The essence of freshman year can perhaps best be remembered by recalling mealtime in the Freshman Union. Often resembling a cattle drive more than a meal, a year in the Union begins in a friendly enough way, but the novelty of dining with 1600 other freshmen have stopped introducing themselves to the people seated at their tables, even if they sit down with strangers. Dining room cliques begin to gell and conversations have turned from, "Hi, I'm Joe Schmoe, who are you and where do you come from?" to, "Oh my God, I've got an Ec 10 problem set and an Expos paper due tomorrow." By spring, the joys of the Union are fading and freshmen are eating in the Houses any chance they can get--for any reason. "I love Adams House granola," is an often-heard excuse.
But the freshman class has not always shared its first-year experiences over meals in the Union. It fact, it has been ten years since the whole freshman class was housed in the Yard, and then it was only fresh men. "I was a freshman in the Yard when that plan was in effect," says Dean Fox, fondly recalling his freshman days. "If you compare the freshman experience at Harvard to that at other colleges, you find we spend a tremendous amount of time and effort on the freshmen," Fox adds, implying that he finds many positive aspects to his plan, which has become known as the Fox Plan.
Last year, after much debate over ways to make the unpopular Radcliffe Quad a more appealing place to live, Fox came up with a plan for all freshmen to live in the Yard or Union dorms this year, and the Freshman Union remained open for meals on weekends. Overcrowding in the Yard dorms was eased by using Canaday to house some freshmen who two years ago would have lived in the Quad, and most of this year's freshmen say they are satisfied with the Fox Plan, though they readily admit they have nothing with which to compare it. Fox is also reluctant to offer hasty judgment, and says, "The plan is a long-term thing, not something you can discuss after only one year."
Many freshmen complained this year of the relative isolation of the Yard, but say they did enjoy the feeling of unity. "It was good to be in a central location," says Alyssa J. Karger '81. She adds, "You fear you will be put in a House where everybody already knows everybody else--the cliques are already formed and you'll be left out. But in the Yard, everyone is in the same situation."
Countering this complaint, Fox says, "I quibble with the word isolated. Freshmen are separate from the rest of the University. But they are involved in music, drama and other activities."
For Henry C. Moses, dean of freshmen, the Fox Plan is a fact of life. "I knew when I arrived it would be five, ten years before the question of messing around with the living system would be brought up again. I've seen no one questioning whether freshmen should live at Eliot and everybody else at North, Moses says.
Most objections to the Fox Plan came from Quad residents who felt an absence of freshmen would change the atmosphere of the Quad dramatically, and that the Quad would therefore lose its appeal along with its freshmen. The difficulty, however, was that some freshmen who used to live at the Quad felt they were missing something by not living in the Yard.
"I feel the plan might end up short-changing the Quad by eliminating freshmen from the life up there. It's also poor because more upperclassmen are unhappy now. It's nice to have freshmen in one place, but I can't imagine it would be traumatic to live at the Quad as a freshman," says John C. McCullough '78 of Mather House.
Administrators, however, are have a tough time dispelling Radcliffe's "unlikeable" reputation, which has prevailed over the years. "Unfortunately, Radcliffe is in a bad situation. The ultimate solution is just to assign people, but that eliminates free choice, and the House system depends on free choice. It's very much a trade-off," Michael W. Gibbons '78 says.
Most seniors emphasize the underlying problems of Radcliffe housing: single rooms and the distance from the University proper give the Quad a sense of isolation. Two years ago, students assigned to the Quad were referred to as having been "banished North" or "banished South" or "exiled to the Quad."
"No particular plan is going to solve that problem. The Quad has to be integrated into the University. Rather than the Fox Plan, more classes should be help up at the Quad, and any future College building should take place there so that it become a part of the lives of all the people at Harvard," Joan D. Channick '78 of Leverett House says.
Quad problems aside, freshman year is a unique experience in University life, and in part an underlying reason for the Fox Plan. "You can make a list of the stresses of freshman year and they all add up to what George Goethals calls the 'crisis of adolescence,'" Moses says, pointing out the classic case of the freshman who leaves home, where he has succeeded at everything he has tried, and finds great difficulty dealing with freedom and with academic and social demands.
"I'm very interested in freshman year and the proctors' advising on it. Let's face it--it's a bitch," Moses says.
Freshmen and their proctors also realize the peculiar nature of their situations, which call for enduring intense living, studying and social circumstances. "This is a strange society for we Homo sapiens to live in. The traditional civilized way of responding may not be the right way," Charles J. Duffy '77, a proctor in Thayer, says. "Perhaps the greater tension in the Yard may be due to overcrowding. When you live in the bunk above someone else, you are forced to get to know each other more rapidly than you would if you were in the next room over."
During freshman year, the architecture of some dorms makes it hard, if not impossible, for students to meet each other, Karger says. "In a place like Matthews, where everybody lived off a hallway and shared a bathroom, you got to know each other right away. The only time we [freshmen in Wigglesworth] saw people in the next entryway was when our proctor scheduled activities, and that was about once a month," Karger adds.
"All-male dorms are a more intense experience," Duffy adds. "For guys, it makes things more normal to have women around and it diffuses the pressure. My freshman year, Straus people weren't inhibited from running naked through the halls during a water fight. The Straus Rape and Pillage Society, a group made up of Straus freshmen who are notorious for 'boisterous activities,' is a group whose very nature is contrary to code living," says Duffy.
"Guys get more confused right away--in the first semester. But women are more restrained and get down to work right away. When the guys are getting over their conflicts, the women are starting to have them. I suppose the big conflict is trying to find your place at Harvard. All the old ways of defining yourself are gone," Duffy adds.
Many freshmen find that during their first year away from home they took the first steps crossing from the last stages of adolescence to adulthood. "It's a passing phase," says Katherine M. Elliot '81. "I'm glad to have had the experience of living in the Yard, and I'm glad it's over."
The Freshmen Dean's Office instituted several programs this year to make freshman year more enjoyable. They issued a series of dinner tickets to proctorial units in hopes that the students would visit all the Houses before the housing lottery. The dean's office sponsored several Sunday suppers, with live entertainment in the Freshman Union, and encouraged intermingling with faculty members and upperclassmen by holding student-faculty dinners.
Moses plans several more new programs for freshmen. He has invited faculty members to become associates of the Yard and join Union activities, asked head tutors for upperclass advisers for freshmen in every concentration, and gone ahead with plans to refurbish the Union to give it more seating capacity, a study library, and better lighting and sound-proofing. He has tried to streamline and improve the proctor system and is continuing to boost intramurals. For the Class of '83, Moses plans a pre-Freshmen Week excursion along the lines of Outward Bound, so that freshmen can meet each other and smooth the transition into coed dorm life.
David Riesman '31, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, and a member of the task force which last year studied student life, says it is unfair to house freshman women, who mature more rapidly than males, with freshman boys. He prefers the older system whereby women lived at the Quad with the upper classes and the Harvard "fresh men" lived in the Yard.
But House popularity is determined by a number of factors--not just its architecture. Among the most subjective determinants of popularity seems to be the House image. One of the most extraordinary phenomena of the past few years has been the loss of popularity of Adams House, once the perennial favorite because of its proximity to the Yard, as well as its physical accouterments, which include a swimming pool and enough tunnels to keep mole happy.
One Adams senior who wished to remain unidentified thinks the recent association of Adams with homosexuality has been a major detriment to the House's popularity. The image, he said, is based on the immature reaction of freshmen to the open attitude with which homosexuality is viewed in Adams House. "You can call it liberalism or realism, but such tolerance certainly comes with maturity," the senior adds. Images, however, are often misleading, and stereotypes may destine a House, or a collection of Houses, to remain unpopular among deciding freshmen for many years to come.
Elliot agrees with Riesman that some freshmen men seem immature. "I could carry on a conversation but I couldn't talk to them about anything that meant anything to me. I'm used to men; I'm not used to all those little boys running around. When you find someone they usually turn out to be winners, but it's a long, hard road in between. The guys here are into this boyfriend/girlfriend, try-to-get-laid attitude, and I find this immature. There's a need for communication, too. Either they are capable of a physical relationship and incapable of a friendly relationship, or they are incapable of both."
"Regardless of the truth that female freshmen are more mature than the male, it seems ridiculous to say you should house the freshmen in one place and the freshwomen somewhere else," says Kevin M. Kennedy '80. "It doesn't seem to me to be a very good idea to have the freshmen separate from the upperclassmen. I lived at Currier, and it was much easier for me to have contact with the upperclassmen than for the present freshmen. All I had to do was walk around the dining hall to meet them."
By March, most freshmen have begun to aspire to upperclass life and everything that accompanies it--especially the Houses.
Regardless of one's level of maturation, March is the month when freshmen must choose their favorites from among the 12 Houses. The House lottery system has changed over the past three years, from a procedure where all 12 Houses were listed in order of preference to one where only the top three choices are considered. Both methods of selection have made use of the principle of "maximization of first choice." The 12-choice system was frowned upon by a large number of freshmen who received their bottom choices, because most thought there would be little chance of receiving anything below choice number eight. In addition, the 12-choice system seemed to promote speculation for choices. Students thought there was a vast difference in one's chances of being assigned to choice one, and those of being placed in choice 12, Ann B. Spence, associate dean of the College, says. "Basically, when you maximize first choices, the chances of getting the last three or four are pretty high," Spence adds.
One of the results of the three-choice system is to make freshmen consider a strategy for getting into a House they like, or staying out of a House they dislike. The lottery application process became reminiscent of the college application process. "Safety Houses," ones which students felt lacked popularity, but which they wouldn't terribly mind living in, were often ranked third.
McCullough says Mather House was faced with a real problem in past years when there was a 12-choice lottery system. At that time, Mather "was not a top choice. Perhaps with the new system, more people will put Mather down as third choice in hopes of staying at the river," McCullough speculates.
Strategies such as this one were very common, and students relied on housing polls to give them hints as to which houses are the most popular. However, Quad Houses were among the least popular, and this situation was only aggravated by the Fox Plan.
The plan stresses polarity between Quad Houses and River Houses. "Some Houses are way over-subscribed, some are way undersubscribed. I think more people are willing to accept the premise that they will have a wellrounded Harvard experience at any House. It's not a matter of life or death which architecture they live in," Fox says.
The fact that students continue to transfer between Houses shows their willingness to stay in a House is not complete, regardless of the factors on which they base their decision. Improvements in the transfer system make this a more viable alternative to remaining unhappy in a House you dislike.
"Formerly, the transfer process used to be a significant hassle," Spence says. If a student wished to transfer, he put his name down on a list at the office of Eleanor C. Marshall, former assistant to the dean of the College for housing, and hoped for the best.
"Currier was my tenth choice. I lived there for a semester and then left. But it was a bitch to move. The whole transfer process was run by one woman. The only way to move someplace good was to pull strings by talking to someone inside the House, like a tutor, and having him put in a good word for you", Joan D. Channick '78 said.
Spence says the new system avoids these hassles by giving more responsibility to the Houses (applications are made to the House one wishes to move to rather than to a central office) and by allowing students to transfer only at certain designated times during the year so that there is less confusion about who is moving where and when.
The advantages of House living at Harvard, such as the small personal atmosphere, make it an attractive system to many, Houses provide the College with one of the only mechanisms available for efficiently reducing the overwhelming impersonality which could easily dominate an institution of this size. Administrative changes in Housing policy have been directed toward giving the Houses more autonomy, and making them something to be held in awe by freshmen, and accepted by upperclassmen