Against All Odds
Students Consider Changes in Freshman Housing Lottery
The month of March at Harvard signifies midterms, senior theses, and the end of the long haul to spring break. It also brings the two-week carnival that is the freshman housing lottery.
Although it takes a computer only 13.9 seconds to assign upper class Houses to the more than 1600 freshmen, the ordeal of choosing rooming groups, blocs, and the three choices of Houses (ranked in order of preference) is a nearly year-long obsession for many eager fresh.
It wasn't always this harrowing, and it may not remain so, if what many perceive as a movement for change gains enough momentum. The controversial lottery system, under which the administration reports that more than three-quarters of the applicants get their first choice is only one of several options.
Under the present system, freshmen choose their rooming groups, which may then be organized into "blocs," or groups of rooms which will sail through the lottery process as a single unit, all eventually entering the same House.
The stratagems employed by crafty applicants to get into the House of their choice would make the multiflex (Harvard's very own approach to football) look like gym class.
There are those Houses which will of course fill up in the lottery's first round, and there are those branded as places of exile. And the others serve as the buffers between the River and Siberia--they're a way to hedge one's bets.
Whether rooming groups choose their second and third choices out of interest or pragmatism, more than 90 percent of them will gain admission to one of their listed choices.
The current system, which is only about a dozen years old, has always received its share of criticism, but last year, there appeared to be more than the usual amount. The Undergraduate Council, the first funded student government at Harvard now entering its third year, discussed a number of options, and although it has not submitted a formal proposal to the Administration, officials say they expect quite a bit of debate in the coming year.
Dean of the College John B. I. ox Jr. '59 says he finds that student opinion of the housing system fluctuates periodically, and adds that this year may be a particularly volatile period.
Detractors see many problems with the current system. Not all of the students receive one of their three choices, leaving a minority concentrated in less popular houses such as North.
In addition, students and administrators alike complain that the House system creates distinct types of environments, whose stereotypical reputations--whether for academic excellence, athletic prowess, or eccentricity--were borne out in a College study of the House system done last year.
Last but not feast of the complaints is that whatever students specific gripes may be, the entire process gets far too much attention.
Of the possible alternatives, one of the most talked-about is the random lottery. But few students advocate this drastic a change, and Fox adds, "it would not be my choice."
More extreme would be the adoption of Yale's system, under which students receive random assignments to residential colleges before their freshman year begins. Although Yale freshmen live together in one area of campus as they do at Harvard, they begin making contact with their future residence early in the year.
Fox describes all proposal which caught the council's interest spring which is less extreme than the random lottery.
About one quarter of the students, he says, do not get their first choice. So why not arrange it so that this 26 percent is divided equally among the Houses which are not yet filled. In other words, he explains, dividing the unhappy people evenly would prevent the creation of one house full of people who do not want to be there.
While these proposals may appear radical to some, they do not suggest a reversion to the older system, which began with the inception of the House plan in the early 1930s, and survived until 1972.
Under the general principle of "master's choice," application to a House became almost as personal and complex as application to the College itself. House masters were allowed to choose a large portion of the students accepted to their Houses, on the basis of written applications and interviews. Fox describes the system as one with many checks and balances.
The masters benefit from having residents who want to live in the House, who specifically applied, he says. And the fact that there were uniform quotas for certain characteristics prevented the Houses from becoming entirely homogenous For example, administrators remember, there could only be a certain number of truly "preppie" people in a given House.
Ford Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus Reisman '31, who helped craft the House system and who was an associate of both Quincy and North Houses, says he is still in favor of the old system.
"I'm for master's choice--for Houses to have a timbre, a tone," Reisman says, adding that because a master could only choose a maximum of 30 percent of the future population, and these would all be from those who wanted to choose the House, the old system was no more conductive to homogeneity than the present one.
In 1972, however, the system had to be further modified to accommodate women, who for the first time were integrated into the residential House system along with the dorms in the Radcliffe Quadrangle. At that point, the prospect of combining gender ratios with quotas for certain characteristics made the master's choice system simply unfeasible, and the present lottery was established.
Now, it appears to many that what Fox describes as a cyclical response to the system may be experiencing a downswing in student satisfaction. But College officials say they will wait for a concrete proposal from the council before they take a position on whether to change the system. And such a proposal would require a general student consensus. If the Undergraduate Council pursues the issue of the lottery enough and establishes a mandate for change, then this may be the year for reform of a system that has been in place for well over a decade.
And even if the system doesn't change a bit, the freshman year housing lottery will still be the most talked-about aspect of March.