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.
Yet, house masters and administrators agree that the senior common room should play a role in students' lives as well those of the faculty, so most masters invite undergraduates to at least some SCR events.
However, students usually have better things to do. Only half of the 70 Leverett students who are formally invited to each bi-weekly student-SCR dinner actually attend, Dowling says. And few students attend the North House SCR meetings, although they are always welcome, says Robert Franklin, North House senior tutor.
Even when students show up, they frequently do not interact with faculty members. "The students clog in one corner and the professors are somewhere else,"says Mona A. Khalil '88 of the Adams House SCRmeetings with students. "It's ineffective. I don'tknow what they are trying to achieve."
Given the all around apathy, masters say it isno wonder that faculty and student attendance isfar from complete at SCR events.
For the ever increasing numbers of facultymembers who live outside of Cambridge, attendinghouse events can be a burden. So if facultymembers do not enjoy their first few experiences,they rarely return. "It's really hard to pullfaculty down to the houses, so when you do that,it had better work," says Mather House MasterJeffrey G. Williamson.
The problem is particuarly acute at the newerhouses where the SCRs have not yet becometraditional faculty gathering places, housemasters say. Unless they can provide contact withstudents, those SCRs have very little appeal.
Almost all members of the Faculty of Arts andSciences, and many members of the other faculties,have been been invited to join some house's seniorcommon room, and most of them accept, housemasters say.
The masters also try to divide up the list ofnew faculty members, so that each house gets itsfair share of the departments. One master may say,according to Williamson, "I don't have a chemist,can I have this chemist."
But most students seem more interested inmeeting the professors who teach them than theones assigned to their house.
When the North House masters institutedbiannual student-faculty dinners, where studentsinvite the professor of their choice to dinner,they proved very popular and many other houseshave picked up the tradition. "It is a moreeffective way of getting students and facultymembers together," says North House Master J.Woodland Hastings, because the students andfaculty members already have something in common.
Buddy systems, in which students are assignedto specific SCR members with whom they shareinterests, also work reasonably well, most masterssay, although some faculty members make betterbuddies than others.
And students say that if they know an SCRmember from outside of the house, the in-houserelationship can strengthen the tie. " I know oneSCR member well, [because] he went to school withmy roommate's parent. I'm very good friends withhim," says Cabot resident Dana J. Randall '88.
Despite the house masters' continuing attemptsto bring students and faculty members together, abasic problem remains. Many undergraduates andfaculty members say they simply do not have thetime to establish the informal relationships whichthe houses are supposed to promote.
As a result, Jewett says he believes SCRmembers should play a more formal role in theadvising system. Houses' intellectual life wouldimprove, he says, "If the SCR and residentialtutors were more involved in the tutorialrelationship. The formal [relationship] has got toimprove. It would work better than if they're justa resource."
Formal Intellectual Role
Residential tutors do play a more formal rolein the house, so they tend to have a somewhatlarger impact on students' intellectual lives. Thevast majority of students say they know theresident graduate students in non-intellectualsettings, such as intramurals and weeklygatherings for milk and cookies. But someundergraduates add that once they know the tutors,they are more likely to consult them for academicadvice and discuss their intellectual interests.
"The economics tutor was very helpful," saysDavid A. Isaacs '88, Eliot house committeechairman. "It's been very valuable having himaround so I can go bounce ideas off of him."
Resident and non-resident tutors also organizeinformal discussion groups and concentrationtables which meet with varying success, dependingon who has been invited to speak.
In addition, it is the resident tutors who makepossible the houses' only unquestionably academiccomponent: house-based tutorials and sections.Lowell's original plan envisioned house-basedtutorials for every department. While his plan hasnot been tully realized, many largedepartments--including History, Psychology andEnglish--use house-based sophomore tutorials.
"It was nice for me to know [tutorial] wasright across the way. It was good for sophomoreyear," says Clifford S. Goodstein '88, who tookhis sophomore tutorial in Leverett House. "I sawpeople more often and had lunch with my tutorsmore often [because it was in the house.]"
Despite a now-infamous survey that foundstudents in house-based sections of SocialAnalysis 10, "The Principles of Economics," didworse than those in other sections, house sectionsare on the rise, and students say they like theconvenience.
Lowell House seminar rooms are being used for53 hours of class time this semester, says WilliamH. Bossert '59, Lowell House Master. He adds thatthe number has been increasing for the past fiveyears.
The house seminar program also brings classesto student residences and it provides a forum foracademically accredited interdisciplinary courses.But professors say that enrollment is drawn fromthe entire student body, not solely from thesponsoring house.
Despite these house-based academic elements,students continue to look to their departments forintellectual concerns. Part of the problem lies inthe fact that the large number of concentrationsmakes it impossible for houses to have a residenttutor in every field. In addition, manydepartments insist that the graduate student orprofessor who teaches an undergraduate's tutorialsign his or her study card. As a result, studentssay they have become accustomed to going to theirdepartment office for academic advice.
Another change affecting house life is thegathering of junior professors and graduatestudents in department offices instead of thehouses.
In the past, many non-resident tutors andfaculty affiliates had offices in the houses which"made them almost by definition more accesible toundergraduates. [Visiting a professor in his houseoffice] was much less awesome than disturbing himin his Widener study," says Eliot House MasterAlan E. Heimert '49.
But during the 1960s, many of those officeswere converted into student rooms and many juniorfaculty members preferred to have department-basedoffices "for career reasons, [because] that waswhere the contacts were," Heimert says. So, ifthey wanted to meet their professors and sectionleaders, undergraduates had to join the parade tothe departments.
Out of Step With the University
So Lowell's goal of an intellectual atmospherehas to a large extent fallen out of step with therest of Harvard. That's not to say that the housesystem does not retain an immense influence onstudents' lives. As the place where students live,eat, have parties and are subject to Collegediscipline, the houses could hardly fail to beimportant.
More than 75 percent of the approximately 100students interviewed for this article viewed thehouse system as having a generally positiveinfluence on Harvard undergraduate life.Undergraduates say the best result of the systemwas the creation of smaller communities within thelarger College.
"Your lifelong friends become the people you'velived with for three years. You recognize thosepeople more, and they are the people you tend tosit with in your classes," says Johnathan O.Williams '88, house committee chairman of CurrierHouse. "You identify more with your house thanwith your class."
Student praise for the community aspect ofhouse life is a return on the College's heavyinvestment in the system both in terms of moneyand personnel.
Substantial Financial Investment
Following the student activism of the late1960s, the University decided to increase thefunding for house activities in an attempt to makethe houses more appealing. The house masters nowshare $98,654 from a special endowment fund,$289,860 from a "house fund," and $220,000 forhouse libraries, Gefter says. The money is dividedon the basis of house populations, Gefter says,except the Quad houses, which have use of HillesLibrary, receive a smaller proportion of thelibrary fund.
In addition, each house receives its share ofthe meal pool and $6000 apiece for improvementsand alterations, except Dudley which receives only$3000.
House masters use the endowment money "largelyfor special dinners and events," Gefter says,adding that the "house fund tends to be used foradministrative costs such as the housenewsletter." But within these very generalguidelines, the masters are free to spend themoney as they see fit.
All of this money has led to a dramaticexpansion in house facilities and house-basedactivities, with the result that the socialaspects of the community have been enhanced, housemasters say.
The houses have been able to keep pace withstudents' new interests--adding community serviceprojects and weight rooms--while maintaining oldtraditions including house libraries and dramasocieties.
The College has further increased the houses'importance by centering many administrativefunctions there, including student housing andgraduate school recommendations. In particular,the establishment in the 1950s of the Allston Burrsystem of senior tutors in effect created anindividual dean for each house and moved personalcounseling out the University Hall and into thehouses.
Adminstrators say the house-based advisingsystem works well. Senior tutors say that becausethey generally know students informally, they canbetter advise the students and represent them tothe Administrative Board.
Student Center Would Add to House Life
"Resident tutors can keep an eye on thestudents around them in an unobtrusive way,"Dowling says. "We're quite successful at pickingup problems as they come along. We know that atany one time there are 12 students out of 450 inthe house that we are very concerned about.
Despite the widespread praise of houseresidential life, undergraduates say the system isfar from perfect.
Sophomores in particular--even those whoreceived their first choice house--say the housessometimes fail to be sufficiently welcoming. Eventhough most houses hold sophomore dinners andother welcoming events, many of the sophomoresinterviewed responded that they knew few residentsof their house and even fewer tutors. "We don'tknow anybody," says Eunny P. Lee '90 of QuincyHouse. "It's hard to meet people because they tendto stay with people they know."
A sizable minority of the students interviewed,including some who generally praised the housesystem, criticized the University for emphasizingthe houses to the exclusion of events andfacilities for the entire student body. The focuson smaller self-contained units often preventsundergraduates from meeting people in otherhouses, these students say.
"A lot of my friends are my friends becausethey are in my house," says Quincy resident NestorM. Davidson '90. "I have a lot of friends I don'tsee because they are involved in their house andI'm involved in mine."
The new alcohol policy makes it particularlydifficult for students to meet different people.Since house committees can no longer throw openparties with alcohol and some houses strictlylimit guest attendence at house parties, studentsare left to socialize within their house or atprivate parties where they rarely meet new people.
Some students say that the University couldbegin to combat the house system's trend towardisolation by constructing an all-campus studentcenter, making it possible for students tomaintain ties to a wider circle of friends.
"It's not enough to have parties. We need aplace where people can gather," says Neil M. Suggs'88, Quincy house committee chairman. Suggs addsthat a student center would make it possible forstudents to stay in touch with their classmates.
"Sophomore year is really traumatic," he says."You enter the College with your classmates andthen they rip you apart."
The lack of all-College facilities oftenrestricts students' social groups to their houses,and many students say they are concerned thathouse stereotypes narrow their choice of friendsstill further.
House masters say they don't think the housesare all that different, pointing to the fact thatall houses have basically the same facilities andadministrative structure. Administrators add thatstereotypes change over time.
But students, who only live in the houses forthree years, say the stereotypes are verynoticable.
"If you go to an Adams House party and aKirkland party, it's violently different," saysAdams resident Katie Roiphe '90.
The freshman lottery guarantees randomassignment in fewer than half of the houses, assome of the houses fill up early in the firstround. But house masters say they think the $32million Quad renovation project will even outstudent perception of the houses and help promotediversity.
Although ethnic diversity has been a largeproblem for the houses in past years, Jewett sayshe thinks distribution of minority students haslargely evened out. While not every house has anequal distribution of all minority groups, Bossertsays, every house has at least some minoritystudents. "To the extent that there arecommunities [of specific minority groups inspecific houses], I don't know that's bad," hesays.
Under an agreement with the house masters,College officials do not release statistics onminority representation within the houses, saysAssistant Dean for the House System Thomas A.Dingman '67.
Administrators periodically considereliminating student choice in the housing lottery,either by affiliating freshmen with houses beforethey arrive or by allowing freshmen to formrooming groups and then randomly assigning them tothe houses.
"I should be forced to mix," says Eliot Houseresident Alastair MacTaggart '89. "I think thatwould fulfill Harvard's commitment to diversitymore than it does now."
But College officials say that it is unlikelythat major changes will be instituted any timesoon. Both the house masters and students widelydisagree whether random assignment should be used,and when the College tried such a system in theearly 1960s, it proved to be very unpopular.
As long as large groups of students can blocktogether, complete diversity is impossible. Nearlyone-third of the varsity football team currentlylives in North House, the Hastings say, in partbecause several large blocking groups wererandomly assigned to the house.
Yet, to most students problems of diversity area minor inconvenience and the intellectual life isnot missed at all. Indeed undergraduatesinterviewed for this article viewed the houses asproviding the comfortable world of a home awayfrom home. As Eliot House junior James F. Cooksays, "It's aptly called a house because that'swhere your family is."
Members of the Crimson staff contributed tothe reporting in this story.