Now, students grin and giggle upon seeing the blinking green light that denotes an unlocked door (often after shrugging in exasperation when the first attempted swipe results in a sinister red signal).
Furthermore, the major "privacy violation" gripe that has spewed out of the Civil Liberties Union of Harvard since the card keys were introduced last year is not at all convincing. While students might not like the fact that the University can check its records to see when they come and go, this system will probably help track down troublemakers and also serve as a deterrent to crime. The card keys' benefits to safety outweigh their costs to privacy.
But the system of only allowing students admission to their own houses lacks any logic whatsoever. Certainly, the card keys increase Harvard students' protection from Cambridge's criminals. Yet limited inter-house access almost presumes a criminal element among the student body. Why would someone living in Mather automatically constitute more of a threat to a Quincy resident than another Quincy resident?
In fact, the new system hinders students' ability to benefit from the special Harvard experience of on-campus living--something students at other universities, scattered as they are in private apartments, cannot enjoy. And there are other legitimate reasons students deserve easier inter-house access: class sections, club meetings, rehearsals or postering. Moreover, students would still be able to maintain security by locking their individual suites.
For those who argue that the old system of metal keys ensures separate access, guess again. Until the Yard dorms led the electronic experiment last year, most first-years had copies of a master key that allowed entry to all the Yard dorms. And for the majority of the houses still using the old keys, students make regular strolls over to Dickson Brothers Hardware to copy their friends' keys.
Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 cautions that "if the cards can open any building, then a lost card would pose an even greater security risk" until the card is reported. Still, he says he understands students' desire for greater interhouse access, and he acknowledges that the College must find a way to balance the two concerns.
Jewett predicts that as more houses install the new system, it "will probably gravitate to a wider range of accessibility in normal working and social hours." But he says such measures are subject to the discussion of the house masters.
And if the opinion of Dr. Leigh Hafrey, co-master of Mather House, is any indication, such universal access could be a long time coming. While Hafrey says he would be happy to consider greater access in the future, he remains concerned about safety.
"My sense is that security issues will continue to be paramount," Hafrey says. "Sometimes you need to be inconvenient to protect people as much as possible.
Even if house masters want to maintain a more closed environment in their houses, the College should step in and mandate inter-house card key access. Certainly, Harvard's security system should foster an environment where everyone is safe.
At least as important, though, is that we all feel we're part of the same College.
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