On Food and Fairness

Just a Thought

When Harvard College created a lottery in 1995 to assign students to the upperclass Houses, it sought to end the exclusivity that had turned some of its Houses into jock dorms and others into elite enclaves.

But the spirit of randomization will never fully be realized so long as the College permits Houses to use Interhouse restrictions to keep non-residents out of their dining halls during peak hours.

In recent editions of House newsletters--including Fish Tales, Cabot House's weekly newsletter--the folks from Adams House have been kind enough to remind Quadlings that the Adams dining hall is indeed open to students from any House --just only during the least popular times to eat. During popular meal hours, however, we were gently reminded to stay out.

Other Houses--including Lowell, Winthrop, Eliot and Kirkland--also erected these barriers in recent years after FAS-funded, multi-million-dollar renovations to their dining halls made them extremely popular.

During my tenure as The Crimson's reporter for issues of House life, I wrote about the topic of Interhouse restrictions from time to time and had a chance to ask House residents why they supported these restrictions. The masters and House committee leaders I spoke to felt that dining halls that were crowded by non-residents made it tough for House residents to get a seat, thereby discouraging the creation of House community.

Although I am sympathetic to their concerns, I have a message for those Houses afflicted with popular dining halls: tough luck. Maintaining Interhouse restrictions is unfair, disproportionately hurts Quad residents and has no place in a randomized housing environment. And whereas, say, the law school can theoretically restrict the use of its library by College students because it is a different school altogether, one House should not be able to put a "keep out" sign on common College resources.

Under randomization, students are randomly assigned to Houses with the understanding that each House will be roughly similar to the others. That said, there are plusses and minuses to each House. Cabot, for instance, offers palatial rooms but is quite far from the center of campus. Adams, blessed with a superior location and a cushy dining hall, attracts lots of students at mealtime.

Not only is it mean-spirited and exclusive to keep non-residents out of certain House dining halls, but from an economic standpoint, it is also unfair. The money that the College and Harvard Dining Service spend on House dining halls comes from a pool of money collected from all students.

For scores of students who live in the Quad, going home to eat is not always feasible. This year, in particular, it has become much more difficult to find a place to eat, as Adams and Lowell have cracked down on the number of non-resident they allow in their dining halls. As a result, Houses such as Quincy that welcome all students to their dining hall are unfairly squeezed.

The spirit of randomization, however, was not to make the Houses microcosms of the overall College only to have them walled off to other students. The point was to foster an environment that could include any and all kinds of students.

I do not make this argument to pick on Adams--their House continues to show a strong community spirit (that I don't believe has anything to do with their dining hall). Also, as masters go, theirs have been particularly good. During the famed Adams-Pforzheimer war last year, Adams gave Pforzheimer the right to eat in their dining hall at all times after losing a series of challenges to the Quad House. Indeed, other Houses that have recently created Interhouse restrictions are equally as culpable as Adams.

So long as students do not have a voice in where they will live, they deserve to use commonly-funded resources in the Houses in equal numbers. That banning Interhouse restrictions may make it seem harder to build House community is unfortunate, and I am sympathetic to the challenge. However, House community is created and fortified not only in the dining hall, but also in House-wide events like study breaks, outings and intramural sports--all of which use House-specific funding and can be made exclusive if necessary.

Indeed, there are plenty of ways for dining halls to play key roles in strengthening House community without resorting to erecting barriers to keep other Harvard students out. Winthrop House, for example, has long encouraged House residents to congregate in the dining hall at night by offering late-night beverages even before Brain Break came into play.

If the issue is really about House community, then Houses with Interhouse restrictions need to work a bit harder to create community in other ways. If the issue is that some residents have difficulty finding a seat in their House dining hall, I have three great suggestions of places where they'll be welcomed with open arms: Cabot, Currier and Pforzheimer.

Scott A. Resnick '01 is an economics concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.