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Keep Non-Ordered Choice

Current System Balances Diversity and House Character

By David H. Goldbrenner

Ever since the inception of the House system in the 1930s, the process by which first-years are assigned to upperclass houses has been gradually evolving. This week, Dean of the college L. Fred Jewett '57 will decide whether to take the final step in a long, slow march towards randomization. Dean Jewett's intentions are good, but if he decides to take this step he will be abandoning arguably the most fair and effective means of assignment: non-ordered choice.

For the first 40 years of the house system, first-years applied to their favorite house and were accepted by the master. However, in the late '50s and early '60s, Harvard's nature changed rather dramatically--from a school for the well-heeled and well-connected to a more diverse and meritocratic place. Housing policies evolved to reflect this change.

The first shift occured in 1971, in which the application system was replaced with one in which students ranked all 12 houses. This system apparently sparked a good deal of unhappiness, and understandably so. The houses were highly polarized, and students who got choices low on their list were apt to wind up in a house with a character diametrically opposed to their own.

Arguably, students who got their top choices had a good chance of spending their college years in residential bliss. Still the system failed those hapless, misplaced blocking groups of shy, studious individuals forced to spend three years next to several dozen football players.

The next change, in 1977, retained the concept of ordered choice but reduced the number of choices from 12 down to the current four. This allowed for much more diverse houses, because it required many more blocking groups to be randomized, thereby diluting the character of any given house. But houses still retained strong personalities. For instance, before I came to Harvard, I remember being warned that Adams House was unbearably snobbish, artsy and avant-garde. When I got here, I found these warnings to be exaggerated; Adams does have these traits to a certain extent, but it's much more mainstream than I had expected. What I found out from older students, however, was that Adams really was that way. It was only the implementation of non-ordered choice in 1990 that moderated its extreme personality.

That brings us to the current system. Non-ordered choice is simply the best system around because it strikes a good balance between giving students the right to segregate themselves according to ethnicity and personality, and the practical and ideological need for diversity.

Some may argue that it destroys part of the college experience to homogenize and dull the flavor of the houses. I agree, but it is also necessary to insure that misplaced students are not absolutely miserable. The current system allows houses to retain enough of their former personalities to keep things interesting, While making them diverse enough that any blocking group will be able to feel at home.

If Dean Jewett decides to move to complete randomization, house personalities will be utterly characteristics remaining will be location and facilities. All this will be meaningless, of course, because students will be powerless to choose any of these things. Students who want a river view will wind up staring at the grass in the Quad; students who want weight rooms will get darkrooms; and students who want singles will wind up crammed into a walk-through suite with n+1 zillion roommates.

There is one very powerful argument for randomization: to prevent the racial segregation that non-ordered choice allows--most notably, the tendency of Black students to segregate themselves in the Quad. As an educational institution, the College has the responsibility to try and open our minds to new experiences and points of view. But there are also strong counterarguments. Students often feel much more comfortable living with others of their own background, and some contend that randomization would simply create unhappiness without guaranteeing positive interaction.

The question of student segregation is a murky moral issue that is not easy to resolve. But what Dean Jewett needs to realize is that if he attempts to take a stab at resolving it by instituting randomization, the immediate and tangible inconveniences that students suffer will far outweigh the vague benefits that might be achieved by the change.

The housing system is diverse enough as it is. If we try to force it into the unnatural and awkward pose of randomization, we will only be denying students the ability to chose environments that please them in exchange for moral principles that a great deal of students do not even subscribe to.

I have included the history of the house system in this piece because I wanted to make it clear just how far the system has come, and how much work has gone into refining it in the past six decades. The situation we have reached is a stable and beneficial one. The current system is ideal, in that it allows enough choice to provide students the basic elements they are looking for in a house while still allowing for the diversity that is essential to a Harvard education.

If Dean Jewett decides in favor of randomization, the housing system will have swung, in the course of the past 60 years, from one end of the spectrum to the other; from total choice to no choice. In this case, Dean Jewett would be wise to take Aristotle's advice and choose the golden mean: the current system.

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