[Paleopsych] NYT: At Harvard, an Unseemly Display of Wealth or Merely a Clean Room?

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At Harvard, an Unseemly Display of Wealth or Merely a Clean Room?
March 22, 2005


    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
    actual sweeping.

    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
    of filth.

    "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."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=PAM%20BELLUCK&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=PAM%20BELLUCK&inline=nyt-per

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