Onward to Randomization

The Present Lottery System Steals Away House Pride

If I could find a place in my heart to hold my thorough hatred and horror for one annoying thing about Harvard, choices like the outrageous book prices and the slow network services would surely be left out of the pump. I'd rather endure them all than face a lottery. But we can virtually take for granted that the lottery system is out there to bother our academic as well as personal life. When I say personal life, of course I'm talking about the housing lottery.

These days I realize that even total randomization might be a better way to design a lottery. At one point, I considered myself lucky to be in the last first-year class with the right to put down at least some preferences. Last summer, after mailing in a rooming application, I never spent any more time worrying about rooming and was one day informed that Canaday was going to be my home. Every first-year had the same probability of being assigned to a certain hall, though some are unarguably better off now. Those who are worse off complain only with a sense of good-humored indifference, as can be illustrated by a poster in Pennypacker 38 of a man running on a mountain path with the caption "a Harvard freshman en route to a Union dorm." After all, there is no one to blame, and we have no choice but to take it as it is. However, when it comes to choosing a House, all kinds of trouble appears as a result of the complex lottery procedure.

First of all, the formation of rooming and blocking groups often ends up being a showdown of declaring friendship, leaving many uneasy with the fear of hurting others' feelings. The sad truth is that friends who think, talk and act alike do not necessarily live alike, especially when the space is limited to where there is not enough room to put a second desk.

And let us also not forget those folks who become "floaters" for one reason or another. Whether they simply want a new scenario or by nature are lonely or unpopular, they must find it really ridiculous when forced to answer a most fervently asked question: "Where ya gonna live and who ya gonna live with next year?"

Putting down satisfactory Houses is an extremely painful task when the blocking group gets large. Everybody has his opinion of what is awesome and what sucks. The beautiful Eliot is heaven to some but its all-doubles feature makes it hellish to others. The spacious and faraway Pforzheimer is great in the eyes of people who enjoy carving out a world of their own, but it is a night-mare to those who place the highest value on social life within a big community. No house is perfect, so a list of four selections acceptable for a group of eight or ten individuals entails many unhappy sacrifices and unwilling compromises, sometimes giving rise to a split.


However, even worse is the not unusual result that many groups will be disappointed by the outcomes of the lottery despite all their long discussions, careful planning and tactful handling of each member's personal interests. On the lottery form you don't rank your picks in the order of interest, which means all four of them are equally important. Suppose Group A is seriously eager to go to Lowell, and Group B doesn't really care and just happens to randomly pick it. It will be unfair for A if the selections of A and B are weighted on the same grounds. If B gets into Lowell and A doesn't, which is theorectically very possible, neither group would be happy. And there are also occasions when you are assigned to some house you never put down, and all your choices seem to have evaporated into thin air--would you ever bother to think about houses if you could know beforehand that you would undergo this unreasonable randomization?

Whether next semester we find ourselves in our most favorite or most hated house, there is always one saying we will come upon: Your house is what you make of it; or, more cornily, the people living in the house really matter. But now it is often the case that first-year roommates or entrymates go together as a block. There is of course nothing wrong with wanting to see familiar faces throughout one's entire college years, but the current lottery system has obviously urged us to be less open-minded. We are likely to ignore what makes Harvard unique--its interesting student body. Just think about how we got to know our roommates or entrymates; we submitted an application form stating our likes and dislikes, and the officers divided us in a way they thought would benefit us all, which has turned out to have worked quite well. So if this whole thing about Houses has to be a lottery system, I believe the way they assign first-year dorms is so far the best way to help us meet exciting people out there without having to worry much about personal conflicts that might occur.

Harvard has always been a place that is mindful of traditions. As a great enthusiast for traditions myself, I wonder why the University abandoned the original way of dealing with housing applications. In the past each house boasted its distinct history and characteristics, and people had to apply and be interviewed in order to get in. Because the selection process was competitive, a house almost could not fail to admit students who would contribute the most and savor house life to the fullest. Each house resident would consider it an honor to live in that house and sense the responsibility to carry the tradition on. In contrast, what today's chaotic and confusing lottery process brings about is that we might no longer cherish the pride of living in a certain house, because the computer gets us there. When total randomization takes over from the next year on, future Harvardians living in Adams will never know that once upon a time this old dark place was mecca for artists....