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It's been several months now since Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 indicated that the fate of the housing lottery system was up in the air--again.
It's been several months since the Maull-Lewis report reopened the debate by suggesting the College should randomize the housing lottery so as to promote greater diversity.
And it's been several months since the Joint Committee on College Life and House Life again broached the question to students and House masters, only to find that their positions remained practically identical to those of their predecessors on the committee five years ago. Students still want to have some say in where they live for the bulk of their undergraduate years, and the house masters balk at student choice when it threatens the diversity of the houses.
Early this semester, the debate ended and the campus awaited Dean Jewett's decision. In his final year as Dean of the College, Jewett has indicated that he may end non-ordered choice, the five-year-old compromise plan that he had hailed just two years earlier as providing a reasonable balance between calls for diversity and choice.
The conventional wisdom is that Jewett will move toward full randomization of the housing lottery process in defiance of the opinions of the vast majority of students. The Harvard Independent's recent poll found over 80 percent of students in favor of some choice in the housing lottery compared to only 11 percent of students in favor of randomization. Several weeks ago, more than 190 students signed on to an online petition calling for the preservation of the current system.
We once again renew our support for student choice in the housing lottery. Randomizing the system will not diversify social relations any more than the diverse first-year rooming groups survive into the sophomore year. Students learn from diversity in the classrooms, in extracurricular groups and on athletic teams. But students will still socialize with people who largely share their interests and their backgrounds.
Likewise, students choose houses in part for a social scene in which they feel comfortable. While randomization would make the houses appear diverse to number crunchers, it will fracture house social life, as students seek other venues in finals clubs, fraternities and Cambridge bars.
Students have repeatedly voiced their disapproval of randomization, but they have been unable to mobilize their support in a larger protest simply because nothing has changed--yet.
While there is widespread speculation that the lottery will change, Jewett has repeatedly delayed his decision on the future of the housing lottery, saying only that he is still gathering opinions from various sources.
He first indicated that he would make his decision after students returned from spring break. Then, he said he would make it before May 1, so that the future Class of 1999 could consider any changes in the housing lottery before accepting Harvard's offer of admission.
Now it is the start of reading period and Jewett has still not reached a decision. Why has this choice, which has been debated almost continuously for the past five years, been so difficult?
Is it because the Dean is reluctant to spend his last months as Dean of the College in battle with student protesters? Or is it because Jewett hopes to suppress student protest by announcing his decision while undergraduates are submerged in the grind of finals?
We are strongly in favor of the soliciting of student opinions by administrators, and Jewett has said on successive occasions that he is awaiting various polls and communications in an effort to gauge student opinion. But we doubt that Jewett needs any more input; by now, after a 10-year tenure, we're sure he knows how students feel.
As the year comes to a close, it seems strange that Jewett will even make the decision at all. Since McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis '68 will become Dean of the College on July 1, perhaps Jewett should leave the decision to his successor.
But as Jewett seems likely to decide one way or another, we urge him to do so with wisdom and with speed. By choosing full randomization, the Dean would deny students the choice they clearly want in the housing lottery. We hold non-ordered choice to be a workable compromise, as Jewett has in the past. But if the Dean sees differently, he should offer an alternative compromise rather than outright ignoring student opinions.
But whatever his decision, Jewett must choose quickly, or not at all. It would be better to leave the decision to his successor next fall than to make it while students are busy with finals and unable to respond.
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