A House Divided


SO, DO YOU LIVE in a dorm, or what?" old friends usually ask me when vacations bring us together back in my home town. Invariably, they get more of an answer than they bargained for Instead of a simple "yes" or "no," I launch into a detailed description of Harvard's House system, and when I list all the advantages of House life, one of the first points I mention is how much resident tutors add to The Harvard Experience.

Resident tutors serve an impressive variety of functions in the House. They teach House sections and help with those killer problem sets. They share their academic experience and offer career guidance They write recommendation letters They play intramural sports and chaperone dance. And they often become good friends with the students in their House. As Winthrop House Master James Davis puts it, "it's the tutors that make the Harvard House run."

Since tutors play such a vital role in undergraduate life, it might seem natural to assume that the College has established a rigorous and uniform method for selecting them And since tutors interact so closely with students, it might seem natural to assume that such a selection process would solicit and emphasize student input--but neither assumption is necessarily true.

As a recent report by the Undergraduate Council's Residential Committee reveals, each House devises its own tutor selection process, and accordingly, student influence varies widely.

In most Houses, students can serve on selection committees that review applications--sometimes as many as 50 per opening--and recommend a few finalists. Some House encourage greater undergraduate advice and have students interview the candidates. In Leverett and North Houses, students do more than just offer advice--along with the Masters and Senior Tutor, they sit on a committee that decides, by consensus, which applicants to hire. But in other House, students have no voice in the selection process, and from initial screening to final appointement, tutors and Masters act alone.

In Houses where it is encouraged, student involvement in the tutor selection process has proven an unqualified success Independent administration of the Houses remains a worthy goal, of course, but Masters should not go overboard with their freedom and refuse such an advantageous policy. The Houses should expand undergraduate involvement in choosing resident tutors.

Because each resident tutor opening attracts so large a pool of candidates, student involvement insures a more rigorous evaluation of applicants. In Lowell House, for instance, Master William H. Bossert '59 and co-master Mary Lee Bossert alone screen all initial applications, conduct all interviews, and make final appointment, according to the Council report. Each application would certainly receive more extensive scrutiny if the Bosserts brought students into the evaluation procedure.

Undergraduates represent a rich source of academic expertise; this is, a government concentrator can no doubt provide valuable, insights into the qualities that make a good government tutor Also, if many people screen applications, each candidate will receive a more careful reading--insuring that the candidate himself, not the polish of his resume, is under examination.

In a number of House, the Master rely on current tutors to ease the burden of screening applications and to provide the expertise needed for specific departments. But engaging tutors, however, does not obviate the need for student input. As evaluators, Masters and tutors might make the most effective judges of academic excellence. But tutors' ultimate success lies in interacting with students in a social atmosphere, and undergraduates, especially in the interviewing stage of the selection process, can best predict how well an applicant will fit into the House atmosphere.

COLLEGE OFFICIALS, in discussing the tutor selection process, often underestimate the importance of student involvement because of a too-narrow focus on tutors' intellectual qualities. Assistant Dean for the House System Thomas A. Dingman '67 says that because "tutors are teachers," the College looks for academic excellence before social skills, or, as Bossert says, Lowell House looks primarly for "great intellectuals. We don't select tutors primarily to entertain the students of participate in intramural sports--though that is an important way in meet students--the emphasis here is not on the rah-rah college thing."

But students must know tutors and feel comfortable with them before they take advantage of their academic expertise Students and tutors engage in a largely unstructured relationship As a result tutors with low profiles or reputations for not getting along well with students will not prove an intellectual addition to the House, regardless of their academic reputation.

By participating in the tutor selection process, students increase their involvement in House life They work closely with the Masters and tutorial staff, thinking seriously about the aims and goals of the House, exploring the intellectual rather the purely social aspects of House life.

As experience in Leverett and North Houses indicates. Masters need not worry that a greater students voice in the tutor selection process will radically modify the character of resident tutor staffs. Hannah Hastings, North's co-master, says; "We find the students first priority in choosing a tutor is the same as [the Masters'] academic excellence."

Dingman, who is also the Senior Tutor in Leverett House, agrees As the [size of the selection] groups expands, most people have the same thing in mind Students share with the Masters a common conception of what makes a good tutor; student involvement merely insures the tutors hired will actually fit that image."

Why, then, do some Masters retain absolute control over tutor selection or give only a minimal role to students The answer most probably lies in Masters desire to preserve their sovereignty over their Houses Student input in tutor selection, says Davis, "is not an issue that transcends Masters" discretion [Choosing tutors] is one of the few rights that the Masters have It's the most important decision we make."

The College grants the Masters great leeway; they are not accountable, in any formal way, to any higher body in College administration, Entrusted with the responsibility for their students well-being, Masters seem unwilling to share that responsibility with others--including the students themselves.

Such paternalistic management of the Houses, especially in the area of tutor selection, may ultimately prove inimical to students' interests. In the worst cases, failure to solicit student advice may leave Masters hopelessly out of touch with students' academic needs and conceptions of how the House should develop.

Even in the best cases, limiting student involvement increases the chance of appointing tutors unlikely to make outstanding contributions to the House environment. Student participation in the tutor selection process is easily implemented, hardly threatens the masters' objective, and can enhance a sense of House community and improve the calibre--intellectual and social--of Harvard's residential life.