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Trying to Resolve the Housing Debate

By John B. Fox jr.

There has been considerable debate during the past several years concerning the optimal organization of the Harvard-Radcliffe House system. Virtually all suggested plans have advantages worthy of careful consideration, and virtually all have likewise been criticized on substantive grounds, or financial grounds, or both. The subject has been extensively explored in hundreds of pages of reports and countless hours of discussion among students, faculty, Masters, and administrators. With the weight of the many diverse arguments in mind, it seems appropriate now to come to a decision and to take steps to resolve some of the issues at hand. To fail to do so is to allow what has been recognized as a patchwork system to continue indefinitely, and to attempt indefinitely to meet core problems with piecemeal solutions.

Our aim is to address directly the major problems inherent in the current housing system: (1) the objective and perceived inequities among the 12 residential Houses, including differences in physical facilities and class composition; (2) the decline in the popularity of the Quad Houses, despite efforts to reverse or to slow the trend; (3) the differential housing and advising arrangements for freshmen, resulting in student perceptions of unlike treatment; (4) the makeshift housing of about 200 upperclassmen and women in rooms distant from their Houses; and (5) a lottery assignment system which is criticized for being neither sufficiently "open" and comprehensible, nor sufficiently "closed" (pre-assignment or no-choice) as to offset the currently lopsided orderings of choice by students.

Most of these problems are the result of built-in inequities (or differences) in the system; that is, they spring from the fact that our current system renders it impossible for any incoming class of students to experience the House system in closely comparable terms. Over 30 per cent of any given class is exposed to a "different" (by definition, atypical) experience, whether by virtue of being assigned to the Quad as a freshman, to an isolated room in distant annexes as a sophomore, or to a four-year House as a sophomore and thereafter. Of course, there are students who willingly and with good reason select these experiences. However, the inescapable fact is that, year after year, there are fewer such students than there are places to be assigned, and that therefore each year many students are assigned against their will. We argue for greater uniformity (or equality) not for its own sake, but because, increasingly, the price of this kind of institutionalized diversity is something regarded as coercion.

Accordingly, in order to eliminate the major inequalities which have been built into our present system, I propose a comprehensive plan to alter the housing system as follows: (1) the establishment of three-year Houses throughout the system; (2) the housing of all freshmen in the Yard or adjacent thereto; (3) the elimination of upperclass room assignments distant from the Houses; (4) an immediate start to major construction in the Quad area, to include the building of a new dining hall for South House; (5) a reconsideration of current weekend dining arrangements for freshmen, including the possibility of reopening the Freshman Union on a full or partial basis; and (6) revision of the system of House assignment to facilitate successful implementation of the plan. Each of these topics is addressed briefly below.

1. Three-Year Houses

In substantive terms, three-year Houses are no better than four-year Houses, and the merits of each can be, and have been, debated at length. However, given the realities of our housing stock and the recognized financial constraints, equality throughout the system can be achieved only by conversion to the former rather than conversion to the latter. (Conversion to three-year residential Houses does not, of course, preclude the consideration of a four-year non-residential House system similar to that recently adopted at Yale; hence a move to three-year Houses, as proposed herein, should not be seen as an end to consideration of this concept.)

The major benefit to be derived from moving to an equal (or uniform) House system, on whatever basis, is the elimination of one highly obtrusive point of differentiation. Whatever the substantive merits of having four classes in the Quad Houses, it appears that these Houses will always be perceived by rising sophomores as "different" and (potentially) inferior. Upgrading of physical facilities, though recognized as necessary, will not alone solve the problem. Walking distance is not a soluble problem, though measures have been taken to mitigate it; neither, however, is it the criticial difference since, after all, Mather House is barely one minute closer to the Yard, by foot, than the Quad Houses. Hence it would seem that the bottom choice status of the Quad Houses is at least partly the result of the fact that they are four-year houses and therefore "atypical."

Of course, I do not expect the Quad Houses' stock to soar immediately with the change to three-year Houses. But the elimination of this important difference seems necessary (though not sufficient) to giving these houses equal status in the eyes of students. Again, this does not render illegitimate the preferences of some students for the four-year House concept; it merely recognizes the fact that there are not enough such students to make viable the current diversity of options. Sophomores preferring the current Quad model are out-numbered by those whose preferences are violated through assignment to the Quad.

Any consideration of three-year Houses at the Quad must allow for the problem of timing. Because of the small size of the senior class now residing in the Quad Houses (a total of 227), the number of sophomores to be assigned to these Houses, were the plan to be implemented this year (1977), would be scarcely more than the number living there now. (At the present time there are a total of 394 sophomores living in the Quad Houses. Were there to be a conversion to three-year Houses, an estimated 397 sophomores would be assigned to the Quad Houses in the spring.) Thus the transition might be accomplished relatively smoothly, with the added benefit of creating a more even distribution of upperclass students in the Quad Houses.

A comparatively smooth transition could be made next year (1978) as well, but then there would be less time to make firm the new system before the assignment of a very large group of sophomores the following spring (1979). The present class distribution and numbers at the Quad will be changed to some extent by inter-house transfers, particularly by the anticipated transfer of some Quad sophomores to River houses in the spring term. Indeed, transfer policy itself might be adjusted to ameliorate the class balance and stability problems throughout the system.

It would be possible, also, to implement this plan on a phased basis over a two-year period. However, it has been effectively argued that this would leave at the Quad, in the first year, a freshman group so small as to feel intolerably isolated from the greater freshman community.

2. Unified Freshman Year

The housing of all freshmen in the Yard and its immediate environs will reunify the freshmen as a class. This should not preclude the affiliation of freshmen with Houses insofar as such an association is deemed educationally valuable or more effective in advising terms. That is, a non-residential four-year House concept may yet be desirable, but settlement of this issue, which is primarily of oreintation and advising relationships, is in some degree separable from the residence issues addressed by this plan.

Nevertheless the adoption of a three-year House system does indeed raise serious questions of educational consequence about the successful transition of students from the advising pattern of a separate freshman year to that characteristic of the three-year Houses. The four-year Houses now at the Quad have, of course, been notably successful in integrating freshmen into house life and in avoiding many of the transitional problems faced by sophomores in the Yard.

Hence as this new plan is implemented, careful and continued attention must be given to capturing the educational and advising advantages of the four-year Houses. This may well require changes in the structure of the separate freshman year and in the relations of freshmen and the freshman advising staff with the Houses. It will be important to involve masters, senior tutors, the Freshman Dean's Office, department head tutors, and students in devising imaginative approaches to the problems associated with the separate freshman year. The office of the Dean of the College will study and make efforts to implement such programmatic and staffing changes as are necessary to improve sophomore advising in the Houses and to expand House activities, particularly educational programs, for freshmen and sophomores. The Task Force on Advising and Counseling will make suggestions toward this end. It will be necessary to consider what resources are available or should be made available to accomplish these goals.

3. Unified Houses

The elimination of upperclass accommodations in distant annexes will serve to reunite Houses now geographically split. Some 200 students will no longer have to hike between bed and board. Upperclass accommodations in Canaday will be eliminated entirely, while Claverly may be used, on a limited basis, to house sophomores from adjacent Houses.

4. Major Construction at the Quad

I urge that at the earliest feasible date, construction of a dining hall at South House, to cost approximately $400,000 should be launched. Proposed architectural plans have been drawn up by the Planning Office. Suggestions for construction of other facilities, in addition to the dining hall, are undergoing serious appraisal; these include the construction of a skating rink and squash courts. In addition, there will be improvements made to eliminate vehicular traffic in the Quad, and special efforts will continue to be directed toward renovation of South House and North House facilities.

5. Revision of Freshman Weekend Dining Arrangements

Recognizing that the present system has proven unsatisfactory to most participants (Houseresidents and staff, as well as the great majority of freshmen), we will give careful consideration to the various ways in which the Freshman Union might be reopened on weekends. It will require time to develop cost estimates for the various possible options (ranging from $50,000 to $225,000), and also to consider the advantages which might be derived from another form of freshman affiliation with, and access to, the Houses.

6. Re-examination of the House Assignment Process

We have made a start at this, with a preliminary reassessment of the criteria used in the present housing assignment system, to be discussed by the CHUL Special Summer Study Group. Essentially, the House assignment process consists of two elements, both of which will be studied: (a) the criteria used to determine the number of students to be assigned to each House, and (b) the mechanics of lotteries, pre-assignment, and such other methods as may be necessary to the successful implementation of the plan. The issues here are many, complex, and undoubtedly familiar to many. Our intention is to approach them in terms of their relevance to other parts of this plan; that is, to judge the alternatives in light of their contribution to the workability of the other aspects of the plan, detailed above, rather than as separate and independent issues.

Since the mechanism of choice can be, and has been, adjusted each year to meet the needs of the system and its participants, there is nothing irreversible in the selection of one assignment method over another in any given year. For the assignment to Houses of the present freshman class, I anticipate further adjustments to the current choice-based system. A limited choice system, wherein students would list perhaps three choices of Houses, is under consideration. Concurrently, various methods of preassignment will be carefully evaluated as a means of bringing about an earlier student identification with particular Houses. It would be possible, for example, to assign freshmen to Houses earlier in the academic year, so as to facilitate their inclusion in House educational advising programs.

The present assignment system takes into account House occupancy levels, class distribution, and sex ratio. Whether other factors should be introduced is a matter for further discussion. I should note that a goal in the past has been the maintenance of a 1:1 sex ratio in the Quad Houses. Currently the ratio there is about 1.6 to 1 and, since the ratio for the most recently admitted class is 1.9 to 1, this issue may well prove to be less significant than it has been in the past. Nevertheless, because this issue is important to some Quad residents, I favor maintaining a slightly lower ratio of men to women at the Quad until such time as the changing applicant pool renders this measure unnecessary.

To conclude: the foregoing plan is comprehensive and must be judged as a whole, since it probably cannot succeed if it is implemented only in part, or piece by piece. It is the product of lengthy discussions, reports, and deliberations pursued in numerous forums throughout Harvard-Radlciffe over the past several years. In developing the plan, the chairpersons of the Task Force on Advising and Counseling and the Task Force on College Life have been consulted, as well as students, faculty, masters, House support staff, and administrators.

This version of the College Dean's report on housing was circulated at a meeting of the Committee on Houses and Undergraduate Life earlier this week. The report, which has been revised several times already, is currently under revision once again; Ann B. Spence, assistant dean of the College who helped prepare the report, said yesterday she expects there will be changes in the report's discussion of freshman advising and the transition from freshman to sophomore year. The report's authors also expect further discussion about and possible changes in the timetable this version of the report outlines for instituting three-year Houses at the Quad.

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