A Matter of Choice?

House life and Harvard character chafe under random freshmen lottery

As Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 explained in a Wall Street Journal editorial last year, "the dominant practice at Harvard now is choice."

One can certainly observe this principle in College academics. Allowing more department courses to count as distribution requirements indeed ranked high among the priorities of the recently-concluded curricular review, so to provide students with greater flexibility.

Freshmen also will not be required to declare a concentration until the end of next semester, providing them with further latitude to explore various academic interests. And Harvard’s emphasis on student choice does not end in the classroom.

Last May, the Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO) consented to the installation of condom dispensers in freshmen dormitories. The regularly restocked receptacles in basement laundry rooms remove obnoxious constraints from those adventurous Yard couples unwilling to trudge the few hundred feet to either CVS or the Women’s Center.

Earlier this month as well the FDO sponsored a presentation entitled "Hookup Up: Hot Hints For Making Your Harvard (Or Future) Sex Life Great," presumably to ensure freshmen sufficiently capitalize on the gratis latex. Women’s Center chief Susan Marine, speaking on behalf of the events’ organizers, wrote in an email circulated over open-lists that the purpose of the sex talk was "to make information and dialogue opportunities available to those who wish to have it, entrusting them to decide for themselves . . . what is best for them."

The College even fastidiously honors individual students’ judgment about who they should live with—men or women or both. Students can now directly apply to live in "gender-neutral" suites simply by selecting "transgender" on their housing forms.

Whether the issue is academic, social, or especially sexual, Harvard seems unwilling to permit its in loco parentis responsibility to impinge on the choices available to undergraduates, particularly first-years.

Yet ironically this bountiful confidence in students’ ability to make informed decisions belies a fundamental distrust. Harvard administrators shrink from granting liberty in an area where the watchful guidance of pedagogues can perhaps be most safely withdrawn: determining in which House rising sophomores will spend the remainder of their College life.

Harvard, however, does have a particularly clear rationale behind this violation of students’ otherwise universal right to choose what is best for themselves here in Cambridge. When the College completely randomized the freshmen housing lottery in 1996, the admitted motivation of House masters was to improve diversity.

Under previous lottery regimes, Houses boasted individual characters based on the social types that dominated their entryways. Varsity athletes perennially comprised large blocs in Kirkland and Mather Houses. Quincy was the Asian house; Adams was "artsy." Most unsettling, though, in the minds of administrators, was the disproportionate number of minority students populating the Quad.

The Houses, administrators feared, did not adequately reflect the College’s diversity and thus compromised an essential element of the Harvard education—interacting with peers from a mélange of different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.

With the freshman housing lottery, two of the most inviolate tenets of the postmodern university—diversity and personal choice—collide. If only each individual can determine what is best for himself, few concerns can therefore justify restricting his personal liberty and choice. Yet as the administration of a decade ago concluded, individuals do not always choose correctly—or at least in accordance with progressive assumptions about the most appropriate ethnic proportions for each House.

How then can Harvard sustain normative principles about the benefit of diversity under the principle of personal choice, in everything from academics to sex, that governs most campus logic?

In the end, however, the abolition of any expression of student preference in the housing lottery in fact undermined the very goal it had intended to accomplish.

By ensuring each of the upperclass Houses contains comparable ratios of men to women, concentration distribution, and racial proportions, Harvard can assure each undergraduate a similar living experience—at least in terms of interaction with a variety of different personalities. Yet such equality comes at the cost of real diversity. For the sake of diversity within the Houses, Harvard regrettably sacrificed diversity among the Houses.

The latent conflict between the postmodern hydra’s twin heads of diversity and choice is therefore resolved quite neatly. Both diversity and choice serve a larger, if largely subconscious goal in the contemporary Academy: a full realization of existential equality.

A core curriculum with wide flexibility stresses the equivalence in value between the infinitude of academic pursuits. Permissive attitudes toward sexual deviancy imply the effective similarity between all moral worldviews, or rather deny the plausibility of any moral worldview. And Houses with similar racial compositions, ratios of concentrations, and percentages of athletes yields to each student a very comparable, if unfulfilling, living experience.

Neither choice nor diversity places first in the hierarchy of Harvard values. That privileged position instead belongs to equality. By guaranteeing that one should not enjoy a better House experience than another, it ensures that few will ever have a good experience. The end result inevitably will be a mediocrity that stifles personality, both that of individual students and that of individual Houses.

We current undergraduates, scions of the randomized housing lottery, may never have known what we have lost. But we can still sharply sense that something is missing.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.