The New Trials of Heading A House

Masters find job, academic work harder to juggle

Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson and Co-Master Cynthia Rosenberger were the first to announce their resignation in September.

Currier’s masters, William A. and Barbara S. Graham, followed with their own announcement the first week of January.

And the resignation of Cabot’s masters, James H. and Janice Ware, hit their House e-mail list less than three weeks later.

Though three of the 12 House masters are departing at the end of this year, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 say no trend underlies the moves.

Lewis chalks the departures up to the normal cycle of administrative turnover, pointing out that no masters left at the end of last year.

“It all evens out over time,” Lewis says.

But some masters say that over the past decade reforms to the Housing system—from randomization to more stringent review systems—have fundamentally changed the role of the master.

Trying to build a community from a random body of students while maintaining their rigorous academic schedule, many masters say they could not imagine staying in their positions for the decades-long terms that were the norm before the late 1990s.

Instead, masters—like the Hansons, Wares and Grahams—choose to leave in order to escape the strain that House duties put on their professional obligations. The Wares leave after eight years, the Hansons, 10, and the Grahams, 12.

“I think people are just overwhelmed,” Quincy House Co-Master Jayne Loader says.

And the five-year appointment system that Lewis has followed provides a convenient time for masters spread thin by their administrative and academic responsibilities to bow out of their positions.

“[It’s] a time when you can gracefully leave the House,” says Arnold Professor of Science William H. Bossert ’59, who was master of Lowell House for 23 years. “When you had House masters for a long time, when someone left you’d have to start thinking. There’d be an issue.”

Lewis says he hopes the master searches in all three Houses will be completed by spring vacation.But the dramatic turnover of a quarter of the masters this year suggests the changed role of the master is a more permanent legacy.

Mayor of a Small Town

Being a House master is not an easy job, according to the masters that are stepping down this year—and even according to those that are sticking it out.

All three pairs of House masters who have resigned this year cite—at least in part—their inability to focus on their academic pursuits while taking care of their House.

Hanson says his publication rate has slowed by a third and he cut back on his lecturing outside of Harvard since he became master.

“The part that suffers is the research,” Eliot House Master Lino Pertile says. “There is little time to take part in research if you are involved in two full-time jobs.”

Pforzheimer House Master James J. McCarthy and Co-Master M. Suzanne McCarthy say while professors wear many hats as part of their job, the added reponsibility of a mastership limits the time devoted to typical academic duties.

“Every faculty member at Harvard who is on top of his/her field is effectively holding 3 to 5 half time jobs, with teaching, research, various university administrative responsibilities, and national and international service to one’s profession,” the McCarthys write in an e-mail. “When one is a House master one simply does less of some of these other things.”

The responsibility of being a master is unique from these other administrative positions because they must be on their toes, day and night, masters say.

“It’s a 24-hour job, which means that you have to be available during the night if there are emergencies and there are occasionally,” Hanson says.

Dingman says masters should capitalize on the House staff, including the senior tutor and resident tutors, to ease their administrative burden.

“When masters utilize all of that help, they find the overall responsibilities doable,” he says.

But even with this additional help, masters say they find themselves juggling tasks in an effort to make the House run smoothly.

“It is like being the mayor of a small town,” Ware says. “You are involved in every aspect of the house, from the dining hall to the nomination of Rhodes scholars.”

While Loader says she and Quincy House Master Robert P. Kirshner ’70 have so far been able to keep up with their academic research, she can understand why the masters who are slated to leave at the end of this year felt the need to step down.

And few masters say they expected the job to take up so much of their time and energy when they signed on to run a House.

“The job was more work and took more time than we had imagined possible,” the McCarthys write. “We had over 300 students and 20 tutors to get to know, every day was different, and most were very long.”

Hanson says as he got older it became harder to handle the added burden of the mastership.

“As one gets older you become increasingly aware that your resources and your energy don’t quite reach up to the standards you’ve set for yourself,” Hanson says.

Multiples of Five

While Lewis says three masters departing in the same year is only part of the normal ebb and flow of House administration, old masters and current ones say the House system has changed over the past decade to make long master tenures obsolete.

Before Lewis became dean of the College, the House mastership was viewed as an almost lifetime appointment, with many masters staying in their positions for nearly a quarter of a century.

Bossert’s tenure in Lowell began when Gerald Ford was President and ended in 1998 with Bill Clinton in the White House.

In that same year, John E. Dowling ’57 and Judy Dowling also stepped down after serving as Leverett House masters for 17 years.

Since he took office, Lewis has sought to reinvigorate the House system with younger masters—and has appointed 9 of 12 House masters.

It will be 11 out of 12 masters after this year.

“Our understanding is that they were looking for younger scholars still active in their fields,” Loader says. “The idea that you would have a very active master—that’s the kind of master they’re looking for right now.”

Lewis has also enforced a policy instituted by former University President Derek C. Bok to appoint masters on five year contracts.

During the fourth year after the appointment, the performance of Houses and House masters are reviewed and masters can decide at that point whether to stay on or retire.

“The job has just become so stressful and complex that it makes sense every five years to review the situation to see how the masters feel about continuing and whether it makes sense to have someone else come in,” former Quincy Master Michael Shinagel says.

“It’s perfectly understandable that masters are not staying in the mastership as long as they were 25 years ago.”

Bossert says the mastership was similar in prestige to a junior deanship before he retired.

“You were just made House master and then at some time in the future one side said it’s time to leave,” Bossert says.

Dingman says the contracts have no connection to the departure this year of the three masters.

“I think people in doing this will feel fully comfortable for the five year term and expect that if it works well professionally and personally that they will extend,” Dingman says.

He says that most masters hired under these contracts have chosen to extend their five-year appointments.

But Bossert says the old system—without contracts—discouraged the higher rate of turnover that has been present under Lewis’ tenure.

“For those of us who served much longer terms, you felt a responsibility to the House and the College,” Bossert says. “I think masters thought twice about resigning because they wouldn’t want to shirk their responsibilities.”

Building Community

But some masters say the perceived time frame of the job is not the only reason for the earlier departures of masters under Lewis’ watch.

They say the randomization of housing assignments has created significantly more work for masters trying to foster House community.

Lewis implemented randomization of housing assignments in 1996.

“We support randomization, but it has created some challenges for the Houses, because the Houses no longer have such distinct personalities,” says Ware, who entered his mastership in the first year of randomization.

Dingman says masters must strive harder now to create a sense of community out of a diverse student population, with “different experiences and traditions to honor.”

“In the old days you were disproportionally drawing from mostly white males, many from the Northeast, many from New England private schools,” he says.  

Shinagel says quarter century masterships were only possible in a time when Harvard was single sex and did not have many international students.

He notes the average tenure for the masters of Yale’s residential colleges is about five years.

“The job is very demanding,” Shinagel says. “The fact that people can stay on for 15 years is remarkable.”

Lewis says a higher rate of turnover in masters is not cause for alarm, but could enrich the House system further.

“There is little evidence that turnover at the rate of every ten years or so is a bad thing,” he writes in an e-mail. “New masters always seem to arrive with enthusiasm and energy.”

The Hunt

While Lewis says mastership turnover can only be a positive influence on the Houses, he and the Winthrop, Currier and Cabot master search committees will have to hustle to fill the positions before the end of the year.

In each of the three Houses, senior tutors describe the masters search process as ongoing, but refuse to divulge further details.

The Winthrop search committee has met with at least one candidate, David A. Hafler, Breakstone professor of neurology and an associate of Winthrop.

Currier House Senior Tutor Carole Mandryk says their selection committee will meet with candidates “over the next couple of weeks.”

Lewis said he hopes to announce the new masters simultaneously around spring break.

—Staff writer Emily M. Anderson can be reached at emanders@fas.harvard.edu.