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Killing the House System

By Liam T.A. Ford

THOUSANDS OF ALUMNI converged on Cambridge this week to stay for a few days in the undergraduate houses they remember so fondly.

The Class of '92 will return in 25 years to do the same. Dunster and Adams and Eliot and the other residential houses may still stand, but they will be dorms like those at any other college--buildings in which students live-and nothing more.

The administration so far has refused to listen to undergraduates who with to retain the character of Harvard's houses. Only alumni can convince the Harvard administration to stop the agent which is destroying the houses' character--non-ordered choice.

NON-ORDERED CHOICE first infected the houses in the spring of 1990, after two years of bitter struggle over the apparatus by which first-year students would choose their houses. It is a halfbaked compromise between complete randomization and the old ordered-choice lottery instituted in the 1970s.

Under the ordered-choice regime, first-year students in the College received lottery numbers and then selected, in order of preference, three houses they wished to live in.

Those students whose lottery numbers were too high to allow them entry into their first-choice house received their second (or third) choice, or were randomized into houses which had yet to be filled.

Ordered choice certainly was an improvement over older ways of choosing who lived in which house. Those in the Class of '42 no doubt remember that house masters often used to choose their student population through personal interviews.

This non-system allowed masters to choose students on the strength of such arbitrary attributes as a student's social standing and family background. And it fostered an exclusionary mystique in many of the houses.

Engendering a distinct character in each house, however, was an important goal of the house system's creators. The houses were modelled after the Cambridge and Oxford colleges.

Harvard houses, to be true to the spirit of the house system, should be the intellectual, social and cultural centers of College life. If they become mere microcosms of the College community as a whole, as some administrators seem to think they should, there is a slight chance that they will remain so. What they won't be, however, are distinct communities.

IT WAS BECAUSE the houses succeeded in remaining distinct communities under ordered choice that College administrators proposed the complete randomization of house assignments.

In a mad rush to diversify the houses for egalitarian purposes, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 and Associate Dean for the House System Thomas A. Dingman '67 decided that every Harvard house must be different only in name and architecture.

In the spring of 1990, Jewett, with the approval of then-President Derek C. Bok, instituted a compromise plan proposed originally by a student group, the Committee Against Randomization, which also presented Jewett a petition signed by over 1100 members of the Class of '93 criticizing his randomization proposal. Non-ordered choice began its infection.

Non-ordered choice is supposed to be a trial program which attempts to diversify house populations without destroying the unique character of houses. Its trial period is over this year, and next year complete randomization may ensue. If it does, Harvard's houses will become nothing more than bland dormitories, the student population will become fragmented and the cultural life of the College will suffer.

Proponents of diversity disparage house "stereotypes," saying that the previously distinct character of houses such as Adams causes students to narrow their outlooks.

When students are allowed to choose the communities they wish to live in, "self-segregation" occurs. This segregation, diversity proponents claim, defeats the purpose of the diverse College community which the admissions office works so hard to create.

Randomization and non-ordered choice, these diversifiers say, still allow students to live with whom they wish at the rooming group level. But reducing student choice will force students to learn from one another and make them socialize with larger numbers of people different from themselves.

Proponents of student choice, on the other hand, point to the fragmentation which has taken place in house communities since the beginning of non-ordered choice. Forced to live with people who share completely different interests, students withdraw into smaller and smaller social circles.

A survey of the effects of non-ordered choice upon houses by the Harvard Independent hints at the ill effects of the utopian policy of randomization. Karel Liem, master of Dunster House, says that "[t]he individuality of the house is truly endangered.

And the chair of the Eliot House Committee notes that his house "is becoming less of a social and intellectual center and more of a dorm."

RANDOMIZERS, OF COURSE, justify taking away student choice by claiming that the old system perpetuated elitism and exclusion.

But those who oppose student choice are wrong to equate choice with elitism and randomization with egalitarianism, as Adams House Master Robert J. Kiely notes.

In houses such as Adams, according to Kiely a few people with a strong commitment to keeping a particular community alive allow houses to retain their essential character. Students who epitomize a house's spirit visibly embody it and encourage like-minded students to enter the house.

But even with strong "stereotypes," diverse students can still integrate within a house. Kiely points to the fact that within a social or intellectual community of any given type, there often remains a great amount of economic and racial diversity.

Student choice is important in building house communities whether or not houses have a strong, defined character, however. What randomizers refuse to acknowledge is that by giving students a choice in then rooming, the College also gives them a stake in building and maintaining a community which they have chosen. Thus while non-ordered choice has yet to affect the material diversity of houses very noticeably, it has made students significantly more discontented with their houses.

THE PATERNALISM of those who wish to engineer diversity in the name of a more cohesive and integrated College community thus backfires. Instead of dorms full of satisfied students who socialize with large numbers of diverse peers, houses are becoming more and more merely places to sleep and eat.

Like the blandest of American suburbs, houses may become mere bedroom communities in which few people know each other well and in which little tangible interaction between students takes place.

Those who want to erase the character of the houses should have thought about the ill effects of their utopian ideal. With student choice, a house can build a staff of tutors to cater to the needs of its particular community and thus shape its students intellectual lives.

House masters and student house committees can put their discretionary funds into fostering music societies, discussion tables or arts events targeted to the particular character of their houses. And students can feel comfortable knowing that they have a stake in the community they have chosen.

But when student choice is forcibly with drawn, only insipid houses can result. Students with no choice of communities will form small cliques in their dormitories and have less stake in getting to know those with other interests.

Students who choose a house have an immediate bond with one another. The students in the old houses had a few things obviously in common which allowed them to get over the initial difficulty of seeing students with different backgrounds as possible friends.

Although alike in some outlook or interest, students in, for example, Adams House, still came from diverse backgrounds. And they had many different experiences, ideas and outlooks from which their fellow Adamsians could learn. (My first year, for example a prominent conservative student lived at Adams in part because she was a lesbian.)

Now, however, we may see the destruction of the house system and its degradation into a group of run-of-the-mill dormitories. Because a paternalistic College administration refuses to listen to students who recognize the value of the house system, only pressure from alumni concerned about College life can save the houses.

If they don't, Harvard will have proved nothing more than that it has lost its sense of tradition and its concern for the quality of undergraduate life.

Liam T.A. Ford '91-'92 is an editor of The Crimson. This is his last editorial ever. We think.

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