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Freshmen in the Houses:

Competition and Uncertainty

By Peter M. Shane

This is the conclusion of a two-part series examining education within the House system.

A MAJOR CONSIDERATION in evaluating the Houses as educational units should be the relation of freshmen to the Houses. In interviews with the Masters of all but two of Harvard's nine residential Houses, each expressed disappointment with the results of the informal affiliation of freshmen with the Houses as instituted this year.

The issue of freshman affiliation centers on a more basic issue--whether there should be a separate freshman year at all. Dean von Stade has written a position paper. "The Case for the Freshman Year," which cites the importance of college class as a concept, the intramural program, freshman extracurricular groups, the experience of the Freshman Council in building leadership, the conviviality witnessed at the Freshman Union, the experience of living with people in a similar social situation, and the logistical difficulties in converting the Yard into Houses as reasons for maintaining a separate freshman year.

To improve the freshman experience, von Stade suggests the recruitment of upperclass advisors, the building of an additional dorm, and the rehabilitation of the Union. Although formal plans for upperclass "fellows" await the adoption of a concrete housing plan, 30-40 students have volunteered for the positions already.

The merits of these arguments aside, it is clear that the position is Harvard and not Radcliffe-oriented. As one Master stated, it is not clear what quality of freshman men makes it an advantage to keep them separate from upperclassmen while freshman women, at Radcliffe, are immediately integrated into Houses.

LIKE THEIR OPINIONS on tutors, the Masters' attitudes on freshman affiliation are cautious.

Smithies thinks this year's experiment has been useful, and while he sees merits in the Yale Plan (each freshman at Yale is immediately assigned to the "residential college" at which he or she will live), he favors "an empirical approach" toward determining what is best. He sees the possible closing of the Freshman Union as part of a potential experiment in bringing the freshmen into the Houses.

Chalmers found the experiment this year less successful than he had hoped. The effort, he said, "is not doing much for anybody," and, while he has not yet taken a position on the advisability of the Yale Plan, he does not think freshman affiliation will work unless House assignments are given when the freshmen first reach Harvard or Radcliffe.

Andress admitted to having questions on the value of a separate freshman area. Only about 25-30 freshmen, Andrews reports, have regularly taken advantage of House activities.

Von Stade called the experiment at Mather House "a flop", and Stewart said the freshmen "did not seem too interested," especially before Christmas.

The issue of the freshman experience does not only include the relationship of freshmen to the Houses during their freshman year. Questions have also been raised on the admission of freshmen into the Houses.

THE MOST PUBLICITY has been given to the case of Adams House, where a group of sophomores conducted a poll to determine whether House members preferred a lottery among all applicants asking for Adams House or a system based on interviews and recommendations. Pollees overwhelmingly preferred the lottery, but several staff members and students alleged that the poll had no relation to the present system of admissions, since the system currently in use was, in their view, not accurately represented in the poll.

In previous years, freshman applicants were interviewed by staff members who turned in written comments and a "grade" for roommate groups interviewed. This year, while the grading system has been dropped and the interviews explained as a chance, primarily, for the freshmen to ask questions, interviewers have asked about applicants' activities and interests.

Furthermore, according to a memorandum for interviewers posted as an "official notice" in Adams House, 10-15 per cent of the applicants will be chosen on the basis of "compelling reasons" either for the student to be living in the House (e.g., physical handicap or strong attachment to relatives living in the House) or for the House to want the student (i.e., "clear evidence of organizational ability or interest in any new or traditional House activity").

The sophomores leading the attempt to change the system argue that the process is "inequitable" and that it encourages competitiveness among freshmen seeking admission to oversubscribed Houses. Their greatest problem, according to John Baker '74, James Downey '74, and David Johnson '74, has been convincing the staff that they are not questioning the people making the decisions or any past decision per se. They are questioning the principles underlying the decision-making process.

As it stands, 10-15 per cent of the applicants are chosen for "compelling reasons," but close to half of the applicants are actually chosen arbitrarily, since each of the 10-15 per cent probably brings along an average of two roommates. Potentially, all places could be filled this way by a Master who is limited only by University constraints on how many in each rank group and in each of four secondary school categories can be chosen by each House.

"THE ISSUE," Baker said, "is one of equity, not randomness." As explained by Downey, "We want each freshman who wants to be in the House to have the same chance as any other freshman. We don't want them to think they have to compete somehow or to have to prove their personal adequacy."

Discussions with a number of freshman men and women at open houses this week underscore the sophomores' doubts. One freshman said. "This is like applying to college all over again." Another stated, "We would have been better off if they'd just assigned us to Houses. This hassle is ridiculous." A third reported, "It was sad to have to sit there (at the interview) and listen to my roommate go through all that bullshit."

Other Houses face the same problem as Adams. At Eliot House, for example, comments on applicants will also be recorded. They will be used, according to House Committee Chairman John Crues '72, "if a lot of one particular type is applying." Both Crues and Kirkland House Committee Chairman Don Prutzman '73 do not favor the Yale Plan. Both referred to the freshman year as a help in integrating the Harvard experience.

Chris Semine '73, House Committee Chairman for Mather House, which is conducting tours but not formal interviews, believes his House is "very, very, very much" the victim of old stereotypes. His remarks confirm the feelings of Baker, Downey, and Johnson that freshmen have much too little real information with which to choose Houses in the first place.

One former House Committee Chairman claimed that after tutors reported their impressions on roommate groups with whom they had talked, he himself had compiled the list that was finally presented to the Master for consideration. A problem with the whole system, he asserted, is that "kids say on paper what they think you want to hear."

A BASIC QUESTION underlies the entire freshman issue just as it underlies the other issues pertaining to education in the Houses: how can the House system best be used to personalize the Harvard experience, to create the intimacy and well-roundedness of human experience that is antithetical to the insensitivity, the narrowness, and the general anonymity which plague large institutions? How can the small communities represented in the Houses contribute to a spirit of collective effort and real human interaction instead of to the individual overcompetitiveness which characterizes the entire University?

There is no doubt, regardless of the alleged intent or the actual mechanics of the House selection systems, that freshmen often feel as though their personalities are being graded. Harvard sends letters of "college acceptance," but it does not extend to its undergraduates full human acceptance.

Two arguments are frequently used to avoid this sort of issue. The first argument is that issues like the assignment of freshman men and women to Houses are essentially logistical questions, that they have very little bearing on philosophical positions. Similarly, we are told, cutting some funds here or adding some money there should not be interpreted as a reflection of any philosophical judgment, but rather an attempt--pure and uncomplicated--to save money in a time of intense financial need.

This argument is simply not true. Any policy decision, whether a decision to change or to do nothing, implies a position as to the values for which Harvard should stand. In particular, the position that cutting funds for Houses represents no more than budgetary expediency suggests a philosophy that measures human feelings in dollars and cents: the development of genuine student communities is deemed less important than building an architecturally grotesque and extravagant science center.

What good does a separate freshman year for Harvard men do? Does it represent what the freshmen want? Does it make adjustment to Harvard easier than would immediate integration into the Houses?

Or is class spirit, if that is the goal of a distinct freshman experience, merely insurance of future alumni contributions? Only freshman men are segregated while there is apparently no recognized need to create any class spirit at Radcliffe. This is further evidence of Harvard's traditional expectation that the men will be money-earners and the women only wives of money-earners.

THE QUESTION of what freshmen want brings up thecond specious argument. It is often maintained by those in favor of the traditional House admissions system that, in looking back on their Harvard careers, seniors do not find that the conduct of House admissions was particularly objectionable. In the same way, faculty and administrators apparently judged that married tutors would not find rent too objectionable.

Why is no effort made to find out what freshmen want of their freshman year? Why was no effort made to consult the tutors when the decision on tutors' rents was reached? It is hardly a tenable defense of any particular policy that those unaffected by its potentially adverse consequences find it generally acceptable. The first principle in any attempt to create communities in the Houses in which individuals may express themselves and work together should be that the people most affected by decisions should be among the people most in charge of making them. To cite another example, undergraduate tuition is being raised $200; at the same time, the Administration is considering cutting back or dropping services for which students are paying.

If Harvard Houses seek intimacy, the first principle they should uphold is the right of people to participate in decisions that are bound to shape their experience at Harvard. It is the one principle that should underlie all discussions on House policy this year, though one may reasonably fear that this year, as in past years, this crucial point will again be obscured.

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