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To Randomize Or Not To Randomize?

As rising sophomores settle into their new residential housing next fall, they will join a group of students that embody no particular stereotype, as Houses used to only 11 years ago.

These communities, intended microcosms of the College, are the product of many student-faculty debates—the first of which were started by the class of 1985.

The conclusion of such discussion was to maintain the traditional system under which students would select their top three choices for Houses and be sorted into one of the Houses or be randomly placed into another. Typically 85 percent of the students received one of their three choices.

“Houses had reputations,” Dr. Benjamin I. Broder ’85 remembered. “Adams House was artsy, Eliot House was preppy, Kirkland House was jocky.”

The residential system led to the establishment of certain stereotypes of Houses, sometimes isolating students who might have different interests from the mainstream culture of that House, some administrators said.

Yet some alumni remembered their undergraduate days as times when they were able to celebrate each House’s independent culture—when each House represented a different home for a distinct group of students.

“Most people were happy with the status quo,” said R. Scott Falk ’85, who served on the 1985 Committee on Housing. “The evidence showed that, by and large, students didn’t want change.”

Although the class of 1985 may not have implemented a change in the residential housing program, its debates—the first large-scale discussions on the topic—would come to inform and prepare the College for the randomization of the housing selection system 11 years later.

BEFORE THE BEGINNING

Even before the class of 1985 matriculated, the residential life system had undergone significant change from its inception in the 1930s.

House Masters were appointed for indefinite terms and handpicked their future residents, who would have to go through an interview with the House Master to join the residential House of their choice.

“That was dropped because it felt like people were anxious to get into Harvard, and people thought that it was sort of odd that once you get in that you had to interview to get into a House,” said Freshman Dean and former Associate Dean of the College for Housing Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

The College evolved into the system that the class of 1985 experienced—which began in 1971—where freshman students would select their top three preferences and be sorted by a computer into either one of their choices or a random House.

Bundled in this reform, Masters and their spouses were also deemed “co-Masters,” and began to serve five-year terms, for which they could be reappointed.

But even in this system, alumni from the class of 1985 said they recall certain self-selection.

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