[Paleopsych] NYT: At Harvard, an Unseemly Display of Wealth or Merely a Clean Room?
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Wed Apr 13 14:53:02 UTC 2005
At Harvard, an Unseemly Display of Wealth or Merely a Clean Room?
March 22, 2005
By PAM BELLUCK
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 21 - The cleaning implements in Leonard
Novy's apartment at Harvard consist of two sponges so calcified they
could be from the Mesozoic Era and a broom betraying few hints of much
The other day, there was a grimy handprint on the wall, a blizzard of
dust on the television, and a carpet so littered with lint that it was
hard to tell whether it was gray or had turned that color under a film
"I think we've set a record," said Mr. Novy, 27, a graduate student
whose isosceles-triangle-shaped apartment is accessorized with a deck
of cards and a corkscrew. "I've lived here since September, and we
haven't vacuumed once."
So he was delighted when his roommate, Gregor Schmitz, 29, hired a new
cleaning service called DormAid, run by Harvard students.
"It really just struck me as a great idea, given the state of our
apartment and given how expensive it is to buy all these tools," Mr.
Novy said, watching two women from a professional cleaning service
contracted by DormAid scrub and scour. For $85.57, they not only
cleaned but also placed a Lindt chocolate truffle on the pillow of Mr.
Novy's lumpy futon.
But DormAid, the brainchild of some entrepreneurial sophomores who are
offering the service at Boston University, Princeton and elsewhere, is
not universally welcomed at Harvard.
A recent editorial in The Crimson, the student newspaper, blasted it,
calling for a boycott.
"Hiring someone to clean dorm rooms is a convenience, but it is also
an obvious display of wealth that would establish a perceived, if
unspoken, barrier between students of different economic means," the
editorial said. "It's up to each one of us to ensure that our peers
feel comfortable on campus, and if that means plugging in a vacuum
every two weeks, then so be it."
Alex Slack, a junior who is an associate editorial chairman at The
Crimson and who wrote a separate column critical of DormAid in
November, said: "Frankly, I wouldn't really respect anyone who got
this DormAid thing. Suck it up and pick up your own room, I guess."
Besides, said Mr. Slack, whose own room was strewn with clothes and
beer cans on a recent visit, "I kind of revel in being able to live
sort of slovenly."
Such arguments irk DormAid's progenitors, Michael Kopko and Dave
Eisenberg, whose agility with business models and marketing strategies
would impress any Sam Walton.
"There's so many ways in which on our campus you're able to display
wealth in so much more obvious a fashion than having someone quietly
clean your room," said Mr. Eisenberg, 20, a psychology major from
Westfield, N.J.. He said class differences were evident in clothes,
cars and entertainment, even in a campus laundry service that would
wash, fold and place students' clothes in a "very noticeable" yellow
"A minimum cleaning is $17.99 per roommate," said Mr. Kopko, 20, an
economics major from Nyack, N.Y., adding that to avoid stratifying
people, if one roommate does not want the service, DormAid will clean
only the rooms of those who do. "How much does it cost to go to a
movie with popcorn, buy a CD, buy a DVD?"
Mr. Kopko said that the business might draw revenues of $200,000 at
Harvard, but that most of it would go toward relatively high wages,
making Harvard a sort of "Saks Fifth Avenue" for DormAid, a showcase
to generate interest on other campuses.
Mr. Kopko said that he was "not, like, a neat freak," but that as a
freshman he had hired professional cleaners for his room and
eventually "had half the building getting cleaned."
Last summer, after he and his brother Matt, 18, a freshman at
Princeton, conceived DormAid, Mr. Kopko advertised it by writing a
letter to parents of sophomores and by wearing a sandwich board the
first few days of school. Then Harvard officials stopped him, vetoing
DormAid because of concerns about insurance, security, the Fair Labor
Standards Act and elitism, said Judith H. Kidd, an associate dean.
Mr. Kopko and Mr. Eisenberg, who have invested about $7,000 in the
business, appealed with a sheaf of counterarguments and fixes.
(Princeton and Boston University, they said, put up no such fuss.)
They proposed that a cleaning service would do the mopping, dusting
and fumigating, but that a student would supervise each crew and earn
about $10 an hour.
They agreed to change the company's name from DorMaid to DormAid
because, Mr. Kopko said, some Harvard officials said "maid" was
"sexist and demeaning."
And they conducted a campus survey, finding that 74 percent of
respondents supported the idea and that 26 percent would use the
service. Of those who would not use it, only 25 percent said the
reason was its cost. That convinced Harvard officials that a class
clash was not a big issue, Ms. Kidd said.
But one of those telephoned randomly for the survey was Mr. Slack, who
was woken from a nap induced by his Arabic homework.
He wrote a column titled "Really Conspicuous Consumption," saying
"wealth probably shouldn't correlate with dust bunny size."
And in case readers failed to get a vivid picture, Mr. Slack, 20, a
history major from Winnetka, Ill., added, "Being clean is not
something to be proud about here. My roommates and I sometimes measure
our self-worths by comparing consecutive underwear-wearing days."
Some people share Mr. Slack's view.
"There is no reason to highlight the socioeconomic differences among
the students here," said Ofole Mgbako, a freshman.
But Elena Castaneda, another freshman, who requested a vacuum for
Christmas, said that with Harvard's demanding schedules, "the need for
clean dorms is much greater than the silly idea that it would be
another way to demarcate classes within Harvard."
Joseph Cianflone, 21, a sophomore who is DormAid's "general counsel,"
said that as a student on full financial aid, "I'm one of those who
are supposed to be up in arms. But I work two or three jobs now. I
never have time to clean my room."
Besides, the DormAid leaders said, no one objects to Dorm Crew, a
university-run service that pays students to clean bathrooms on
Still, Mr. Novy, a visiting student from Germany, said he could
understand the class warfare argument.
"I definitely wouldn't tell my parents about it," Mr. Novy said. "They
were students in the 60's, and they wouldn't have ordered such a
service for political reasons. They would have probably done a sit-in
in front of the apartments."
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