The Heirs Versus the Randoms

Old habits die hard--especially at Harvard. Last month's minor furor surrounding changes in control of the Adams House "Oak Leaf," the weekly house newsletter, proves it. Some went ballistic, others were happy and a third group--maybe a majority--didn't really care. Still, Adamsians' reactions are a gentle sign that the non-ordered-choice lottery system has failed its mission and that the College should move toward full randomization.

Until last month, residents of Adams House trudged into the dining hall every Friday morning expecting to find a snide, wryly offensive, humorous-but-hurtful "Oak Leaf" on a table next to ID checker Jane's desk. Handwritten by semi-anonymous editors, the comments on the back of the "Oak Leaf" in its classic form variously taunted, sent up, amused and enraged house members. "In/out" lists distinguished the cool from the merely average.

But not anymore. Occasionally, the "Oak Leaf" editors went too far. Last spring, one "in" list implied that certain residents--the editors named names--were hiding their true sexual orientations. This fall's editor published nude photographs of himself. The house office fired him, although Loker Professor of English Robert J. Kiely, the house master, says the photos had nothing to do with it. The official notices had become "garbled," Kiely says. Anything the editors choose to do on the back, he says, is fine, "as long as individuals not be attacked or offended." Were there complaints? Yes.

But censorship isn't the issue. It's the interactions between different social groups in the houses that matter. In the days of ordered choice, the Adams House stereotype offended few house residents. Most people chose the house partly for its reputation. But times change. As the nude-photo editor says, "Just the fact that some people got offended at it says something." And the "Oak Leaf" story hints at just how the non-ordered choice system has strained house life.

Two "Oak Leaves" came out on Friday, October 13. One was the product of a troika of new editors--I was one of them, and we lasted only three weeks. When we got the job, the instructions from the house office went something like this: cleaner, more legible, more inclusive. In: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and typography. Out: new Madonna and "outing." No names, no offense.


Or so we thought. I don't subscribe to the "Breakfast Club" model of social relations, but it is inevitable that in any large group, smaller cliques form. In Adams House, some people are heirs to the wild tradition that brought parties to the late, lamented swimming pool and permitted smoking in the dining hall. In other words, some people remain committed to the artsy stereotype. Others, mostly those randomized into the house, wouldn't mind seeing the stereotype disappear.

Though my co-editors and I fall somewhere in between the two extremes, strict adherents to the old Adams religion considered our sanitized "Oak Leaf" a sacrilege. Overheard in the dining hall, for example: "It's just not funny if it's not offensive." And: "They've got to name names." One woman at Tommy's told me that I needed help figuring out who the "popular" people were. Of course, I hadn't heard the word "popular" applied to another student since I left North Cumberland Middle School. Another hard-core Adams woman taped her own in/out list, written on two Maxithins, to one of our doors.

Meanwhile, the old editor mused in the alternative "Oak Leaf" that Friday about the mindset of his detractors: "I can imagine your feeling that you're...not quite smart enough unless you can say, 'Excuse me, but, I find that really offensive,' to at least five people per day." The Heirs didn't understand the Randoms, and the Randoms didn't say much at all.

So what does this say about non-ordered choice? Well, we can see that it's an imperfect institution that erodes reputations enough to threaten the unity of houses once bound by common jockiness, artsiness, crunchiness or wealth. We also know that non-ordered choice doesn't do quite enough to satisfy those who neither enjoy nor fit the stereotypes. In my house, the Heirs and the Randoms exist uneasily together.

Non-ordered choice doesn't change the fact that some first-years base their lottery decisions on house reputations. The system softens stereotypes, but creates reputational clusters. Lowell, once the home of Harvard's most anal, becomes the fourth choice, behind Eliot, Kirkland and Winthrop, of the final-club set. First-years who want to live in "liberal" houses stand a decent chance of getting into either Adams and Dunster. And Mather joins Kirkland as an annex to the MAC. Stereotypes shift around, but they still exist.

More insidious, though, is differentiation not by attitude but by race or sexual orientation. Despite the alleged pro-diversity effects of non ordered choice, a large percentage of Harvard's Black population lives in the Quad, many Asian-Americans live in Quincy and many openly gay, bisexual and lesbian students flock to Adams and Dunster. The housing system allows self-segregation, and contacts between Blacks and Asians and whites and gays and straights are reduced Whether separation is self-imposed is irrelevant to the ills that it creates. When we have little interaction with those unlike ourselves, basing attitude about others upon preconceptions and prejudice becomes that much easier.

As a result, full randomization looks more and more desirable. It solves the Heirs-versus-Randoms issue in Adams House by frustrating the growth of opposing cultures within each house. And it eliminates the self segregation that non-ordered choice--and ordered choice, a bad old habit of which the College rid itself three years ago--encourages.

There are two main arguments against randomization. For one, some gay, bisexual and lesbian students may feel uncomfortable living any where but the "tolerant" houses. One Adams resident told The Crimson as much last December. Secondly, some contend that losing house variety would be lethal to our community. After all, what would student life be like without the wild transvestism of Adams' Drag Night, the reckless carousing of Dunster's Trick or Drink or the opulence of the Eliot Fete?

Both arguments, though, collapse under scrutiny. Self-segregation is simply a poor solution to racism and gay-bashing. It provides short-term comfort but ultimately does nothing to end prejudice. And communities should first attempt to encourage harmony and respect among the members. Differentiation should be a secondary issue. I enjoyed Drag Night as much as anyone else in Adams House, but I'm willing to concede the event to a greater social good.

Does the controversy over the Adams House "Oak Leaf" really warrant massive changes in College's housing system and its attendant effects on student life? No, not really, not on its own. It wasn't much of a controversy, after all--if it were, you would have read about it on these pages weeks ago.

Still, it's a sign that the inadequacies of the non-ordered choice system affect even the smallest details of house life. Full randomization would solve the problem.

Three years old now, non-ordered choice has become a habit that the College would do well to break.

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