College Housing Debates

As College administrators considered altering Harvard’s housing system, students were left out of the discussion–not that they minded anyway

In 1960, student housing—an essential component of the Harvard undergraduate experience—was on the verge of major transformation.

Administrators considered moving freshmen into the upperclass Houses, converting the iconic Yard dormitories into individual Houses, or constructing new housing options altogether. As students during the “Program for Harvard College”—a fundraising effort enacted by President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 in fall 1956 that raised $82.5 million for several campus initiatives in about three years—the Class of 1960 witnessed the establishment of Quincy House in 1959 and the construction of the Leverett Towers in 1960.

Lingering in the background of these developments were Harvard’s efforts to purchase the Bennett Street Yards, a prime stretch of riverfront property owned by the Massachusetts Transit Authority. The negotiations stretched from 1955 to 1966 and pitted the University against Cambridge City Council officials—particularly Alfred “Big Al” E. Velucci—who were opposed to the idea of a tax-exempt organization such as Harvard taking over an even larger share of lucrative Cambridge real estate.

But, according to alumni from the era, in an age when administration-enforced parietal hours restricted visits from Radcliffe girls and when jackets and ties were still required at every meal, students were not concerned about College housing policy.

TOP-DOWN CHANGE

The debate over whether to assign incoming freshmen into upperclass Houses took place almost entirely between administrators and faculty members.

Dean of Harvard College John U. Monro ’34 argued that relocating freshmen to the Houses would only make it easier for the class to get to know one another. In the spring of 1960, Monro told The Crimson that the main debate was over building new Houses or overfilling older ones, discounting other administrators’ claims that the new plan would profoundly affect the Harvard social community.

But some House Masters saw the proposed changes as having potentially profound effects.

John J. Conway, then the Master of Leverett House, opposed the plan to convert the Yard dormitories into three distinct Houses because, as he told The Crimson on April 22, 1960, the Yard, as the historic “core” of the campus, was “the best place for Freshmen to learn what the College is like.”

John H. Finley ’25 and John M. Bullitt ’43, the Masters of Eliot and Quincy Houses, respectively, echoed Conway’s concerns, citing logistical and cost issues. Only one House Master, Elliott Perkins ’23 of Lowell, voiced his support for Monro in The Crimson.

As for the student reaction to the plans—which, if enacted, would have significantly altered the course of the Harvard undergraduate experience—there seems to have been little other than the Freshman Council’s vote on May 11, 1960 to oppose the plan.

And given the Council’s chief complaint—that assigning freshmen to upperclass Houses would no longer allow “men to choose their own Houses and roommates in accordance with their individual preferences and interests”—the relatively limited student reaction appears to have focused on one specific consequence of the plan, rather than to the University’s failure to consult undergraduate opinion before instituting the change.

BOTTOM-UP INDIFFERANCE

According to Charles M. Strauss ’60, the very idea that the administration would—or should—bother to gauge student feedback before, say, altering the house system, was entirely foreign in 1960.

In fact, Strauss said, the idea that undergraduates themselves should be concerned with administrative affairs was equally foreign, even in cases where their experience was at stake.

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