Undergraduates Caught in Housing Squeeze

When students returned to school last fall, many of them were greeted with a surprise--additional roommates. Overcrowding in the Houses reached crisis proportions, with six Houses forced to accommodate between five and ten per cent overflow.

In Currier House, one-room singles were converted to "economy doubles" complete with a bunk bed, two desks, a bureau and a small closet. One student said she had sent half her clothes home because of the insufficient space.

"The only way to get any privacy around here," Ronald Lake '76, a Quincy House resident complained, "is to go out in the hall." He had been placed in a "quad" with eight other students.

Other solutions to the over-crowding problem included the construction of plasterboard partitions or, more commonly, one student's occupation of the living room.

One hundred students' unexpected return from leaves of absence caused the housing crisis last fall, Dean Whitlock explained. To prevent recurrence of the problem, he proposed setting deadlines for students on leave to indicate their return to Harvard.


Because of a lack of male Radcliffe housing applications, 250 students who did not list Quad Houses among their first five choices were assigned to them anyway. The result was a series of petitions and protests, especially from athletes, demanding reassignment to Harvard. The Housing Office responded by transferring 50 students, further aggravating the housing problem at the Harvard Houses.

Eleanor C. Marshall, assistant to the deans of Radcliffe and Harvard, took the problem in stride, optimistically predicting that over-crowding would disappear as students moved off campus, switched to a less crowded house, or decided to take the semester off.

The stream of protests over housing prompted the Committee on Housing and Undergraduate Life to reconsider the assignment system. On a motion by Zeph Stewart, Master of Lowell House, the advisory group voted in December to abolish all House quotas for concentration, school background, and rank in class. Masters also lost their time-honored right to pick some residents of their Houses.

In January, CHUL, on a narrow 12-10 vote, decided to abolish Radcliffe's one-to-one sex ratio and set a maximum 4.3-to-1 ratio at all houses. Dean Rosovsky expressed dismay at the "clearcut lines drawn at the meeting between the representatives from Radcliffe and the representatives from Harvard"--the Harvard representatives, desirous of more women at their Houses, ganged up to overcome the Radcliffe contingent.

Zeph Stewart defended his motion on the grounds that it merely offered women "freedom of choice" in selecting their accommodations. Radcliffe residents, however, rose up in arms, and held protest meetings against the elimination of the only College housing without a male majority.

The agitation bore fruit at the ballot box. When a new CHUL was elected after the semester break, it voted unanimously to repeal the measure, and to set a 1.18-to-1 male-female ratio at Radcliffe. Anne L. Peretz, co-master of South House, said of the reversal, "I guess that people just don't like rocking the boat in the end."

Bruce Collier, the computer programmer for the Housing Office charged with implementing the new assignment system, assured freshmen there would be no "gimmicks." House assignments would be made solely on the basis of personal preference, except when these conflicted with the sex quotas. Freshmen were skeptical, but the results proved their fears unfounded.

The computer assigned 70 per cent of all freshmen to their first choice House--a 50 per cent improvement over last year. Only 7 per cent received assignments below their fifth choice, and the housing notices produced no more mass protests.

Collier also put forward a utilitarian plan for spreading overcrowding evenly throughout the houses. He said his program was designed to minimize the "pain factor" and "equalize" the discomfort. Jeremy Bentham would have been proud.

Next year's completion of Canaday Hall, a new freshman dormitory in the Yard, promises to ease over-crowding in the Houses. After careful study by a committee, the administration figured out a way to justify construction of a new freshman dorm in the face of a shrinking incoming class and overcrowding among upperclassmen. Von Stade sent freshmen a letter asking for volunteers for a second tour of duty in Harvard's oldest dormitories. As combat pay, von Stade offered them guaranteed affiliation with one of their top-rate Houses and the pick of accommodations in the Yard.

Surprisingly, 250 students came forward. The stories of overcrowding in the Houses had convinced many that the security of spacious rooms in the Yard would be assignment to an unpopular House and an over-crowded room.