A Cajoling Voice for Choice

How Can the Administration Be So Cavalier to Six Thousand Adults?

Emerging from Harvard's hall of mirrors, I sense a bittersweet surplus of irony and hypocrisy. I've continually been reminded of a Wall street Journal Cartoon which appeared only a few years ago. One member of congress walks by the Capitol as he confides to another: "I'm liberal," he says, "except where I'm concerned." This delicious quip has applied exceedingly well to almost all places and times, sometimes to my annoyance and other times to my amusement.

I should preface the following remarks (critical, as always) by confessing my great appreciation for being allowed the privilege of participating in the illustrious history of a university which completes its 359th graduation today. Nonetheless, as a proud son of Harvard (and a self-admitted editorialist), it is a duty of sorts to highlight the failings of an institution which can all-too-easily denigrate the very ideals it presumes to uphold. I'm reminded of the famous Edmund Burke quotation which adorns Harvard's favorite ultraconservative publication: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Well, I won't pretend that such hyperbolic rhetoric can be applied seriously to Harvard or that an editorial constitutes much more than "nothing." Nonetheless, the sentiment has always seemed to ring true. So please bear with me for a few moments...

While the College has recently made much news in the tabloids with the acceptance and subsequent rejection of a killer and even more recently with the bizarre murder-suicide at Dunster House, an important administrative change has been hidden amidst the tumult. Over the course of the past few decades, the Harvard administration has succeeded in incrementally destroying the housing system. The houses are where we eat and sleep, where we make many of our closest friends, what we consider our little home within the sprawling academic empire around us. This year, the destruction has been completed; the decision has been made to randomize completely the housing system at Harvard.

Long gone are the days when students interviewed with House masters for a place in their desired residence. Gone too are the days when students ranked their choices from highest to lowest before meeting the fate of a computer. And now gone this year is the latest compromise system of "non-ordered choice," where each student was almost guaranteed one of his or her top four choices (though in no particular order). As we ponder the succession of Five-Year Plans(More or less), we might wonder with some astonishment whether Harvard is on the same track as another famous bureaucracy of this century: the Soviet Union.

As everyone is well aware, the trend in housing changes has attempted to incorporate students' choice (i.e. their control over the none-too-little detail of Where they would live for three years) with the University's much -Celebrated (and recent) commitment to "diversity." Of course, we have evidently come far enough that the complete repudiation of student choice is not only conceivable, but feasible for the administration to enforce. Instead of attempting to maintain some balance between these two concepts, the administration has decided to ignore one in order to achieve the other. And what really has been achieved?


For the University, undergraduates seem to represent little more than labels to be assigned to "diverse" communities. At this point the "d-word" cannot even be mentioned without warning quotations; academia's great postmodern mission has generally become a self-styled farce.

After months of careful and serious consideration every year to decide the well-rounded first year class(as well as transfers from less prestigious institutions), it is not surprising that administrators might become frustrated when different groups do not partake of one another's "diversity." After all, What is the point of bringing all these "diverse" people together when each person merely consorts with his or her kind?

And so the administration looks at the undergraduates in the houses and sees too many "jocks" here, not enough "Blacks" there. Instead of questioning the pseudo-Marxist assumption that we are defined as individuals by our participation in a certain activity or our racial consciousness, the administration sees a problem with statistics, And, as it is often said, the numbers don't lie.

Besides, Yale does it. (As if Yale in itself were ever an argument for anything worth while...)

And so the last remnant of choice is removed from the house system. The undeniable fact that we are adults who pay many thousands of dollars not only for tuition but also for room and board does not seem to compute. We are a captive audience, much like animals in some surrealistic academic zoo. We represent the basic material for the administration's sociological experiment. And, as we all know, pigs must be randomized. I'm tempted to launch into an Orwellian Animal Farm satire, but we needn't resort to violence (Alas, the '60s are over.)

I do realize that it might seem insensitive and somehow immoral to question the University, especially on this sacred day. And, in general, we are well aware that committed administrators are just carrying out an important moral crusade. Shouldn't we stand back and marvel at their ethical commitment, as they extend control over every aspect of students' lives? When the administration is good, students who criticize them must be...bad...or perhaps, even worse, ignorant.

I only hope that the alumni and parents on campus today might have some historical perspective on the follies of modern academy. We are expected to enter the world today as responsible adults while in our college years we are treated like children who won't even be allowed to decide for themselves where to live. I guess future Harvardians could all just move off-campus.

In true Crimson fashion, I could arrogantly call for some administrators to leave campus instead. But that wouldn't really solve the problem. Indeed, the housing ringleader, Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 will leave Harvard today after a long career at his alma mater. Hopefully, though, the scores of alumni from the past several decades will prove their commitment to preserving what many (including myself) consider the best part of their Harvard experience. Although the administration certainly does not live in undergraduate housing, the University will always depend upon our continued contributions.

Brad Edward White was Associate Editorial Chair of The Crimson in 1994.