Gone are the days when Adams served as a haven for gay students, Currier magnetized black students, and Kirkland swarmed with jocks.
Although the randomization of the Housing lottery did not take effect for another decade, wide demographic disparities among the 12 undergraduate Houses were first exposed in a 1982 study—the catalyst for an eventual overhaul of Harvard’s residential housing system.
Released in January of that year, the survey revealed that black students comprised 21 and 12 percent of Currier and Leverett Houses, respectively, compared to less than three percent of Kirkland and Eliot Houses.
The study also found that while athletes made up nearly half of Kirkland, they comprised less than five percent of Adams.
John B. Fox Jr. ’59, the dean of the College at the time, wrote in a letter accompanying the study that the College should consider acting to redress the imbalances since “the original intention of the House system” was to make each House a “microcosm of the College.”
He suggested random House assignments, quotas, and more vigorous recruitment of students as possible solutions to the problem.
But strong opposition from students and administrators kept University Hall from randomizing the lottery for another 14 years, and members of the Class of 1982 largely praise a housing system that many now view as a relic of an unwelcome Harvard.
‘AN ETHNIC ENCLAVE’
Dean K. Whitla, who conducted the study as director of the Office of Instructional Research, said recently that it was difficult to make generalizations about the satisfaction of minority students in the Houses in 1982.
“It varied from House to House and by groups within each House,” he says. “There were so many pockets—some that worked well for minority students and others that made them frightfully unhappy.”
Anane N. Olatunji ’82 says that although Currier House mainly appealed to him because of its modern architecture, living among fellow African American students was an important factor in his decision to apply to the heavily black House.
“I chose Currier partially for the reason of having an ethnic enclave,” he says. “We needed that. There was some racial hostility in Harvard’s environment, and Currier gave us a sense of security and safety. On the face of it, I wouldn’t have chosen places like Eliot or Kirkland.”
Former Master of Currier House Dudley R. Herschbach says that since there were significantly fewer minority students at the College in 1982, living together provided them with a “supportive environment.”
“I don’t think it’s true anymore that it helps black students to live largely together,” Hershbach says. “As time goes on, minority students feel more and more at home at Harvard. In a lot of ways, they have made their mark, and they feel like they belong to this community.”
But other House masters from the eighties continue to value the old system of choice.
Robert J. Kiely, the Adams House master at the time, remembers that because of the artsy character of the House, the director Peter Sellars would roam the Adams dining hall looking for talent.
“Peter Sellars would walk into the dining hall, look around, and go up to someone he’d never met and say, ‘You’d make a GREAT Lady Macbeth,’” Kiely wrote in a recent e-mail. “People who NEVER were on stage got on stage! The whole place was a kind of stage.”
“Many students—would-be actresses, singers, poets, sculptors—told me that they would not have remained at Harvard had it not been for Adams,” he adds.
Members of the Class of 1982 lamentsthe loss of the distinct personalities of the Houses in recent interviews.
Emily D. Leist ’82, whose family ties to Kirkland House go back three generations, says she preferred the system in place when she graduated.
“It was nice when I was there that each House had a character,” she says. “I fear that with randomization the Houses lost that character, which I thought was pretty special.”
Leist, a member of the varsity softball team and the athletic secretary of what she dubbed the “jock House,” adds that she regrets that her daughter, who will enter Harvard this fall, will not be able to choose her House.
Simin Y. Curtis ’82 says she liked how each House used to possess a different spirit.
“What a shame that all the Houses are the same,” she says. “It’s always interesting to have a variety.”
Nevertheless, senior surveys over the past decade show significantly more satisfaction with the House system now than before randomization.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, who was dean of the college when randomization went into effect, said that University Hall eliminated choice for “educational purposes.”
He described the congregation of gay students in Adams House under the old system as “particularly pernicious.” [CORRECTION APPENDED]
“What it really meant was that the other Houses didn’t have to worry about them,” he said. “What randomization did was force all of the Houses to be aware of the problems and issues raised by all of the minority populations.”
—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at email@example.com.
Due to an editing error, the June 4 article "'82 Study Finds Segregation" incorrectly quoted computer science professor Harry R. Lewis '68. He said that the congregation of gay students in Adams House was "particularly problematic," not "particularly pernicious."