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As selection committees meet with finalists for the two House mastership openings this year, some students are hoping the result of the selection process will be a more diverse group of masters.
While Harvard may be an Ivy League leader in terms of student body diversity, when it comes to the people who lead its Houses, Harvard has a long way to go.
At Princeton, two Hispanic men and one Hispanic woman are among the masters of the university's five residential colleges for first- and second-year students.
But although Harvard has made strides in appointing more female masters, when it comes to racial diversity, only one of Harvard's 13 Houses--Dunster--is led by masters who are non-white.
Still, despite a recent effort by student members of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) to urge the College to improve this ratio as it prepares to fill two soon-to-be-vacant masters positions, administrators and House masters say the goal of increasing diversity is harder than it seems.
"It is important to realize that it takes a very special set of qualities to be a good master, and not all Harvard Faculty, however distinguished and excellent in other respects, possess them," writes Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 in an e-mail message.
"I would certainly be delighted if a person of color were appointed to a mastership sometime in the next few years," he adds, "but that characteristic is not as important as appointing someone who will do the best job for the students in the House."
A Challenge Ahead
That difficulty is compounded by the relatively small number of tenured Faculty members of color at Harvard.
Still, Lewis says the College looks "particularly closely" at candidates from underrepresented groups who are part of the pool of potential masters, but gives the most weight to making sure a candidate has the requisite "core traits" for the position.
Leverett House Master Howard Georgi '68, who was appointed under Lewis' supervision two years ago, says he agrees that a potential master's demographics should matter less than his or her qualifications.
"Having a master of color is very important, but not as important as somebody willing to do a good job," Georgi says. "The first priority is to find someone who will throw themselves into the position. If we do have a candidate [of color] that is suitable, fantastic."
This goal is not new to the masters selection process, according Thomas A. Dingman '67, associate dean of the College for human resources and the House system.
"The effort to have the pool include people of color as potential candidates has been made for many, many years," Dingman says. "The students [from AAC] weren't bringing something to us that we weren't aware of; it made us feel like this was something that we need to make progress in."
The source of the problem, some say, is the dearth of minority senior Faculty members.
"Harvard is a premier research university, so we attract strong candidates for Faculty positions, but a lot of minority people are fairly new to the program," Shinagel says. "Many institutions are bidding for a very limited pool."
In addition, Faculty members of color are in high demand for many other non-academic positions and are asked to contribute in many spheres of life both at Harvard and outside.
"I think it's fair to say that [Faculty members] of color are stretched very thin," Dingman says.
Still, Lewis says when it comes to finding candidates who are interested in the position, Faculty members are frequently too busy for the job--minority and non-minority candidates alike.
"Members of underrepresented groups are particularly overburdened by other demands on their time, but it is a general fact that--in spite of the rewards of being at the head of a community of 450 or so undergraduates--many Faculty who would be desirable candidates as masters simply tell us that they cannot manage any more commitments on their time," Lewis writes.
And the AAC's work has not gone unnoticed.
"Word has gone out, and we've been talking it up," says Quincy House Master Michael Shinagel, who is also a member of the Committee on House Life. "Everybody is aware of and concerned with [the question of diversity among House masters]."
Adams House Master Judith Palfrey '67, who is completing her first year as master, say she is hopeful that the current trend is changing.
She says the pool of students with whom she works as a professor at Harvard Medical School "resembles the United Nations," and includes students of all race and ethnicity.
This new generation will soon become doctors of the future, Palfrey says, and she hopes a similar diversity will appear in academia as well. But Palfrey says she recognizes the transition will take time.
"It will literally take decades to move a sufficiently big and strong group of [people of color] through the system," says Palfrey. "We have a process that takes taking decades to build. It is a painfully slow process."
But in the meantime, she says the College and the community of masters should look for other ways to improve diversity in the Houses.
For instance, Palfrey says Houses can make special efforts to hire diverse groups of resident tutors.
Dingman says the College also solicits Senior Common Room (SCR) recommendations so the College can consider the widest pool possible.
"We've written SCR members and considered each recommendation given to us in each of the searches," he says.
But until the Faculty as a whole becomes more diverse, Lewis says he and the committees charged with recommending masters for appointments this spring will be forced to select from a slightly skewed group.
"We can't create ideal masters; we have to select from among those who are senior members of the Faculty," Lewis writes.
"The demographics of that group are not the same as the demographics of the students in Harvard College," he adds.
In meantime, Georgi says he is hopeful that the College will consider qualified minority candidates.
But he reiterates that the best masters are those who will throw themselves into the job.
"A master of color would make a difference if they were a great master," he says. "It would be a great symbol, so I certainly hope that it will be considered as part of the criteria, but not as the most important, or even any of the most important."
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