EVERY YEAR, like spectators at a Greek tragedy, the campus watches with a mixture of fascination and pity as the freshman class is asked to participate in a lottery to determine which house they will live in for the next three years--a process guaranteed to disappoint at least one in five.
This year was worse than most: informed of their lottery numbers several days before they were required to submit their housing bids, the freshman class engaged in a frezy of second-guessing in an effort to extract the maximum punch from their given number. Fake housing surveys were conducted by yardlings posing, variously, as members of The Crimson, the Independent, the Housing Office, the Freshman Dean's Office, and, amazingly, the Statistics Department. The whole thing need never have happened.
The root of the problem with the lottery is information: freshmen are given too little of it to make an informed choice. The plan to give freshmen their numbers in advance was a worthy effort to reduce this difficulty but, like many half-measures, it only made things worse. Harvard should respond by increasing the amount of information available still further, rather than going back to the old, and almost equally unsatisfactory, system of previous years.
Freshmen should be told their numbers in advance and given some time to consider their options. Then, over three or four days, each group should go to whatever office administers these things and choose their house. Group one should go first, followed by group two, and so on. The availability of houses should be posted as the groups make their choices. In this way, the agonizing second-guessing of past years will be completely eliminated. Each rooming group will know what they are getting before they make their choice.
To make sure that the process moves quickly each group should be required to enter their choice at a set time. If one group were housed every five minutes, nearly 100 groups could be processed in an eight hour day. Groups that missed their time slot would forfeit their number and move to the end of the line. Since only one member of each rooming group need file the rooming choice, and since the process itself would be quick, the whole affair could be finished in a few days. No fuss, no mess, no worry--and no more blind choices, frantic freshmen, or 2 a.m. calls from the Statistics Department.