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H-RPC Report: Coeducation at Harvard


COEDUCATION is a major concern of students at Harvard and Radcliffe. The nature, types, and degree of coeducation at a university have profound effects upon students' lives at that university. This report will seek to:

(1) Give an appraisal of the nature and extensiveness of coeducation at Harvard and Radcliffe.

(2) Consider the effects that the pattern and style of coeducation have on Harvard and Radcliffe students.

(3) Based upon a consideration of these effects, make recommendations for change, both in the short run and the long run.

(4) Discuss the practical considerations involved in implementing the changes or types of changes that are recommended.


To many people in the outside world, and especially to high school students applying to Harvard and Radcliffe, Harvard is a "coeducational" institution. Harvard and Radcliffe students attend classes together, participate in many organized extracurricular activities together, and presumably, because of the institutions' status as coordinate colleges, have ample opportunity for other kinds of contacts outside the classroom. Many students who do not want to attend an all-male or all-female college apply to Harvard or Radcliffe, secure in the notion that life at these colleges does not contain the same limitations as life at non-coeducational institutions.

Colleges may be characterized as coeducational in any of four dimensions: (1) classes (2) extracurricular organizations (3) dining and (4) residential. Harvard and Radcliffe can be characterized as essentially coeducational in the first two dimensions essentially non-coeducational in the latter two. The Harvard Radcliffe Policy Committee maintains that, while Harvard may be coeducational in its classes and in most of its extracurricular activities, the areas in which it is not coeducational are those in which the presence or absence of coeducation has the greatest effects upon students' lives.

WHILE classes at Harvard and Radcliffe (except for some sections and tutorials) are coeducational, their coeducational nature has little effect on students' social relationships. Men and women in a classroom setting interact in a completely different fashion from the way they would in other settings. They play different roles; they present the academic side of themselves. The purpose of a class is not to meet other people; it is to learn the subject matter under discussion. A large lecture hall of 300 students is not conducive to meeting other students, much less others of the opposite sex.

Similarly, while most extracurricular organizations (except for athletics and clubs) are coeducational, most social relationships at Harvard and Radcliffe are not established through extracurricular activities. It is easy for Harvard and Radcliffe students to meet others who are participating in the same extracurricular activity; but students can meet only a limited number of others in this way. Even if a relationship is established, it is often hard to maintain it if the students see each other only once or twice a month.

At Harvard, the House system is the primary setting, the focus, of social relationships. Students have much greater and more frequent contact with students and faculty members in their own House than with others at the University. Indeed, there are often barriers to contacts between students residing in different Houses, such as the lack of interhouse among Harvard Houses at lunch.

The central role that the House system plays in social life at Harvard stems from the original function and purpose of the House system. As the Dean's Subcommittee on Parietals wrote in its report of last spring:

Without arguing at any length the nature and purposes of the Houses, we venture to state that they were conceived and have certainly found their usefulness as a common meeting ground or students of varied interests and backgrounds and as a means of communication between students and faculty, Life in the Houses provides easy contact between individuals and facilitates various community projects.

NOT ONLY is there much greater interaction with members of one's House community, but students are drawn into academic and extracurricular activities through which students make and reinforce relationships with others--dramatic productions, musical activities, House courses, and others. While activities of this sort exist on a college-wide level, the fact remains that, due to the goals and structure of the House system, students in general have much more frequent contacts with those in their own House, and it is much easier to form and maintain relationships inside the House than outside it.

Within the House, the primary setting for social interaction is the dining hall. Students and faculty members pursue widely divergent programs at Harvard. The House dining hall is the only place where students come into daily contact with a large group of other students and Faculty members. It is primarily through the mechanism of common dining facilities that members of a House see and talk to each other on a day-to-day basis.

It is the position of the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee that, despite some structural changes in the House system in recent years, the Houses can still be characterized as maie institutions. All the students and faculty members who live in a House and regularly participate in House activities are male. Women are allowed into the House only upon the invitation of a House member. They are his guests, not members of the House community. They must be "signed in" to and "signed out" of the House. While women can and often do participate in House activities (e.g., dramatic productions), House courses or tutorials, their presence in the House is limited to participation in these activities. And dining, in common with other aspects of the House system, is open to women on an invitational basis only. Most meals are closed to women, and those that are open are open only upon invitation of a House member.

The comments that have been made about Harvard's House system apply equally well to Radcliffe. Just as Cliffies (or any other women) are not in any real sense full participants in the dining or residential life of Harvard students, Harvard men are not fully a part of Radcliffe's dining or residential system. It is instructive that, while Radcliffe has a policy of permitting Harvard students to dine on interhouse at weekday lunches, few Harvard students utilize this option. One of the reasons is that Harvard students feel awkward entering a Radcliffe dining hall without being specifically invited.

In sum, the Houses are the focus of social relationships at Harvard. The large majority of Harvard students' social relationships develop within their House or dormitory. The proximity of a certain group of people, the ease of finding them, informal talk in the dining hall or entries or on floors, participation in common events, all encourage the natural development of friendships and social ties. The type of environment provided by the House is provided in no other context except, for a very small number of students, by an extracurricular activity (e.g., the CRIMSON or PBH). Although other aspects of Harvard are coeducational, their coeducational character does not provide a great deal of oportunity for interaction with the opposite sex. The Houses do not fulfill this function either, since they are essentially male institutions.


Given the effects of the general non-coeducational character of life at Harvard and Radcliffe, what steps should be taken?

It is the position of the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee that the present system of limited coeducational contacts is so detrimental in so many ways that it makes a change in the pattern and style of coeducational life at Harvard mandatory. Since, under Harvard's residential structure, the Houses are the center of social life, this change must take place within the House system. The lack of other institutions (e.g., a student union) that might provide for informal coeducational contacts places even greater emphasis upon the necessity for change in the coeducational role of the Houses.

The Policy Committee holds that the most effective way to change the present pattern of coeducational life at Harvard and Radcliffe is to coeducationalize the Houses--to institute coeducational living accommodations at Harvard and Radcliffe. Coeducational housing would obviate virtually all the problems that arise from the present system. It would provide for informal contacts between men and women; it would enable men and women to view each other more as people than dating objects; it would have numerous educational advantages. The experience at ather universities which have instituted coeducational housing, such as Stanford and Cornell, has been distinctly favorable.

How do students feel about the idea of coeducational living arrangements? A recent questionnaire undertaken by a joint subcommittee of the Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee and the Radcliffe Union of Students indicated that students overwhelmingly favor the idea of coeducational housing. Ninety per cent of the undergraduates polled favored "the idea of optional coeducational living accommodations (by separate floors, entries or suites) in some Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories." The results were even more striking for Radcliffe students--they favored the idea by a margin of over 19 to 1. Another indication of the popularity of coeducational facilities is the overcrowding success of Lehman Hall, where it is common to find several times as many people waiting on line for meals as there are places in the dining hall.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Policy Committee recommends that the following steps be taken:

(1) In the short run, a trial exchange on a voluntary basis between students in Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories should be instituted next semester for the duration of the semester. The reasons for instituting coeducational housing are as compelling for next semester as they are for five years from now. A trial exchange of a semester or longer would provide a sounder basis than presently exists for an accurate evaluation of the benefits and possible shortcomings of coeducational housing. Furthermore, there is widespread student support for the idea of such an exchange; in the HPC-RUS questionnaire, 80 per cent of Radcliffe and 65.5 per cent of Harvard students favored the idea, 63 per cent of Cliffies and 42 per cent of Harvard men stated that they were personally willing to participate in such an exchange (bearing in mind the change in location and a possible exchange of single rooms for doubles or private baths for shared ones). The percentages in a random sample of 100 Radcliffe and 200 Harvard students were even higher. While not all the students who originally indicated a desire to participate in such an exchange can be expected to do so, it is evident that a sizable number of students would like to participate. Furthermore, if the exchange involves equal numbers of Harvard and Radcliffe students, only one-fourth the percentage of Harvard students as Radcliffe students will be needed.

(2) In the long run, permanent coeducational housing on a college-wide basis should be instituted.

(3) The possibility of making Mather House coeducational when it opens next fall should be seriously considered. The voluntary assignment of large numbers of students to Mather House might make it particularly suitable for the institution of coeducational living, 86 per cent of the students polled favored the idea of a coeducational Mather House.

(4) Radcliffe should not pursue its current program of dormitory expansion and renovation without expressly providing for the possibility of coeducational occupancy in the future.

(5) As long as separate Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories exist, open interhouse between Harvard and Radcliffe dining halls should be instituted as soon as possible

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