Harvard students this week will register their views in an ongoing debate which could change the way freshmen are assigned to the 12 residential House.
In a nonbinding referendum sponsored by the Undergraduate Council this Wednesday. Thursday, and Friday, students will indicate whether they feel students' choice should determine House assignments.
At the center of the controversy is a question Collage administration have been scrutinizing virtually since the inception of the Houses in the 1930s: to what degree should individual students' House preferences be sacrificed to achieve greater diversity in the Houses?
While some officials assume that random House assignments should be used to ensure that each House a "microcosm" of the College community, other believe that students should be able to exercise some degree of choice--even at the expense of diversity.
Over the last three years, the debate up steam Prompting the currtnt discussion are the conclusions of two recent studies by Collage officials, which find that minorities, athletes, and students with high academic athletes and standing are distributed unevenly among the Houses.
The first comprehensive study, showing wide differences in the demographic composition of the Houses, was completed in January 1982 by Dean K.Whitla director of the Office of Instructional Research Among Whitla's findings were that, at the time the study was conducted, Blacks made up 21 and 12 percent of Currier and Leverett Houses, respectively, compared to less than three percent of Kirkland and Leverett Houses, respectively, compared to less than three percent of Kirkland and Eliot.
Whitla's study also revealed that while athletes comprised just under hall of Kirkland House, they made up less than 5 percent of Adams House.
College administrators reacted to Whitla's study with concern and suggestions for reform of the system In a letter accompanying the report, Dean of the College, John B. Fox Jr '59 wrote that "with respect to race and athletic participation, some Houses that all short of the ideal" House that would be a microcosm of the College."
Fox listed random House assignments, quotas, and more vigorous recruitment of a variety of students by Masters as possible alternatives. The Dean added, however, that none of these changes would be adopted in the "foreseeable future" because of widespread opposition from students and administrators.
Last year, a second study found a marked difference in academic performance among the 13 Houses. Lowell residents had the highest mean grade point average, with 63 percent in the top two rank groups, earning a B-plus average or better. Thirty-six percent of Kirkland residents earned the same marks.
Now, more than three years after the controversy over House assignments began brewing in University Hall, students will have a chance to register their support for or opposition to the selection system and give administrators an accurate reading of the system's popularity.
The Council plans to present the results of the poll to the student-faculty Committee on Housing (COH), recommending that the committee consider student opinion in future discussions, says Jessica I Levin'87, chairman of the council's Residential Committee.
Fox Says he and other COH members will be "very interested in the results of the study," although he admits it would be "difficult to make significant changes in this year's lottery" even if the study shows strong opposition to the present House selection system.
Student input is "crucial before [the council can reach a decision on any possible changes in the system, since we already know where University administrators, "Masters, and many Council members stand," I evin wrote this fall in a report analyzing the pros and cons of the present system and its alternatives.
"Hopefully, we'll have significant results one way or the other about the lottery," Levin says," adding, "In any event, we'll be revealing the kind of information that nobody has."
Among other things, the poll will ask students to comment on four options.
The first option, called a "total random" system, is modeled after Yale College's housing lottery. It would assign individual students to a House by random when they register as freshmen.
A second option, known as the "modified random" proposal, would randomly assign student-chosen rooming groups to the Houses during the spring of their freshman year.
A third alternative would allow individual House masters to select their House populations in accordance with a series of distribution quotas. This system was eliminated under fire from students in 1973.
The fourth option--the current system--assigns rooming groups and blocks to upper-class Houses during the spring of their freshman year. The system attempts to maximize students' first-choices, granting their preference on a space available basis when their number comes up.
The 12-question poll will also ask upperclassmen to rate their general satisfaction with their House experience and also to comment on suggested modifications of the current system, such as releasing lottery numbers before House assignment are announced.
Fox, who has historically opposed the current lottery, says he still has "difficulties" and "discomfort" with a system based on student choice.
"The present system doesn't achieve the ideal microcosm [of the College on the whole], but I'm not leading a crusade to change it," Fox explains. Yet, if the study shows respondents' doubting the current system. Fox says, the administration will "look at the the situation seriously."
Fox declines to offer a specific alternative to the choice system.
And informal Crimson survey of House Masters, however, suggested that the issue of diversity is a divisive one outside the offices of University Hall.
Of the 12 Masters reached, three said they prefer a more random system, five favor the current system, and four declined to state an opinion.
North House Co-Masters Hanna and J. Woodland Hastings both approve of the random assignment system. "We have 100 percent diversity, and we've come to believe that a random system would benefit the community," Hanna Hastings says.
Because the Quad Houses and Mather typically are not chosen by many freshman lottery entrants, they wind up with a random group whose only common trait is their lack of success in the lottery process.
The North House couple say they originally supported the present system and now regret it.
"People like the absence of a stereotype," she adds. And, Professor Hastings explains, "When people choose a House they find it uncomfortable to be strapped to a stereotype."
Mather House Master David Herlihy says he "would quite willingly listen to proposals for modifications" in the current assignment system. Herlihy adds that since Mather is generally a second-choice House, its population tends to be more representative of the College than those Houses filled exclusively by students who wanted to live in them.
"The randomness has worked very well for Mather, and I don't see why it wouldn't work in other Houses," he says.
All Masters who come out in favor of modifications in the choice system cite not only diversity as a desirable goal, but also a lower level of springtime anxiety in freshmen.
"One of the most devastating problems is the time and anxiety placed on choosing a House. This is for naught--students placed in North House become happy with what they have," Professor Hastings says.
On the other side of the issue, the Masters of Quincy, Eliot, Winthrop, Lowell and Adams Houses say they see no reason for a change in the present system.
"If it isn't broken, don't fix it," says Eliot Master Alan Heimert, adding that he is "satisfied" with the present system. "No one has convinced me that there's a need to change," adds Lowell Master William H. Bossert '59, saying he sees no major differences in the Houses.
Bossert says he disagrees with Fox's statement that Houses often are not "microcosms" of the College, adding: "I don't know that Dean Fox has seen down to the dining halls to see
Quincy Master David Aloian '49 says he opposes a random system because a student should have the right to choose where he will spend the majority of his Harvard career. "There is nothing wrong with clustering to share interests, and students do quite well finding other crossroads for drama and athletics, for example," Aloian explains.
Adams Master Robert J. Kiely says he opposes any system in which not all students can choose their Houses. "There are reasons for people picking a certain community, and there has been a high success, [under the current system] of students getting their first choice," he explains.
Masters at Cabot and Dunster House declined to comment because they said they had not been Master's long enough to judge the issue.
Kirkland House Master Donald H. Pfister also declined to comment on whether the system should be changed, but says he plans to introduce the issue at today's meeting of the Committee on Housing, on which he serves. P ister does, however, see one recurring problem that crops up whenever the issue is discussed. A plan favoring greater diversity within the Houses must establish a method of defining and measuring diversity, he says.
But, Pfister adds, "We're not sure that we've resolved what this index is."CrimsonLisa BermanFirst in a three-part series fewer than five percent of residents are