A Hard Task to Master

The Evolving Role of Harvard's House Leaders

"Each House is intended to comprise as nearly as may be a cross section of the residential membership of the College, to be selected by the Masters and their assistants" --President Lowell; 1926

In the days before 1930, when Abbott Lawrence Lowell instituted the Harvard House system, the wealthy graduates of the Eastern prep schools kept to themselves in the "Gold Coast" dorms. The "Gold Coast" ran along Mt. Auburn Street and up Bow and Linden, housing most of the student body in places like Claverly, West Morley, and Apley Court. Elliot Perkins '23 recalls rowing crew with "the lone one or two fellows from as far away as Idaho," as well as with prep school friends. "As we walked back up from the boathouse we would converse jovially and at length. However, upon arriving at the Yard, we would have to part in order to dine; I at my eating club and he's somewhere else because he did not belong to my club."

Lowell's chief objective in constructing the Houses was to end such elitism and draw together an increasingly fragmented community. A key element in his plan was the House Master, responsible for forging each Houses into a community-selecting every student resident for among interviewed freshmen, choosing tutors, and serving as a link between the President, the Corporation and the student body. The first Masters were appointed for life-or for as long as they could hold out. As Perkins, who served as Master of Lowell House from 1940 to 1963, remembers. "Being a Master was a career."

Though the position of Master has grown steadily less imposing over the years, no one has ever drawn up an official job description; instead, each Master is left to develop the role as he sees fit. Masters have traditionally left a definite stamp on the life of their Houses, despite the original intention of making each community a cross-section of the whole. Most early Masters used their considerable resources to support the numerous dinners, teas and other social events for which they were responsible. They also hand-picked all House residents according to their own conception of proper House makeup, though no House was allowed to accept a larger percentage of prep school graduates than existed in the class as a whole. (The same rule applied to each individual prep school; for instance, since graduates of Andover and Exeter accounted for a consistent 11 to 12 percent per class, only 11 percent of the vacancies in each House could be filled by Andover/Exeter graduates.)

"I saw Lowell House go from being one of the three most popular Houses to one of the last three. If you were low your feelings were hurt," Perkins recalls. He spent much of his tenure as Master stressing the House's role as an academic support system, knowing well that Lowell acquired a reputation as "the scholarly House."


John H. Finley '25, Master of Eliot House from 1942 to 1968, saw his responsibilities as upholding and demonstrating two ideals to which all Harvard men were expected to aspire: pursuit of higher learning and devotion to the College. He found his own academic work essential to maintaining this role.

"I always felt life for me was shaped like a shoehorn, as I helped ease [the students] into the next stage of their life. However much work and time I committed to encouraging and acquainting myself with the students in the House. I think I should've perished had I not kept up with my own work as well," says Finley, also Eliot Professor of Greek Literature emeritus, who remembers annually memorizing the face and name of every Eliot House incoming sophomore.

With the move to a freshman housing lottery, Masters lost direct power over their Houses' tones and reputations; though the differences in ambience remained. Masters so longer needed to take primary responsibility for shaping House life.

And though few House Masters today memorize facebooks, increased commitments-both bureaucratic and academic-often leave them less time for such direct House involvement.

William H. Bossert '59, Master of Lowell House, says he sees himself as a professor first and a Master second. At the same time, though, he recounts frequent winning and dining with students, tutors and other House associates, citing House teas every Thursday. High Table every other Monday night, and monthly Open Houses. Bossert also meets regularly with tutors and holds office hours four mornings and two afternoons a week.

The job of Master has become much more time consuming over the years says Charles F. Kletzsch '51 who has seen five Masters come and go in his 25 years as Dunster Houses's librarian and computer in residence. Kletzsch notes that the original idea of a model Master as a "great scholar" had to be tempered for reasons of practicality.

"If someone is truly a great scholar, he must be devoted to his own work, but being a creative scholar is time consuming in itself," Kletzsch says, adding that there are many more activities in the House now than there used to be.

Some Masters have had to curtail their professional work to accommodate House responsibilities John E. Dowling '57, Master of Leverett House and professor of Biology, can be found during the day at the labs. "I find teaching very stimulating," he says, but adds that in his year as Master he has had to cut down on speaking engagements and service on government committees. Likewise Warren E.C. Wacker, Master of South House and director of University Health Services has dropped clinical teaching.

Other influences besides time have conspired to drive Masters further away from day-to-day involvement of House life. With the demise of the interview system most Masters now see the recruitment and selection of tutors and Senior Common Room members as their strongest tool for shaping House life. Rather than financing their own teas and open houses. Masters now receive an average of $1000 from the College for entertainment, though many still dip occasionally into their own pockets to make ends meet. Two Masters say they have contributed up to $5000 of their own money toward food and alcohol bills.

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