Puddle gauntlet

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November 28, 2006

Dear Dean Kagan,

You are known for being the Dean that cares about student life, and that’s why we love you. You have invested in a number of large-scale projects to improve our experience, perhaps the most notable of which are the remodeling of Hemenway and the Hark, the reform of the 1L curriculum, and the plans for the new Northwest Corner building. You are also clever enough to realize that sometimes it is the small gestures that count the most. A few of my favorite “large bang for the buck” projects have been the beanbag chairs, the free coffee, and the volleyball nets. Most impressive has been your responsiveness to student concerns. When I give campus tours, I always tell the story about the kid who complained in The Record that there was no coffee in the library at night. And within a week, there was. It seems that you have a knack for cutting through ossified bureaucracies and finding room in budgets to do what is needed, and fast. As winter approaches, I would like to bring to your attention an issue that has perplexed me since I arrived. But first, let me tell a story to provide some context: Having lived in Gropius all three years, I have had the opportunity to watch snow fall on the campus a number of times. And it has always amazed me that those people in yellow suits come scurrying out of who-knows-where to clear the snow before it even has time to settle. I have always appreciated that as a mark of Harvard’s concern for our comfort and safety. That level of concern is what enables me (a California guy, through-and-through) to honestly tell people on my tours that I am not too bothered by the Cambridge winters. I believe it is a selling point for those students who are considering Stanford instead. Given this obvious concern with our safety and comfort when it snows, what perplexes me is the state of the sidewalks between the southern end of Langdell and the northern gates of Harvard Yard. Any kind of sustained rain results in enormous puddles in that area. If it rains hard enough, the puddles are simply impassible without long-jumping. Yes, it is literally necessary to long-jump along portions of the route from Harvard Yard, past the Science Center, past the Engineering Quad and finally into Harvard Law School. It is sometimes enough to simply wear waterproof shoes, but not always. Especially during the downpour, the puddles are often deep enough that the bottoms of one’s pants get wet. Furthermore, when it is actually raining, pedestrians are so busy looking down to pick out the shallowest fording point that they often crash right into people going the other way along the same shallow path. The problem is only compounded once the puddles freeze over. One still has to long-jump over them because it is impossible to tell whether the ice is thin enough to hold one’s weight. But there is often slick black ice on either side of the puddles, sometimes hidden by fresh snow. When one lands the long jump, there is a great danger of doing “the splits” or simply slipping and falling. Even when one decides the ice is thick enough to cross, slips and falls are common. One expects to slip and fall on the streets of Cambridge, but not on the grounds at Harvard. Of great concern to all of us should be the fact that our $29 billion endowment would be viewed as a mouth-watering prize for a personal injury attorney whose client broke her back trying to long-jump over our puddles. So I am puzzled that those of us who live on campus have the yellow-suits to watch out for our comfort and safety, but that anybody who dares walk past Langdell is forced to run the icy puddle gauntlet. If it is possible to create flat, well-drained pavement throughout the law school, it seems strange that over my two-and-a-half year stay at Harvard, nobody has attempted to fix these massive drainage problems that threaten our health and safety every day of the winter. I would imagine that supplicants commonly ask you why you can’t “find a little money out of a $29 billion endowment to do this one little thing.” And I’m sure that is very annoying. I realize that even if you had discretion to spend the endowment, budgets are always tight. And I certainly appreciate that you have made space in the budget for so many improvements to student life. Sidewalk repair is neither flashy nor fun; it is one of those maintenance projects that are unfortunately necessary for student safety. Without knowing anything abut how Harvard operates, my guess is that the reason nothing has been done is that the areas I’m talking about are a bureaucratic no-man’s land. Those sidewalks are probably not the responsibility of the law school, the College, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or anybody else. Yet that area is traversed by almost all students in Law, Engineering, Economics, Divinity and Music, the undergraduates who live in the Quad Houses, and many visitors and members of the community. I do not know much about economics, but this seems to be a classic public-goods problem. Everybody would benefit from a solution, and it probably would not break the bank to fix it, yet nobody has the incentive to just do it. Yet I have great hope that this problem will be solved, because it is obvious that you do care about our comfort and safety. You have a track record of breaking through bureaucracies to make our lives better. Now that you are aware of the problem, I believe you can bring together the necessary players to solve this problem. If there is anything I can do to help you build momentum for change, please do not hesitate to ask. I could imagine that it might be useful for you to have a student write an open letter to the deans of the various schools, collect anecdotal evidence of the danger and inconvenience caused by this problem, or gather signatures from those who would support your efforts. But given your record of making quick and effective improvements for the sake of student life, I would imagine that a short walk from Langdell to Harvard Yard on a rainy day would be all you would need to want to make this happen. It probably takes time to hire construction crews to undertake a project like this, but it would be heartening to hear you make a public commitment to solving this problem this winter. I am sure that The Record and The Crimson would be eager to help spread that good news.

Sincerely etc.