Pfoho House Masters Picked

Sociology professor Nicholas A. Christakis and his wife Erika L. Christakis ’86 will become Pforzheimer House’s new masters this fall, said Pfoho Resident Dean Lisa Boes Monday night.

The announcement—first reported by The Crimson last night—came more than two months after current Pfoho Masters Sue and James J. McCarthy declared their intention to step down this November.

Christakis—a sociology professor with a joint appointment at Harvard Medical School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—is best known for his work on health and social networks. His current research explores how factors such as health, disability, and death can influence an individual’s social network.

“As I have spent the last few years examining the ripple effects of social networks and how social structures affect lives, I’ve become more mindful of the effect I have on others and they on me,” Christakis said in response to a question about how his academic research would shape his leadership style.

“You can’t turn a House into a laboratory, but there’s definitely a sense in which House life can cultivate a sense of connectedness,” he said.

Prior to the announcement, some Pfoho residents had said they hoped to see greater diversity in the new House Master selection.

“We have a president [Barack Obama] who represents the diverse experience of America,” said Alneada D. Biggers ’10, Pfoho resident and president of the Association of Black Harvard Women, before news of the Christakis appointment broke. “It would be nice to have a House Master who represents who I am.”

The concerns were brought to a point in an online petition started last week by Blake L. Johnson ’09 to encourage the hiring of a more diverse tutor staff.

But after receiving news of the selection of the Christakis couple, both of whom are Caucasian, Johnson said he was “personally pleased as a sociology concentrator” to hear of the appointment.

Biggers, who listed House Master diversity as one of her key campaign planks in an unsuccessful bid for the Undergraduate Council vice presidency this fall, reiterated her hopes yesterday evening that future House Master searches could yield minority selections.

“Its not surprising,” she said of the Christakis selection. “I hope that when other house master positions become open, they can consider minorities...but I can’t belittle [Christakis’] qualifications.”

Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, the former Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, has said in previous interviews with The Crimson that she hoped to usher minority faculty into recently opened House Master positions.

That aim was furthered last Wednesday, when Hammonds announced that Law School Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Law School lecturer Stephanie Robinson would take over as leaders of the house next fall, becoming Harvard’s first black House Masters.

The Christakis family is relatively young, comprising three children, Sebastian, Lysander, and Eleni, whose ages range from 11 to 16.

Christakis is both a medical doctor and a Ph.D., holding four degrees from various Ivy League institutions, including a B.S. from Yale and a master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health.

He was elected to the Institute of Medicine, a prominent national advisory board, in 2006. While researching at the Medical School, he continues to teach a popular course at the College, Sociology 190: “Life and Death in the USA: Medicine and Disease in Social Context.”

Christakis’ wife, Erika, who is currently traveling in India, is an anthropologist and elementary school teacher who has spent her professional career advocating for children and families. A graduate of the College, she holds a master’s degree in early childhood education from Lesley University and one in public health from Johns Hopkins.

Christakis said he and his family were so warmly welcomed by the Pfoho House community during the selection process that they felt like they were “coming home.”

“The McCarthys have set such an amazing example that, over the years, students are disappointed in being ‘rivered,’” he said, reversing a common student stigma against being placed in the far-away Quad. “We have big shoes to fill.”

He added that he and his wife’s undergraduate experiences—his at Yale, and hers at the College—have demonstrated to the couple that “House life is crucial to the undergraduate experience.”

Christakis, who said he was planning to rename a family rabbit “Pfunny” to reflect the House’s phonetically perplexing name, said it was a Sunday morning brunch that sealed the deal for the family.

“As [Lysander] was pouring batter into the waffle maker, he saw the Veritas insignia,” Christakis said, speaking of his son. “And he was sold.”

McCarthy said that he “thought the Christakis’ would be a perfect match for Pfoho.”

—Staff writer Bita M. Assad can be reached at bassad@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Ahmed N. Mabruk can be reached at amabruk@fas.harvard.