Students, Professors Satisfied by House Anti-Intellectual Life

The house system fails to provide an intellectual atmosphere, and students and professors say they like it that way.

When President A. Lawrence Lowell (1877) created the house system in 1928, he envisioned the new complexes as places where academics and residential life would flow easily into one another, sparking discussion and breeding a young intelligentsia. By all accounts, this dream has never been a reality.

Today, College administrators say they want to reinvigorate the scholarly environment in the houses so that students and professors will have a place to meet outside of the classroom. Like Lowell, the College deans believe the houses have roles to play outside the social or residential.

Says Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57, a former Lowell House resident, "My impression of the '50s is that the houses were more an integrated part of academics." He adds that as dean, the house intellectual life "would be the area I would like to work more on."

But few students see major problems in the houses. They praise the houses for providing them with friendly places to live and a comfortable social life, complaining only that the system tends to break up the student body, limiting diversity and friendship. In most students' minds, intellectual life belongs in the classroom and the library, not the house.

Professors, too, seem happy with the current structure, saying they wish they could meet more students, but adding that they are satisfied using the houses and their senior common rooms as a place to meet faculty from other departments.

All this inertia lies in the original structure Lowell believed would stimulate the minds of students and professors alike. Each house has a plethora of senior and junior faculty members affiliated with its senior common room (SCR), and more than a dozen residential tutors as well. But to most students, SCR members are just names and pictures in the house face book. And even when the faculty members make their pilgrimages to the houses, undergraduates show little interest.

One recent Sunday morning, Professor of Government Roger Porter attended brunch at Quincy House, as all members of the house SCR are entitled and encouraged to do. But the undergraduates standing in line around the former Reagan aide ignored him. Instead, they discussed with one another the upcoming house play and the house-committee sponsored party of the previous evening. So Porter read the Boston Globe.

Most SCR members say that few undergraduates seek them out when they visit the dining halls informally, and they don't feel comfortable imposing themselves on students. As a result, SCR members tend to eat together, which further discourages students from approaching them.

"There is a barrier to be crossed, students who give you dirty looks," says Professor of Astronomy and Physics William H. Press '69, a member of the North House SCR. "But when there is some willingness to cross it, it can be very meaningful."

While most undergraduates agree that student-faculty relationships are a nice idea, few of them have used SCRs as a way to meet professors. Interviews with about 100 undergraduates revealed that fewer than 20 said they knew an SCR member well, and almost half of the students said they were not sure what SCR members were supposed to do.

Since SCRs have proven so ineffective at bringing students and professors together, many faculty members now attend SCR meetings to eat and talk with one another, without students.

This year's University budget includes $334,450 to pay for SCR members' meals in the houses, says Associate Dean Martha C. Gefter, and most houses also charge dues--$25 at North House for example. But most SCR members say they generally attend only the formal SCR luncheons and dinners, where they are guaranteed the conversation of other faculty members. Some house masters also give SCR luncheons an added purpose by conducting house business--such as chosing which students to recommend for fellowships.

"The senior common room meetings are enjoyable social events, but they don't really involve students," says Assistant Professor of Genetics Connie Cepko, a member of Mather's SCR. "In theory, I like the idea, but it doesn't work well for me in terms of contact with students."

"The houses also play a role for faculty members, and senior common rooms should have a life of its own [apart from students.] There are very few opportunities for faculty members of different levels and different departments to get together," says Leverett House Master John E. Dowling '57.