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.