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The Harvard ID

Drawing the boundaries of the Harvard community


At The Harvard Shop, where I work part-time as a sales associate, Harvard ID holders get 20 percent off almost everything in the store. In practice, people who make use of this discount are usually first-year undergraduates, middle-aged adults in expensive two-week executive education programs, and Harvard staff who desperately need an umbrella on their way to work. Sometimes, though, I run into boundary cases. A research assistant at a Harvard-affiliated hospital. A contracted worker with a temporary access pass that looks like a student ID. Do these people hold Harvard IDs? It’s a question that should never come up outside of the very constructed situation of The Harvard Shop’s discount—but who holds a Harvard ID might have significant implications for “who belongs” in the Harvard community.

A few years ago, Aviva Chomsky wrote a short essay on the oft-unquestioned privilege of holding a U.S. Passport. Chomsky notes, “When you get your U.S. passport in the mail, it comes with a flyer that says ‘With your U.S. passport, the World is Yours!’”—yet most who can easily obtain a U.S. passport don’t even realize the extensive access and legal protection they gain by holding one. I am afraid that in Harvard’s growing empire, the Harvard ID may come to take some of the same significance of the U.S. passport in allowing access to space and power.

Two years ago, while the students and workers of Occupy Harvard set up a tent city in Harvard Yard, our administration shut the Yard off to all but Harvard ID holders. Although Harvard administrators professed their concern for student safety, in practice, this policy excluded reporters, tourists, and Cambridge residents who have walked through Harvard Yard on their way to work or school every day for many years longer than I’ve been a student. The policy also, for a time, excluded Extension School students, who do not all have Harvard IDs.

Writing last week about the newly-announced plans for the Smith Campus Center on the site we know as the Holyoke Center, Harry Lewis imagines a potential dystopian future in which Harvard’s new campus center becomes “a sort of sterilized version of the Harvard community, safe from infection by the neighbors, with Harvard restaurants and cafés open only to Harvard ID holders.” Lewis decries the idea that an ID-accessible three-story campus center would truly cultivate community. “Is part of the idea of drawing the Harvard community together to make it possible to withdraw from the daily life of Harvard Square?” he writes. “All of the blooming, buzzing, non-Harvard confusion that you have to navigate to walk around Harvard is what makes Harvard Harvard.”

University identification cards are a useful means of establishing access to physical buildings on campus. It makes sense that Harvard IDs contain chips which can be swiped so that certain Harvard affiliates can gain access to the otherwise closed buildings that they study, teach, and work in. But what happens when possession of a Harvard ID becomes the defining line between who is allowed in and who isn’t—a ticket into an exclusive space?

During the shutdown of Harvard Yard, the Harvard ID became a certificate of legitimate belonging to the Harvard community. So how does Harvard decide who merits an ID? Clearly, students and staff on campus should have an ID card, as well as staff who work off-campus but might need to access on-campus facilities. But what about those who work for Harvard but far away? What about Extension School students, or students receiving degrees on HarvardX? And what makes a part-time lecturer more a part of Harvard than a Cambridge resident who has rented an apartment from Harvard, attended public lectures at Harvard, and walked through Harvard Yard for the past few decades?

Harvard shouldn’t define its community based on who holds a Harvard ID. Harvard’s neighbors and workers deserve access to space and recognition at our university.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays. Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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