Scholars Among Students

Some lesser-known residents of Harvard’s Houses find their role in living with undergrads.

Peter Emerson
Kari Catalano

Peter V. Emerson helped to create “Conversations with Kirkland.”

While they might not exactly stand out in the dining hall or common rooms, these visitors are far from your typical student. Upon closer observation, it’s possible to see an ex-CIA director or even the former Prime Minister of Haiti biting into a chickwich and enjoying a Sunday night sundae alongside students at dinner. These individuals are scholars from various fields who are participating in fellowships and research programs at the University. They live amongst the undergraduates in apartments located in the Houses.

“It actually comes out of an old tradition that used to involve a lot more faculty in the House system,” says John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, Master of Adams House. “There were traditionally faculty who gave seminars in the Houses and were theoretically working to engage students.”

Living in the Houses is another option for visiting scholars—many of whom are foreign—looking for an apartment in Cambridge. However, due to space constraints, a large portion of the apartments that were formerly used to house professors and visiting scholars have been converted into student housing.

“Over the past two, three years, most of those spaces have disappeared, so we don’t even have rental spaces anymore, or at least not many,” says Palfrey.

Some Houses, such as Kirkland or Adams, now have one or two apartments, while others, such as Dunster or Eliot, do not have any. The way in which the few spaces that are left are used is largely at the discretion of the House masters. While some masters view the scholars living in the House as a resource for students in addition to the tutors and resident dean, others do little to integrate the apartments’ occupants into House life.

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Karen Rothmyer

Karen Rothmyer

“They’re not just here to live and go do their own thing,” Palfrey emphasizes about the scholars in Adams. “They’re really here to be a part of the House.”

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former director of the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, has been living in Adams House for the past two years. He frequents the dining hall, where he often sits down and converses with students. Mowatt-Larssen is also slated to run a seminar in the spring.

“It will be on how to be a good spy,” says Palfrey, chuckling. The topic has not been yet officially announced.

At Kirkland, the scholars are engaged in House life as well, albeit in a slightly different manner. Scholar-in-residence Peter V. Emerson came to Kirkland with the goal of bringing in notable figures from a wide range of fields to speak with students. Soon after moving in, he co-founded “Conversations with Kirkland.” Though Emerson’s interaction with students was first stimulated by this speaker series, he says that once students came to know him, they began coming to him for anything from career advice to thoughts on their theses—a fact he finds to be an extraordinary privilege.

“That I can take decades of experience in very diverse fields and share my experience with them—and in many cases help them secure a certain internship or help them get their first job—there’s nothing more rewarding than that,” says Emerson.

On the other hand, some scholars almost never communicate with their student neighbors.

“I was lucky enough that there was a fire alarm a few days after I moved in,” says Karen M. Rothmyer, a Mather House scholar-in-residence and Shorenstein fellow from Kenya. “I rushed down to the courtyard and met the masters, and they invited me to a party they were having that night for the students,  so that’s where I got to meet a bunch of the students,” she says.

“But if it hadn’t been for that, I’m not sure whether I would have made that connection,” she says.

However, this lack of interaction with students is due more to the lack of a built-in mechanism for getting scholars involved in House life than for an absence of desire to interact with undergraduates.

“I’m a little disappointed actually that I’m not involved with the students more,” Rothmyer says. In terms of creating such a means for interaction, Rothmyer suggests required activities for scholars in the House, such as leading a study group. Rothmyer adds that she would be interested in having a table set up in the dining hall where she would discuss topics of interest, such as Africa or journalism.

Yet even in Houses where scholars are actively trying to get involved with House life, many students rarely see them.

“If I hadn’t lived above him last year, I wouldn’t even know that he’d been in the House,” says Samantha R. Go ’11 on the presence of Mowatt-Larssen in Adams. “He was an ex-CIA operative, so we always joked about how sneaky and un-findable he was.”

“Students are busy. Even though we offer a variety of venues for this kind of interaction, they often don’t come,” says Palfrey of the general lack of knowledge about scholars-in-residence. “You’re not standing up and beating a gong and saying, ‘Come sit down here with a spy.’”

There is concern that the few House apartments still reserved for scholars-in-residence will too be converted into student dorms—if not immediately, then during major House renovations. However, Masters and students alike support the growth of the scholar-in-residence program.

“It has a place in House life which used to be more active and now...is one of the important elements of House life, which we fully intend to advocate for continuing,” Palfrey says. “It’s fun for us, it’s fun for the students, it’s good for the House, it’s good for the scholars.”

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