The Eli Way

Why Harvard will never adopt Yale's college system

To the first-year who just had a nasty case of the blocking flu, the Yale system of residential housing seems like the perfect remedy.

Unlike Harvard, Yale doesn't ask that first-years form blocking groups to enter the housing lottery.

There is no need to prioritize friends, no sheepish moments where you have to tell your roommate you won't enter the housing lottery with him.

Instead, the Yale admissions office assigns first-years to their residential colleges before the students even arrive on campus.

So perhaps it's not surprising that some House masters have proposed the Yale model as a way to finish the project of randomization and reduce first-year stress.

But while Yale's method has its allure, administrators say Harvard's House tradition and advising system make the proposal unlikely to be enacted here.

Looking For Solutions

House masters say the strains of forming a blocking group are real enough that some of them have discussed adopting the Yale system of assigning first-years to their colleges--Yale's version of Houses--before they arrive on campus.

At Yale, first-years know their college assignments from the moment they step on campus, and while all first-years live on "Old Campus," they are grouped with other members of their college.

Some masters say such a system would eliminate the stress of blocking by completely randomizing housing, once and for all.

"There is an extraordinary amount of pressure on freshmen concerning blocking," says Quincy House Master Michael Shinagel. "The time being devoted to a secondary issue of blocking should be focused on major concerns, like choosing a field of concentration."

And Thomas A. Dingman '67, associate dean of the College for human resources and the House system, says that he once supported a switch to the Yale system because prior to randomization, students also had to worry about which House to choose.

"I've always thought it wouldn't be a bad way to go," he says. "I've always thought there was a lot of anxiety [about blocking]."

But while some have suggested a switch to the Yale system, masters emphasize that the discussions have simply been informal.

"I think anytime there's any discussion about how we do things, various ideas come up," says Donald H. Pfister, outgoing master of Kirkland House.

And with opposition from many masters and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68, this extension of randomization appears unlikely.

"The quality of freshman entries overrides the advantages of assigning people early to Houses," says Elizabeth Studley Nathans, Harvard dean of freshmen.

The Weight of History

One reason Harvard is unlikely to adopt the Yale system of housing assignments is that doing so would require radically reshaping the school's philosophy toward the first year of college.

Traditionally, first-years have been encouraged to bond as a class before bonding as members of smaller House communities. First-years live in the Yard (or nearby), eat in Annenberg Hall, are advised in their first-year dorm and have a dean of freshmen, making the year unique, to be savored separately from three years of House life.

These first-year traditions were established long before the House system was created in the 1930 by President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877.

"The Harvard freshman year existed before the House system," says former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. "The Houses were grafted onto the freshman year tradition."

Indeed, Harvard's approach to the first year is older than the Yale system, as well.

When Yale started to establish its residential college system in 1930s, many of the Yard dorms were already nearly 50 years old. Weld Hall, for example, was built in 1873.

And Harvard's emphasis on the first-year as a class-wide bonding opportunity has survived even as Harvard has changed other aspects of its housing system, most significantly through randomization in 1995.

Administrators cite the goal of class-wide bonding as one of the most significant reasons they would like to keep the system as is.

"One thing that has occurred at Yale over the years is that students develop early and obviously warm loyalties to their colleges, rather than to their freshman dorms," Nathans writes in an e-mail message. "Thus I gather that the cohesiveness of groups in the freshman dormitories is far less than it traditionally has been here."

Harvard's first-year traditions would also make it logistically difficult to adopt a system like Yale's.

First-year dorms were not built as mini-Houses, and Nathans says the layout of the Yard dorms would make it impossible to group students in the dorms according to their House affiliations."

When the 'Yale system' (or some variant thereof) was considered here, there was never an expectation that those assigned to a particular upperclass House would also be housed together as first-year students," she writes. "The numbers wouldn't work right,' I think, given size and configuration of the Yard, Union dorms and of Apley."

Preserving Choice

After randomization, maintaining the blocking system also provides one of the few elements of housing choice left for students.

Lewis says the College wants to preserve this freedom, since blocking groups are such a crucial set of relationships.

"Rooming [groups are] where a lot of conversations happen, and that is fundamental to the whole concept. I take it for granted that rooming is an important part of being in college," he says.

While Harvard's randomized system has come under attack for dividing ethnic communities within Houses, the blocking system actually allows more freedom to create such communities than Yale's.

Yale controls for students' gender, race and hometown, as well as varsity athletic participation and professional-level music skills, making it unlikely that a single House would have greater-than-average representation of any of those attributes. (Yale also lets admitted students ask to live in the same College as their sibling or parent.)

But Harvard controls only for gender in making housing assignments, allowing students to create demographically unrepresentative circles of friends--at least within their blocking groups.

The freedom of Harvard's system may keep some students on campus. For while only 80 percent of Yale undergraduates live on campus, 97 percent of College students choose to remain in the House system.

And William Sledge, master of Yale's Calhoun College, says Yale students who move off campus are often looking for the kind of rooming freedom that blocking allows Harvard's undergraduates. "Some people want more independence, they want more choice," he says.

And for now, at least, masters say preserving first-year traditions and this modicum of choice outweighs the stresses associated with blocking.

"I think [our system] works just fine. I don't think there's any driving force behind looking at other things right now," Pfister says.