News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Diversifying With an Axe

Randomization Will Not Solve Harvard's Diversity Problems

By David J. Andorsky

Springtime is fast approaching, bringing with it, among other things, the first-year housing lottery. Although the rules and procedures this year are similar to those in years past, things may be quite different for the Class of '99. Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 is leaning toward randomizing the housing lottery.

Jewett has been a long-time supporter of randomization, arguing that the current lottery allows students to self-segregate into homogeneous communities based on race or social type ("jock," "artist," etc.). Previously, Jewett lacked the support to move toward full randomization. But now, more House Masters agree with him, and randomization may become a reality.

Unfortunately, randomization is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of self-segregation. Instead, randomization will only serve to weaken house life and anger students without creating an integrated campus.

Advocates of randomization certainly have good intentions. Nobody can deny that many houses today have fairly homogeneous communities, including the strong Black presence in Pforzheimer, an "artsy" population in Adams and the Asian predominance in Quincy.

It seems hypocritical and wasteful for the University to spend so much effort on diversifying the student population, only to allow undergraduates to break into smaller homogeneous communities in their houses. Randomization, its supporters argue, will encourage students of different backgrounds and interests to associate with each other.

Such goals are compelling. So compelling, in fact, that exactly a year ago I wrote in this very publication, "If Harvard intends to fulfill its commitment to diversity, the Freshman Housing Lottery should be totally randomized."

What happened? Have I turned my back on the ideal of an integrated campus? Resigned myself to a Balkanized Harvard?

Not at all. The goal of racial and social integration remains important, but altering the Housing lottery is not the way to achieve it. Trying to solve the problem of self-segregation by randomizing the Housing lottery is much like performing open-heart surgery with an axe. The instrument is too blunt to radically change social behavior without interfering with all of the other aspects of house life.

For example, advocates of house randomization are not addressing differences between the houses that have nothing to do with race, particularly the fact that the Quad houses are fifteen minutes from the center of campus. When first-years worry about the possibility of being quadded, they are not thinking, "Gee, I would hate to live with all of those Black people," or "Gee, I would hate to live with all of those pre-meds." Racial or social characteristics have absolutely nothing to do with such calculations. Geography does.

Conversely, many students want to live in the Quad, for non-racial reasons as well. Some people like creating a separation between school and home, others want more space. By ignoring such very real differences between the houses, a policy of randomization would anger students on both sides of the "Quad debate."

Even more outrageous and narrow is the proposed house transfer procedure. Currently, when a student wants to transfer out of his house, they pick another house and apply. Either they are accepted into the new house and move, or they are rejected and must begin the process again in the following semester.

Apparently, Jewett and others feel that if randomization is implemented, students will seek to circumvent it by transferring into other houses. To avoid this, they have suggested that students who wish to transfer should enter a lottery, in which they will be assigned--you guessed it--to a random house.

Again, such a proposal entirely ignores the Quad issue. I would be furious if I wanted to live closer to campus and was transferred from Currier into Cabot.

In addition, transfers often decide to live with friends in other houses, perhaps because of a falling-out with their original blocking group. But the new transfer proposal would require this hypothetical friend to leave their house and enter the lottery as well.

This provides a strong disincentive to transfer: not only is the student assigned to a random house that may be as bad as the one she left, but she will probably have to do it without friends. This draconian proposal illustrates that students' happiness has become entirely subservient to the goal of racial and social diversity.

There are some solutions to the above objections. One way, suggested by U.C. Vice-President Justin Label '97, is to allow blocking groups to choose six non-ordered choices. This would prevent homogeneous communities from forming while allowing students to avoid being quadded.

Unfortunately, both the six-house plan and full randomization suffer from the same misconception. both rest on the belief that the distribution of blocking groups is the cause of racial and social segregation. But it is not the lottery that is at fault; it is the blocking groups themselves.

It only takes a moment of thought to realize that homogeneous blocks create homogeneous houses. Consider: if every block were a diverse mix of people, then the houses would necessarily be mixed as well. It is only when, for example, all of the all-Jewish blocks select the same houses that self-segregation becomes a problem.

So what happens when you randomize the lottery and put a block of eight athletes next to a block of ten computer hackers? Each block will retreat into itself, maintaining social ties outside of the house and not creating a house community. The architecture of most houses, comprised of small entryways and suites with common rooms, allow people to isolate themselves easily, even within the same house.

In anticipation of this problem, the Committee on House and College Life (COHL) decided in January to limit block size to sixteen, down from twenty. House masters had advocated a limit of eight in November, "as a step towards making the composition of the houses more random."

There is no practical difference between twenty and sixteen, as only one block in the past five years has been larger than sixteen members. Still, I would maintain that even a block size of eight is enough to foil the noble efforts of randomization's advocates.

The real solution to the problem of self-segregation, then, is to foster diversity within blocking groups. This effort obviously must be made during a student's first year, when the blocking groups begin to form an social ties are established.

Currently, the College does very little in this regard. Aside from randomly mixing students in the Yard--which does have significant impact--it is difficult for first-years to meet each other in an intimate setting. Freshman Week is a blur of placement exams and Crimson Key ice cream socials--which, despite good intentions, are not good places to get to know someone.

In light of all this, it should not come as a surprise that first-years are led to more intimate--but homogenous--communities, formed around racial or social characteristics. The students who self-segregate are not doing so because they are close-minded or racist; they do so because they are attracted by communities that are more welcoming and friendly than the College as a whole.

It is ironic that while The COHL discussed the pros and cons of randomization, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps Ill said last week that the new Loker Commons is "a planned response to a weakness in [Harvard's] social life. We don't think it's easy for students to meet each other."

Epps noted that the recent growth in Greek life at Harvard is a response to this weakness. The void that leads students to sororities and fraternities--small homogeneous communities--is the same one that leads students to homogeneous blocking groups and homogeneous houses. If the College seriously addresses this issue, it will solve both problems. If it does not, it will solve neither.

Randomization looks like an attractive solution to self-segregation because it is easy. It would be nice if a complex social problem could be resolved with one clean stroke. But things are much more complicated, and it will take more than the magic bullet of randomization to accomplish Jewett's goals.

Even more outrageous and narrow is the proposed house transfer procedure. Currently, when a student wants to transfer out of his house, they pick another house and apply. Either they are accepted into the new house and move, or they are rejected and must begin the process again in the following semester.

Apparently, Jewett and others feel that if randomization is implemented, students will seek to circumvent it by transferring into other houses. To avoid this, they have suggested that students who wish to transfer should enter a lottery, in which they will be assigned--you guessed it--to a random house.

Again, such a proposal entirely ignores the Quad issue. I would be furious if I wanted to live closer to campus and was transferred from Currier into Cabot.

In addition, transfers often decide to live with friends in other houses, perhaps because of a falling-out with their original blocking group. But the new transfer proposal would require this hypothetical friend to leave their house and enter the lottery as well.

This provides a strong disincentive to transfer: not only is the student assigned to a random house that may be as bad as the one she left, but she will probably have to do it without friends. This draconian proposal illustrates that students' happiness has become entirely subservient to the goal of racial and social diversity.

There are some solutions to the above objections. One way, suggested by U.C. Vice-President Justin Label '97, is to allow blocking groups to choose six non-ordered choices. This would prevent homogeneous communities from forming while allowing students to avoid being quadded.

Unfortunately, both the six-house plan and full randomization suffer from the same misconception. both rest on the belief that the distribution of blocking groups is the cause of racial and social segregation. But it is not the lottery that is at fault; it is the blocking groups themselves.

It only takes a moment of thought to realize that homogeneous blocks create homogeneous houses. Consider: if every block were a diverse mix of people, then the houses would necessarily be mixed as well. It is only when, for example, all of the all-Jewish blocks select the same houses that self-segregation becomes a problem.

So what happens when you randomize the lottery and put a block of eight athletes next to a block of ten computer hackers? Each block will retreat into itself, maintaining social ties outside of the house and not creating a house community. The architecture of most houses, comprised of small entryways and suites with common rooms, allow people to isolate themselves easily, even within the same house.

In anticipation of this problem, the Committee on House and College Life (COHL) decided in January to limit block size to sixteen, down from twenty. House masters had advocated a limit of eight in November, "as a step towards making the composition of the houses more random."

There is no practical difference between twenty and sixteen, as only one block in the past five years has been larger than sixteen members. Still, I would maintain that even a block size of eight is enough to foil the noble efforts of randomization's advocates.

The real solution to the problem of self-segregation, then, is to foster diversity within blocking groups. This effort obviously must be made during a student's first year, when the blocking groups begin to form an social ties are established.

Currently, the College does very little in this regard. Aside from randomly mixing students in the Yard--which does have significant impact--it is difficult for first-years to meet each other in an intimate setting. Freshman Week is a blur of placement exams and Crimson Key ice cream socials--which, despite good intentions, are not good places to get to know someone.

In light of all this, it should not come as a surprise that first-years are led to more intimate--but homogenous--communities, formed around racial or social characteristics. The students who self-segregate are not doing so because they are close-minded or racist; they do so because they are attracted by communities that are more welcoming and friendly than the College as a whole.

It is ironic that while The COHL discussed the pros and cons of randomization, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps Ill said last week that the new Loker Commons is "a planned response to a weakness in [Harvard's] social life. We don't think it's easy for students to meet each other."

Epps noted that the recent growth in Greek life at Harvard is a response to this weakness. The void that leads students to sororities and fraternities--small homogeneous communities--is the same one that leads students to homogeneous blocking groups and homogeneous houses. If the College seriously addresses this issue, it will solve both problems. If it does not, it will solve neither.

Randomization looks like an attractive solution to self-segregation because it is easy. It would be nice if a complex social problem could be resolved with one clean stroke. But things are much more complicated, and it will take more than the magic bullet of randomization to accomplish Jewett's goals.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags