It’s election season again-—the Undergraduate Council election season, that is—so get ready for the perennial laundry list of promises from dozens of candidates. One of the most familiar populist vows will be to outfit all student dorm rooms on campus with cable television, not just the “lucky” residents of DeWolfe and Jordan. The candidates, however, should carefully ponder whether or not they support such a plan: not because of issues of cost, but instead because of the impact it would have on the Harvard community. Although many students gripe about the lack of cable in individual rooms, the limiting of cable to dormitory common areas turns television from a solitary experience into a highly social one.
Harvard students aren’t the most communal animals to begin with, so it’s scary to ponder how isolated we might become if the lure of cable television sat in our bedrooms next to Instant Messenger and Snood. Cable television need not be an isolating force; instead, the presence of cable televisions in house common spaces and living rooms brings otherwise isolated students out of their rooms and into contact with each other. And this is no small accomplishment, considering that there are only a few things that routinely pull students from their bedrooms, namely, food, parties and Red Sox playoff games.
Exhibit A in this argument is the Major League Baseball playoffs last fall. In a scene repeated around campus, dozens of individuals packed into dormitory common spaces every night a Red Sox game was on. Packed in the common room in the Weld basement, there were more students watching the game than there were players on the rosters of both teams. Lifelong Boston residents, their nervous eyes buried in their hands for the better part of a month, sat side-by-side with international students unfamiliar with the rules of the game. Together, we hung on Manny’s every swing, Zimmer’s every scowl, and Pedro’s every pitch and punch. The physical and emotional closeness of everyone in the room, regardless of rooting interest, could not have been possible if we had each watched the game separately from our desk chairs and futons. It was the swarms of exuberant fans streaming out of common rooms that created the impromptu parade through Harvard Yard after the Sox’s victory over the Oakland Athletics.
House bonding via television is not limited to baseball. Other sporting events, such as the NCAA Basketball Tournament in March and Sunday football games, draw students to the television. Soon, the presidential election, with its debates and election-night coverage, will rip us away from our readings and problem sets. In fact, on the night of the New Hampshire primary elections in January, several dozen students trekked to the Institute of Politics to watch the elections returns on CNN. Judging from this turnout, house living rooms will surely be filled on election night. And instead of Harvard students watching these events alone in their rooms, or with their rooming groups, they will do it along side dozens of their housemates, thus further contributing to the ideal of house community which is so elusive in so many of our dorms.
All this presupposes the existence of ample television sets in the houses and freshmen dormitories. The first-years have plenty of common spaces, including common rooms in Weld, Canaday, Apley Court, Loker Commons and the magnificently large Straus common room. The Quad Houses, too, are well wired, with multiple living rooms in each house, and a recent assurance from Currier House Master Joseph Badaracco to wire more of the houses’ television sets to cable. But many of the river houses seem to be woefully lacking in common spaces, let alone cable televisions. The council should focus its energy and the College direct its resources towards creating more “living rooms” in the river Houses and subsequently equipping them with cable television.
Furthermore, the College is not actively denying any student access to cable television. Every house has at least one TV hooked up to cable, and there are enough south-facing rooms on campus that most students hell-bent on setting up a satellite dish will ultimately be able to do so. But cable television is not a right, at least not in the same sense a bed and a bathroom are. Despite the fact that all the other Ivy League universities (save Cornell) have wired their dorms for cable, Harvard students have no entitlement or reasonable expectation to the same treatment. In an era when many universities are supplying their students with a growing list of amenities, Harvard should be applauded for refusing to supply a perk that ultimately would be detrimental to our already delicate sense of community.
With the termbill hike successfully completed and a fresh set of faces soon to be on the council, it won’t be long before the council once again turns its gaze toward cable. During the council’s last serious push for cable, in the spring of 2003, some representatives vigorously countered the College’s claims that installing cable is logistically impossible. The administration’s line is that the cost of wiring undergraduate room for cable TV would run into the millions, and there’s no time of year when construction could occur because most dorms are occupied in the summer. Students have countered with a proposal to digitize programming and send it through the campus ethernet network, as Northwestern University has done since 2001. But nearly lost in this back-and-forth fight over when, how, how much, and what flavor of wiring were important concerns about how the presence of cable in every room would affect student life.
Indeed, it is the council’s job to advocate for students and their interests, but the role of a legislative body is also sometimes to push an unpopular agenda that will ultimately benefit its constituents. Here’s hoping they have the guts to do it.
Matthew S. Meisel ’07, a Crimson editor, is a chemistry concentrator in Currier House.