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Many Protested Randomization, but Minority Groups Were Among the Most Vocal

By Sarah A. Dolgonos and Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writerss

Angela E. Freeburg'03 was ambivalent about leaving her Greenough room as she prepared to head home for the summer two weeks ago.

Not only was she leaving the familiar environment of the Yard, she was also separating from the comfortable community of black first-years. "This year, with the Freshman Black Table and all my friends in Annenberg together, the black population was very visible," Freeburg says.

Since randomization, the black population at Harvard has been dispersed throughout the Houses, and Freeburg is worried that the black population in Cabot House will not provide the comfortable community she has grown used to.

Concerns like Freeburg's have long marked the response to decades of housing reforms.

While randomization and the reduction of blocking group sizes have attracted opposition from many students, minority students often say they are the most hard-hit.

The First Compromise

From 1977 to 1989, students were assigned to Houses through the ordered choice system, in which students could rank their four top House choices. But in 1989, the housing system changed from ordered choice to non-ordered choice, in which students could list four choices but not rank them.

The First Compromise

The change was an attempt to diversify Houses that had developed distinct, sometimes ethnically homogenous identities.

The switch came as a compromise between students, who fought to retain ordered choice, and masters, who pushed for complete randomization. Non-ordered choice was implemented for a trial period of four years, and then officially adopted in 1993.

Masters hoped that non-ordered choice would make their Houses better reflections of the College as a whole.

"Harvard goes to great expense to recruit a diversified class, and we think that the Houses should reflect as much as possible a microcosm of the College," Quincy House Master Michael Shinagel said in 1993.

The Change to Randomization

But the non-ordered choice system did not drastically change the ethnic composition of House populations. A survey released in 1992 revealed that the concentrations of some ethnic groups remained unbalanced. For instance, two Houses had 17 and 13 percent black populations, compared to 4 percent in another House.

The Change to Randomization

In response to this persisting imbalance, then-Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett'57 initiated the current system of randomized House assignments. "The purpose of this change is to ensure, as much as possible, that each House contains a broad-ranging and diverse community, representing the various talents, strengths and backgrounds of the college populations," Jewett announced in a 1995 letter.

The decision to move to randomization sparked protests, as students questioned whether the change would actually improve diversity or leave minority students isolated.In May of that year, 200 students gathered in front of University Hall to rally against randomization. Leading the protest were minority students who worried about breaking up the large concentration of minorities in certain Houses.

"As a member of a minority community on campus whose numbers are less than 8 percent of the College, it's often difficult to have my voice heard," said J. Lewis Ford'97 to the crowd outside of University Hall. "Is it really fair to rob me of my experience as an African-American so that blacks can be sprinkled around this campus?" These concerns resurfaced in 1998, when 26 minority resident tutors criticized randomization in an open letter they sent to Harvard administrators. The tutors claimed that the decision to randomize had destroyed the "supporting and nurturing community" that existed before the 1995 move. "[T]hese communities...were vibrant primarily because various racial communities coexisted and thrived together," the letter read. "And the level of student interaction was sustained because students of color felt comfortable, academically, socially and personally.

"The tutors claimed that randomization presented a burden to minority students, who found themselves estranged without a support system. "By sprinkling a 'manageable' number of minority students in each of the 12 houses one does not necessarily ensure increased student interaction," the letter read.

The Final Move

Last year, the College reduced the size of blocking groups from 16 to eight, in an attempt to force students to socialize outside their blocking groups and integrate into the Houses as a whole.

The Final Move

In 1997, there had been 16 "large" blocking groups that were more than 50 percent black or Asian, according to a survey released by the Committee on House Life. Some minority students again say that they fear this change may be particularly hurtful to them. Not only have they lost the House-based ethnic groups that existed prior to randomization, but now, students say, they no longer have the ability to block together in large groups.

Two years ago, tutors had warned against reduced blocking size when they released their open letter.

Nicky Sheats, then a resident tutor in Eliot House, said, "If you reduce the blocking size, you're really limiting the ability of [minority students] to create community.

"And after the change, students still share his concerns.

Peter-Charles "PC" N. Bright'01, who is a member of a predominantly black blocking group in Dunster House, says that cutting the blocking group size is particularly unjust to black students.

"Minority students are more affected by everything just because there are so [many] fewer of us," he says.

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