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Commencement 2010

Homes, Not Houses

Housing Lottery

By Jeffrey A. Zucker

Every spring, when wool sweaters and scarves are shelved, outdoor tables replace ice sculptures in front of Au Bon Pain, and thoughts of love return to dreamy eyed collegiates, a host of worried questions fill the Yard air--questions such as, How far will I have to walk to class next year? What is the neck index in that House? Are there really 300 violin-playing, Pac Man-addicted, biochem majors over there?

It is the depth of these perennial anxieties, and more that the Undergraduate Council hopes to explore this week when it polls the student body on a set of issues concerning residential life at the 12 Houses. The two-page, 12-question survey will not only solicit comments on the lottery from freshmen but also try to canvass those who have already passed through it when it asks upperclassmen about issues such as House diversity and community. And, indeed, nothing could be more timely because at the same time that the College has worked to restore facades and refurbish interiors in many of the Houses, consensus on what life should be like within these buildings has crumbled noticeably.

What Administrators and council members are looking for in the results of the three-day plebiscite is where exactly the student body stands. Are undergraduates supportive of the existing procedure governed the principle of first choice maximazation or are they ready for the introduction of a more radical, random lottery that assigns students to Houses regardless of preference? While strong arguments can be made or a random lottery for equality's sake, we believe such a method would damage, if not ruin, the spirit of community the Houses system was originally intended to foster.

Underlying the proposal for a random lottery is the notion that, somehow, the Houses should be microcosms, mini-Colleges in themselves, each reflecting Harvard's overall diversity. To support then cause, the proponents of randomization marshall a variety of statistics on the concentration of certain groups in different Houses as proof that the goal of diversity is far from realized. The Council's report on the lottery cites figures stating, for instance, that one House consists of 45.7 percent varsity athletes while another has only 4.7 percent; minorities make up 17 percent of one House but have only a 3 percent representation in another. To these value-free statistics the reformers attach the idea that concentration equals imbalance and decry the ghettoization of the Harvard Houses when in fact they merely demonstrate the simple truth that people with similar interests and pursuits to congregate together.

As a whole, Harvard cannot be faulted for skimping on diversity. In its admissions policy, the College aggressively seeks to attract students from all regions and back grounds with a wide variety of interests and skills both to enhance and to brighten the undergraduate experience and for socially strategic reasons. It is as a result of this policy that there are jock or preppie or wonk Houses. With its Core Curriculum, the College has tried to broaden the minds of its students and insure that they emerge with more than highly specialized knowledge. But when these praiseworthy practices are applied to House and social life, they cease to be admirable and become forms of social engineering. While Harvard can strive to offer as diverse and variegated and undergraduate population as possible through its admissions and curriculum, it cannot cross the line into the regions of individual choice and preference to force-feed diverse experiences on its students. Like a well thought-out buffet, there should be something for everyone but not everyone has to taste everything. And, by the same token, the College cannot admit people in part because they are musicians and athletes and not expect these characteristics to spill over into their social life and choice of friends.

Because of its size, Harvard needs to group its students in smaller social units. The Houses offer the necessary pockets of community and afford their residents the opportunity to participate in cultural and recreational activities on a smaller and less competitive scale, thereby converting what could be an impersonal three years to a meaningful experience. But to assume that this type of community will automatically spring up from a group lumped together by the arbitary workings of a computer is mistaken. Something more, something like common interests, is needed. A random lottery may diversify but it will also splinter.

Let not this discussion about a random lottery act as a smoke screen for the real task ahead: narrowing the disparity between the River and Quad Houses. If college officials and council members are truly concerned about the quality of residential life at Harvard, they will redouble their efforts to make the old Radcliffe dorms better places to live because no matter which lottery is used the same percentage of students will be setting up camp north of the Common each year. Although nothing bar plate techtonics can narrow the distance, plenty can be done to raise the Quad Houses to physical parity with the River ones. It is irksome that a university sitting on a $2.3 billion endowment claims that it must wait for outside contributors to kick in the $17 million needed for Quad renovations. If administrators are at a loss as to where the funds might come from, we suggest the $6 million surplus from the recently concluded Harvard Campaign might be a good place to start.

A random lottery will not only fail to solve the fundamental problem, that concerning the Quad Houses, but it will also drain the Houses of much of their existing character. The diversity the pro-random forces so crave is already here, just not at every dinner table. Letting people choose where they want to live makes residential dorms not just houses but homes.

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985