A Transformative Change?

The search for a new title for House Masters has been torturous

Last December, Harvard students were told that the name of the House masters simply had to go. In a whirlwind process, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana acceded to the late November demands of a group of Latino students not even two weeks after they were delivered. These students had argued that associations with slavery made the title untenable. In formalizing the change a couple weeks later, Dean Khurana added his nuanced opinion: the rationale made sense on “very many levels.”

Only yesterday did we have the chance to plumb the depths of these levels. After a “long, thoughtful, and wide-ranging debate” lasting three months, our former House Masters shall instead be called "Faculty Deans."

Unfortunately, now having the rationale in hand, our position is unchanged. We opposed the change then, and we oppose it now.

This debate has been so unfortunate in part because this process has been so torturous. Having assumed for three months that we were grappling with the legacy of slavery, an email to all students from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith today told us otherwise.

In a strikingly upfront but confusingly counterproductive fashion, Dean Smith slowly but surely demolishes the case for the change he is about to announce. It is true, he admits, that the history and etymology of the phrase “House Master” are singularly unproblematic. It is true that he has never seen “any direct connection between the term House Master and the institution of slavery.” And it is true that the College is “proud” of the title it will, two paragraphs later, discard. But never fear: change is here.

We surmise then that the administration has spent the better part of the last three months with two separate tasks: devising a new honorific and discovering a new rationale. It is a pity, then, that neither are readily apparent. Only in the penultimate paragraph do we unearth that the position the email describes 10 separate times as “House leader” is actually the “Faculty Dean.” And nowhere whatsoever do we find any clearly stated rationale for the abolishment of a century-old tradition.

In a long email filled with high-minded rhetoric (it references “intellectual, social, and personal” growth twice), we are instead left to piece together clues to the University’s intent based on copy-and-pasted mission statements and PR platitudes. It emerges that the term “House Masters” is too antiquated and gender-specific to be workable. Perhaps more significantly, the email hints and subtly implies that the emotional health of our fellow students are at stake.

Semantics aside, these are not terrible rationales. They certainly are the best of a bad lot. It is true that House masters were not addressed as such by their students, and the nomenclature comes from a time before Harvard became co-educational. Our world evolves, Harvard evolves, and we evolve with it, thus arriving at this compromise to alleviate the discomfort of parts of the student body.

Yet it is striking that in their official justification for altering an age-old title, it is left to the reader to engage in email announcement exegesis. It seems that having email-blasted-out their intent to rename the position, administrators could hardly retreat having discovered that their “very many” reasons were not actually so numerous. Instead, they chose to muddle through nearly 700 words in the hope the lack of substance would be missed.

Unfortunately, the mishandled process also produced a misleading title. “Faculty Dean,” née “House Master,” misses the point of accurately describing their role. Dean Smith writes that the Faculty Deans must be everything from “hands-on managers” to “community builders” to “pastoral advisors.” To us, leaders needing to switch between the responsibilities of in loco parentis and the pulpit do not sound like “Faculty Deans.” The cumbersome new term invokes administration and academics, not house life.

At some level, despite having botched the announcement and butchered the rationale, administrators have eventually chosen a new and permanent name. On another level, this has felt like Harvard’s New Coke: change for the sake of change. When the dust settles, we will have been left with a title that is ironically even less suited to the demands of the job.

Transformative, indeed.

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