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Yale's Variation of The House System

Harvard Should Study Yale's Solution To College Assignments

By Frederic L. Ballard jr.

Besides ending the football season and boosing the Cambridge liquor merchants into a sort of financial nirvana, Yale Weekend makes it difficult not to rub shoulders with an acquaintance or two from the other place. The other place, actually, creeps into a great many conversations. Sometimes one must not only talk about it, but think about it as well. And the thought of Yale, no matter how distasteful, can bring an abrupt but not unuseful reminder that there are other universities than Harvard, and other ways than Harvard's to prepare undergraduates for the fellowship of educated men.

How Harvard makes a Harvardman, and Yale a Yalie, is one of those questions that really has no answer, save of the kind propounded in monstrous social relations theses. But a few of the concrete differences between the two institutions are not quite this murky, and also rather intriguing. In particular, there the difference between the Harvard House and the Yale College.

A look at Yale's College system is especially appropriate because of a current difference of opinion at Harvard about whether freshmen should be allowed to designate a first-choice House before being placed in one. Here, of course, the "preference" method is traditional; at Yale it was dropped ten years ago. In fact, as a result of a bold and rather controversial suggestion made by a faculty committee last spring, students at Yale are assigned to a College as soon as they arrive on the campus. From 1953 through last year, the assignment was made in early March of the freshman spring term.

Another question sometimes asked at Harvard is whether persons directly connected with the individuals Houses-namely, the Masters-should have a hand in picking each House's future membership. One alternative is to delegate control of House assignments to persons who have no direct connection with any single House; Yale has used this method since 1953. Another possibility is to have the operation performed by some sort of computer, which could, if necessary, include an individual's House preference among the factors it takes into account when deciding where to put him.

In some ways, the situation at Yale before the preference system was dropped resembled that presently found at Harvard. Each year two or three Colleges received far more applications than they had room for; there was one College which usually got an approximately correct number, and the rest were underapplied. Certain types of students were thought to predominate in each College: The prep school contingent in Davenport, the athletes in Calhoun, and so on.

Other aspects of the situation left little doubt that a change was necessary. According to Archibald Foord, who has been Master of Calhoun College for the

past eight years, there was a great deal of "favoritism" in the assignments to popular Colleges. If a student had a relative who had been in a College, either as a faculty associate or an undergraduate, the Master felt "morally obligated" to admit him. Even such adventitious contact as a freshman-year job in a College dining hall could guarantee a suite in the same College 12 months later. Also, "the Masters had friends and classmates who would put pressure on them to admit certain students." In short, despite the appearance of a free choice, "the system had no real integrity. If you were a country boy from Iowa, with no connections, you were odd man out."

Moreover, each College's staff wanted to have as many applications as possible. The attempt to woo touring freshmen, Foord recalls, "had almost the flavor of a rushing program for fraternities. But the staff's effort was probably worthwhile, since Masters found it difficult to run Colleges containing students who didn't want to be there. (About 60 per cent of each freshman class went where it wanted to go; the same figure applies to Harvard today.) Foord says the advantages of the preference system seemed even smaller when the Masters gave a moment of consideration to the students' reasons for picking one College over another. Few freshmen knew anything about a College except its name and its stereotype.

AND so the system was changed. Yale brought in an IBM machine which reduces each student to a name and a set of characteristics. A committee chaired by the Dean of Freshman and including five other university administrators but no men connected with a College, took over the task of distributing the freshmen. Using the information on each student given by the IBM machine, the committee attempted to spread out the science majors, prep school boys, athletes, and every other identifiable group.

For a while the idea lingered of giving each College an intellectual character, if not a social one. The advocates of this plan wanted to put history majors in one College, scientists in another, humanists in a third. Unfortunately, there weren't enough clearly definable intellectual types to go round; the plan also contradicted rather flagrantly the principle that a University should confront its students with as much diversity as possible.

Because of these drawbacks, the "intellectual" idea never really escaped the talking stage, and ever since the introduction of the new system there has been no consistent difference in the undergraduate composition of the various Colleges.

The recommendation last spring that Yale freshmen be assigned to a College immediately upon arriving in New Haven created a minor sensation. (In another section of the report, the committee suggested that Yale plan ultimately to establish a women's college.) The committee's ideal was that someday someone would give Yale enough money to tear down existing freshman dormitories and build three or four new Colleges in their place. Until this goal can be achieved, a block of several freshman entries has been affiliated with each upperclass College; freshmen from these entries can attend College dances, play on College athletic teams, and eat a reasonable number of meals each week in the College dining halls. In general, the freshmen are expected to pick their future roommates from students heading for the same College, but if acquaintances affiliated with different Colleges would like to room together, exceptions can be made to the general rule. (As at Harvard, however, sophomores, juniors, and seniors can move out of their College only in very rare circumstances.)

In effect, the committee lessened the separation between freshman and upperclass education. It noted that because of the increasing quality of the country's secondary schools, freshmen-whether "separated" or not-were taking courses at all levels of the university. The committee decided that "the student in his first year at Yale should feel immediately that his maturity is acknowledged and that he is an active member of a great intellectual enterprise."

THE question is, could any parts of Yale's College assignment system be profitably instituted at Harvard? The most provocative suggestion is to discontinue asking freshmen to make choices for where they want to live. Unfortunately, the arguments on this issue are numerous and cloudy. For example, those who like the status quo claim that letting the student make a choice tends to build up his feeling for his House. This point seems particularly valid when one recalls that although only 60 to 65 per cent of the freshmen House, almost 90 per cent get into one of their top three choices. Indeed, Anthony Greenwald, a Yale graduate who has spent the past three years living in Leverett Houses as a Social Relations tutor, has suggested that the average Yale Master is expected to participate in undergraduate pursuits even more vigorously than does his Harvard counterpart. Perhaps this extra effort is needed to overcome a neutrality on the part of the entering sophomore.

Those who dislike the present Harvard system, however, point to plight of the few students who end up in a House they would rather have avoided. They add that the preference method also causes embarrassment, in some cases painfully acute, for the staff of an underapplied House.

The matter of House stereotypes can also be argued both ways. While there is considerable doubt of any substantive basis for them, the fact remain many freshmen at least take them into consideration when choosing a House, and in some cases weigh them quite heavily. Moreover, as David Riesman and Christopher Jencks have pointed out in a forty-page study of the Houses, even if no stereotypes existed, freshmen would probably create them in order to justify a choice for which they have no other justification. Stereotypes that lack meaning and reality can't hurt anyone, claim the defenders of the status quo, but the opposition usually asks if Harvard education should encourage students to act on such illusions.

People who like the present system occasionally state that it takes account of individual identities - that any other method treats the students like a peg to be fitted into some pigeonhole. Yet the reason why the assignment of a student House should be a personal enterprise is hard to understand in view of the fact that the freshman will probably be equally happy no matter where goes.

ONE point, however, seems fairly clear: as currently administered, the preference system requires immeasurably more work, and an immeasurably greater expenditure of energy, than the relatively simple process of making sure that no single House gets too many of any one kind of person. The shuffling of application forms which goes on under the present Harvard system seems endless. After each House has filled a certain percentage of its vacancies from its first choice applications, some of the applications from the overapplied Houses are transferred to the offices of the underapplied. When the underapplied Houses have filled the

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