Short Housing Memories
Recently there have been a lot of discussions about the first-year housing lottery, as well there should be. Three years ago, beginning with the class of '93, the former system of ordered-choice was replaced with the compromise plan of non-ordered choice. The change was said to be a "three-year experiment," and those three years will be up by the spring.
The Undergraduate Council has recently proposed a new system, "Enhanced Choice," which would add an initial round to the lottery in which up to 25 percent of the places in each House can be filled by students indicating it as their first choice.
Students who do not get their first choice in the first round may still get it in the second, so the new system would allow up to 43 percent of spaces in a given House to be filled by students who place it first. Students indicating an unpopular first choice are almost guaranteed to get in.
This proposed system is misguided, and may actually be harmful in the long run for student choice in the housing lottery. Proponents of enhanced choice say that it would please almost all students who had, after all, indicated that they either preferred ordered choice or non-ordered choice in the recent poll taken by the Harvard Independent.
The other option then was randomization. However, as David L. Duncan '93, an Undergraduate Council representative from Winthrop House, pointed out at last Sunday's council meeting, knowing that almost everyone likes cranberry juice or apple juice doesn't mean that almost everyone will like cranapple juice.
In this year's housing debate, we shouldn't forget the controversy that took place when the old system was changed. The council did not "come in and save the day." Quite the opposite was the case.
Ask any senior. The council was vilified, because people generally saw the situation as one first-year student (again, ask any senior, they'll know the name) pushing for the current system. The moral of the story: Everything that has the Undergraduate Council's name on it isn't good for the Undergraduate Council Or for the students either.
So why does enhanced choice add up to less than the sum of its parts? I believe that the number of students accepted to their first-choice house would be enough to reestablish the stereotypes of those houses, but not enough to recapture the integrity of allowing students to decide where to live.
Stereotypes, by definition, do not have to describe the entire population of a house; even under the old system, only in extreme cases did they describe as much as 43 percent of the house.
The reemergence of stereotypes might actually be worse in the less traditionally popular houses--with a virtual guarantee of acceptance, certain groups might favor these Houses in order to stick together.
Years ago the cult-like Boston Church of Christ insisted that members live in Mather House, just because they could all get in.
Arguments about the reemergence of house stereotypes appeal most to people who are proponents of diversity at the expense of choice. But the real argument is to be made to students who are in favor of the fullest choice in house assignment that the University will allow us.
Here especially we should consider the history of the issue. Only a few of the people currently working on the issue are seniors and know what happened three years ago. The rest are trying to find a solution based on some false assumptions of past history.
The system was originally changed for one reason and one reason only: Many house masters and administrators felt uncomfortable with the preponderance and perception of stereotypes in the Houses.
Any change made to the lottery system will have to address this concern in order to last. The problem for the council and the administration so far has been to balance the value of diversity with that of student autonomy.
If the enhanced choice system brings back stereotypes, as it might, then the administration will insist that lottery system be changed again in a few years. The administration's backlash against the failed systems which promoted choice might lead it to support complete randomization of the housing lottery.
Is this what we want? Not according to student body polls.
Randomization would be going too far with no reason. Non-ordered choice has diffused some house stereotypes. Some changes have been unexpected and even welcome to original opponents of the plan. Kirkland House has its share of Detur Prize winners now, and Adams House participates more actively in intramural sports.
Most people agree that this diversity is a positive development, although it has been achieved by reducing the integrity of student choice. This has been one of the best by-products of the non-ordered choice plan. Are we willing to give up these gains for a few years of an increased percentage of choice for only some students?
Very few people involved in this issue pretend to know all the answers. The Committee on House Life, through which all issues of residential life are debated in a group equally composed of students, faculty and House masters, is discussing a lot of related issues designed to make students happier with their living environments.
The process of interhouse transfers, intended only for students extremely unhappy with their house assignments, was made far more humane last year. And it is under discussion again now. One house master has proposed allowing students to choose whether to have three or four non-ordered choices, which would benefit students who only want to live in the Quad.
Lately I have begun to doubt whether we will ever see the old system of ordered choice, and that's a shame. But we must work within this unchangeable constraint as we try to make Harvard's houses the most comfortable communities possible.
The proposed system of enhanced choice does not seem to further that goal in the long term.
Hillary K. Anger '93-'94 is an editor of The Crimson. She is also a member of the Committee on House Life and a former Chair of the Undergraduate Council's Residential Committee.