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The Real Keycard Debate

By Rosalind S. Helderman

It's time for both sides of the keycard debate to start talking about what they've really been talking about all the time: a last-ditch attempt by House Masters to show support for limited parietal rules.

Or, to be more blunt, sex and booze.

Neither side can really believe that universal keycard access (UKA), or the lack thereof, will make students more or less safe. There's no way the students who have been pressuring the Committee on House Life to expand UKA past its current 1 a.m. cutoff have the safety of their fellows at heart.

For students, the security argument provides a band-aid of respectability for their true aim--gaining the ability for any student to visit any other student, no matter the hour.

Supporters of UKA argue that a student who feels uncomfortable in the dead of night should rest easy knowing the doors of any of Harvard's 12 Houses will click open for them. This "safe space" argument is hard for Masters and administrators (who have for years blocked UKA in the name of security) to counter. They have to admit that students know a little more than they about how it feels to wander the streets of Cambridge at 3 a.m.

The students' security argument is a good one, in theory. But in reality, the ability to get into a House in the dead of night (or, on the other hand, the inability to do so) has not once been linked to the outcome of an on-campus crime situation. Blue-light phones, accessible to all, dot the campus, providing a potentially nervous student a quick hotline to safety no matter the green light-red light status of the nearest House.

Masters' arguments against UKA, while perhaps originally more grounded in student safety, are now even more specious than their opponents'. For years, Masters said they feared access would cut down on the number of locked, heavy doors between their charges and the scary outside world, potentially opening their Houses to unwanted persons and crime.

But these claims have been undermined by an uneventful experimentation with UKA until 1 a.m. If there is still any doubt, it is hard to ignore the example of Quincy House, where Master Michael A. Shinagel has steadfastly kept his doors primed for all Harvard ID's all through the night for the past several months, with no noticeable increase in crime.

Even more suspect is a claim by Masters that 24-hour access might lessen House spirit. House spirit? Between 1 and 8 a.m.? The only kind of spirit limited to House residents by locking the doors at 1 a.m. is the kind that comes in a bottle or goes on between two people behind closed doors.

Which brings us to the real point. For students, UKA is about choice. The choice to stay up until all hours of the night. The choice to spend the night in any room on campus, and not necessarily in the cozy confines of one's own House. And Masters know it. To approve UKA is to acknowledge that students engage in behavior they don't like. It's to acknowledge that students across this campus go to sleep nightly in rooms not assigned to them by the University and sometimes even do so intoxicated.

I'm not sure that Masters necessarily disapprove of all the carousing that might lead students to want to visit their fellows after 1 a.m. Certainly they don't disapprove enough to publicly condemn student choice or push for the type of parietal curfews that existed in the days of yore. In the end, they know that denying UKA will not bar Harvard students from each other's Houses (except for the unfortunate ones stuck in the courtyards).

Yet cutting off access at 1 a.m. gives Masters one very subtle way to wag their fingers and say (as my own mother sometimes does), "Shouldn't you be in bed at 1 a.m. anyways?" Students will still be up at all hours, Masters know, but restricting UKA puts them in the comfortable position of closing their eyes and pretending their charges are nestled snugly in their own beds, all by themselves.

Of course, I have no proof that Masters think this way. The problem with an argument in which both sides talk about something other than what they really believe is that it's hard to know what they really believe.

UKA rhetoric is bound to increase in coming days as House Councils push their Masters to relent on the issue. (The Undergraduate Council's head honcho for UKA, Todd E. Plants '01, tells me he's confident students will win eventually.) But Masters needn't despair. Drunk students who misbehave will still be properly disciplined by HUPD and the ad board. And, if Masters want to express that they disapprove of students' early morning behavior, they will always have that easiest of options: They can tell us so.

Rosalind S. Helderman '01 is a history concentrator in Pforzheimer House. She is a former managing editor of The Crimson.

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