Houses of Ill-Dispute


THE DISPARITIES among the 13 Houses, chronicled in Dean Fox's recent statistical report to the Masters, should serve as much more than fodder for breakfast table conversation. They confirm what many have long suspected: that many of the widespread stereotypes of residents of various Houses are grounded in factual differences. The percentage of residents on a varsity team ranges from 45.7 per cent in Kirkland to 4.7 per cent at Adams; the percentage of Black residents goes from 17 per cent at Currier to 3 per cent at Eliot and Kirkland; and the percentage of students with B-plus or better averages extends from 50 per cent at Dunster to 26 per cent at Kirkland.

Furthermore, as College officials suggest, those dramatic gaps are unlikely to close in the foreseeable future. The recent levelling of Black residency statistics seems to stem almost entirely from the unusually large number of white students sent to Currier House two years ago, not from any long-term trend towards racial balance. The College is right to consider ways of making the Houses the more representative, diverse units that most administrators believe they should be. We call upon Harvard to weigh seriously a random lottery for rooming groups to make their ideal of microcosmic Houses a tenable one.

Dean Fox is right to call Houses that are largely representative of the College "a wonderful goal." The Admissions Department's active consideration of diversity reflects Harvard's correct belief that contact with students from different backgrounds is a cornerstone of a balanced education. Many of the racial tensions that have occasionally flared up on this campus might not have occurred had the House system encouraged more interracial contact. And the 1600 graduates that Harvard sends into the real world every June could lay far better claim to being more than sheltered rich kids. The notion of "separate but equal" has no standing in the world of Harvard Houses. In that world, the biggest losers are those undergraduates--white or Black, athlete or scholar, public or private school graduate--who shun contact with those who are different.

The freshman housing lottery, thanks to all the remarkable freedom of choice it allows rooming groups, is the principal culprit in reinforcing House-based separatism and unfortunate stereotypes. Tampering with the current lottery system by introducing racial and other quotas for groups, though, would be as invidious as not acting at all; if anything, it could increase tensions between groups who feel discriminated against. And though the informal courtship of underrepresented groups that some masters have promised is an admirable first step, we join other masters in fearing that it will have little effect.

A truly random lottery, in which the College would apportion rooming groups by the sheer luck of the draw, would almost certainly make the Houses more representative without increasing tensions based on group affiliation. Properly and publicly run, it could also eliminate any lingering fears that the lottery is in any way fixed. And importantly, it would help reduce the upset that some students feel about being "quadded"; no student could any longer feel that many of his colleagues at the Radcliffe Houses are academic hermits.


Eliminating the current free-choice policy will not make the Houses indistinguishable; differences in location, facilities, personnel and the individuals living there at any given time will lend each a unique but not static personality. At the same time, diversity within the Houses will afford some hope of increased contact among groups that all too often insultate themselves. It is that type of diversity--that which encourages intergroup mingling and not separatism--that the College should encourage.