Prior to the randomization of housing assignments, residential communities were regrettably homogeneous, though consequently vibrant: Your house largely defined who you were on campus, especially when drinking rules were lax and final clubs a marginal part of campus culture. When the lottery system finally began in 1996, the College failed to address the weakening effects on house spirit that randomly sorting an increasingly (and thankfully) dissimilar student body would induce. It was and still is unrealistic to expect that a dormitory assigned through lottery can become the most meaningful community in a majority of students’ lives, regardless of how many pool tables you put in a JCR. So, while last April’s Report on Housing Renovation contained insightful and conscientious recommendations, I propose one more suggestion that would fundamentally restructure how we think about residential life at Harvard: House all the sophomores in the Quad.
University Hall’s first reaction is usually less than optimistic when it comes to new ideas, so it is worthwhile to address some of the natural counterarguments to the proposal. I realize that turning the Quad into sophomore housing would fundamentally alter house life on Linnaean Street, and I would argue that this change is for the better. The Quad would transform, certainly, but the vibrant sense of community that has been its hallmark would survive and flourish with a new and enthusiastic network of sophomores each year. And for those really concerned about the future of the Quad houses, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but its life expectancy is short anyway: Once construction in Allston is complete, the College plans to stop housing undergraduates noth of Cambridge Common.
Another criticism of Quadding second-year students argues that isolating them would reduce meaningful interaction between sophomores, juniors, and seniors. When I talk to most undergraduates about their time on campus, though, I see that their friendships with older students form primarily in communities outside the house. Most sophomores do not immediately befriend wizened seniors in the dining hall, and most seniors do not bother taking the time to meet the new crop of sophomores while waiting hours for their resumes to upload to CrimsonCareers. While this is not true for all students, I challenge the majority of current juniors and seniors to name more than a few significant sophomore friendships they’ve made in their houses. In reality, more “intergenerational” friendships form in extracurriculars than over an awkward meal of popcorn chicken.
The truth of the matter is that the sort of randomized relationships that should exist in a truly diverse community are most common amongst classmates of the same year; sophomores are far more likely to sit with a table of unknown 2012ers than they are to approach an unfamiliar group of seniors. Unfortunately, the heterogeneous friendship networks that characterize freshman year seem to fade away with the geographic and social pressures that come the year after. Geographic proximity would preserve and create some of those elusive diverse social networks, putting the sophomores in the same dining halls, on the same shuttles, and in the same common spaces.
Moreover, housing all sophomores in the Quad would create an upperclassman environment on the river conducive to dorm-wide socialization at stein clubs, parties, and meals. Although it would be regrettable for students to only spend two years in their final housing assignments, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks: Among other advantages, the proposed system would centralize currently lackluster sophomore advising. Attractively for the administration, the proposal could also solve an upcoming, thorny issue—housing renovations. Since the Quad currently contains 1,200 students (most in singles that could be doubles), fitting 1,600 sophomores into the Quad would yield a surplus of approximately 400 open beds on the river, the size of an average house. (If this crowding were to prove unpalatable to the powers that be, the administration could convert the failed SOCH into housing.) Harvard would be able to maintain current standards of living during housing reconstruction without purchasing a costly “swing house,” and housing renovations could start sooner than expected.
The social and equity benefits of the proposed system prove even more salient than these logistical concerns. As a frequent visitor to the Quad (my closest friends and extracurriculars always met in Cabot and Hilles), I have come to appreciate its benefits of space and inconveniences of distance. So, while I do not favor river life over Quad life, I think it is fair to say that they are fundamentally different experiences. By Quadding sophomores, we would expose all undergraduates to both types of living. Additionally, the system would encourage students to meet new groups of friends over a longer period of time, perhaps combating the unfortunate social fossilization that currently characterizes sophomore fall. Combining this recommendation with the suggestions of last April’s housing report would revitalize house life, balancing some of the negative effects that have accompanied changes in residential life policies over the past decade.
Benjamin P. Schwartz ’10 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House and a former vice-chair for the Committee on House Life. His column appears on alternate Fridays.