When I told a fellow frosh friend that my blocking group planned on selecting Kirkland House, among others, for the Freshman Housing Lottery, she seemed surprised. "Kirkland House? Why would you want to live with a bunch of conservative blue-bloods?" she asked.
Such stereotyping of houses is typical--and unfortunately grounded in fact. For a campus as "diverse" as Harvard, there are remarkable levels of homogeneity within the Houses. As approximately 85 percent of students currently receive one of their four Housing choices, the Housing lottery invariably leads to self-segregation, racial and otherwise.
If Harvard intends to fulfill its commitment to diversity, the Freshman Housing Lottery should be totally randomized. Freshman should choose their blocking groups and then be arbitrarily assigned to a House.
Although the Registrar's Office refuses to release any figures regarding the ethnic make-up of the houses, it is a well-known fact that a disproportionate number of members of certain Houses are often from the same ethnic background.
Students are well aware that North House, and the Quad in general, are predominantly Black. Quincy tends to house many Asians. The lack of diversity is not limited to racial characteristics. Adams House is stereotyped as an "artsy" house. Mather and Kirkland are known as "jock houses."
The issue of self-segregation and House stereotyping is certainly not new to Harvard. A Crimson poll in 1989 showed that two thirds of first-years said that their housing choices were influenced by the various House stereotypes. The Committee on House Life, composed of Undergraduate Council representatives, House Masters, Dean of Harvard College L. Fred Jewett '57 and Associate Dean of Harvard College for Human Resources and the House System Thomas Dingman '67, met to discuss the House homogeneity. And in 1990, the current policy of non-ordered choice was adopted.
The motivation behind this change, says Dean Dingman, was that "students come to Harvard not only to learn in the classroom, but to learn from each other and broaden their horizons. It was felt that by living [exclusively] with others very much like themselves, they were not getting the most out of what Harvard had to offer."
The current situation, however, demonstrates that the 1990 policy change has not done enough. Houses still have clear-cut racial and interest-related homogeneity.
In recent years, Harvard has made a significant effort to diversify the student population, feeling that learning from other students of different backgrounds is an integral part of an education. All of these efforts are squandered, however, if students are allowed to segregate themselves and set up homogeneous populations within the University.
Full randomization is certainly an unpopular proposal. In the 1960s, the University tried to diversify the populations of the Houses by trying to balance the members of each House in terms of race, background, and even personality type. This approach was finally abandoned in 1974 due to student pressure, and the old system of ordered choice was reinstated.
In 1989, Dean Jewett announced that just 25 percent of the freshman class would be randomized in order to increase diversity. In response, 1200 first-years signed a petition against the new policy, and Dean Jewett was forced to repeal it.
Many argue that randomizing the lottery will destroy the "character" of the Houses, and thus disturb their sense of a close-knit community.
This is a disturbing argument, for it implies that no sort of pluralistic, diverse community is possible. It says that people of different backgrounds really cannot live together. And "character" seems like a euphemism for "homogeneity."
This issue becomes complicated as most of the self-segregation takes place on a near-unconscious level. Unless students are actively pursuing diverse friendships, it is much easier to find friends predominantly among members of your own race or interest group.
This is particularly true during the bewildering freshman year, when the Open House at the BSA or Hillel seems a lot more comfortable than the large, impersonal social events sponsored by the Crimson Key Society.
Thus, it is possible that many students may truly desire diversity, and at the same time segregate themselves. If this is the case, then a randomized housing lottery is an opportunity for students to counteract their natural tendency to "stick with their own kind."
It is chance for them to actually contribute to diversity on campus without needing to spend thousands of dollars on minority recruitment programs.
A randomized lottery is a small price to pay to fulfill an ideal that so many students claim to hold so dear.