During much of the year, you won’t find Cantabrigians — residents of this frequently dark and frosty town — complaining about the heat. But from May to mid-October, it’s hot and humid in Cambridge. And it’s only getting hotter.
Opening the windows does little to circulate the stagnant air of my third-floor Westmorly bedroom. While hot dorms might seem inconsequential, sweltering suites carry consequences. Comfortable indoor temperatures enhance learning in two ways: by improving sleep and long and short-term educational achievement. Harvard must keep this in mind now and while renewing the Houses. The College should allow personal air conditioning in undergraduate housing, and incorporate central, building-wide air conditioning in renovated Houses.
Extreme temperatures have negative impacts on sleep, performance in the classroom, and overall health. And campus is getting hotter — Boston set multiple heat records this summer, reaching almost 100 degrees in early August. In dorms with bad ventilation, the indoor temperature can remain hot throughout the night. Not only do people with sleep disorders sleep better at lower temperatures, but people who sleep in warm environments also experience elevated stress hormone levels. Cooler temperatures also increase metabolism, which can help people maintain a healthy weight.
Regulated temperatures in dorms are especially important in the post-Covid era, given that some courses, research projects, and many job interviews remain completely virtual — meaning students are spending substantially more time inside, exposed to unpleasant temperatures. High school students learning and taking exams at high temperatures perform worse, both on the particular exams and over their cumulative high school careers, demonstrating the short and long-term effects of unregulated temperatures. Even if exams at Harvard are held in air-conditioned spaces, consistent learning in an uncomfortably warm environment can still lead up to inferior exam performance.
House building managers and Yard-ops cite several reasons to disallow window air conditioners, from the potential fire hazard to electricity consumption. However, these concerns are outdated. Fire hazards are not the worry they once were because many new styles of personal heating and cooling units are much safer than previous models. If building managers are still concerned, they could check that portable units are properly installed, instead of banning them altogether. While it’s true that both personal heating devices and air conditioners use significant amounts of electricity, modern portable air conditioners have significantly reduced power consumption — some use just five times the power of the College-approved minifridge offered by Harvard Student Agencies.
Window air conditioning units must be allowed in College housing, but they are not an ideal long-term solution. Central, building-wide air conditioning must be installed in renewed Houses. To be clear, air conditioning should be available in all student rooms, not just hallways and public spaces like the House library or dining hall. Central air conditioning is more equitable, too: Every student should have access to air conditioning, not just those who can afford a window unit. The upgrades will likely use more electricity, and they won’t be cheap. But the improvement in student health and comfort is well worth the cost.
Regulated temperatures are not only a matter of comfort but also educational achievement and health and safety. The College should not sacrifice the health, academic potential, and comfort of its students to save on energy costs. The advantages of regulated temperatures are great. The College must invest in central and building-wide air conditioning in the renewed Houses. For now, a (verboten) window unit will have to do.
Kanishka J. Reddy ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.