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The spring ritual of blocking, with all of its tense and sometimes bitter diplomatic maneuvering, was a more political ordeal for the Class of 2003 than for any first-year class since Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 randomized House assignments in 1995. In spring 2000, Lewis’ decision to cut the maximum blocking group size from 16 to eight students spurred a petition signed by over half the first-year class.
Three years later, there are no 16-person groups left at the College, and memories of the bitterness of the fight have faded away. Some graduating seniors concede that the class may have overreacted to the change.
“Since we didn’t know what was going to happen, I think we dramatized what the possibilities were,” says Richard J. Vivero ’03, a former Pforzheimer House Committee chair. “Once we got into the Houses, it wasn’t on the forefront of people’s minds.”
Even petition organizer Alistair M. Rampell ’03, whose meeting with Lewis concerning the issue erupted into a shouting match, admits that “it’s kind of hard to look back and say it would have been better, because you don’t know what would have been”—though he maintains that he would have still preferred the larger groups.
But though students say the change has not been as catastrophic as initially feared, the House masters and administrators who pushed through the change also acknowledge that the move from 16 to eight has not alleviated all the problems of House life it was expected to address when proposed. Instead of significantly increasing involvement in House life, the restrictions on blocking group size have led most dramatically to an unintended decrease in coed blocking.
Halving the size of blocking groups would force students to socialize outside their particular group of friends, leading to more vibrant and cohesive House communities, according to the main assumption that motivated the change.
Lewis points to surveys showing increasing student satisfaction with the Houses—the Class of 2002 was the first class to give their Houses an average score over 4 on a 1-to 5-point scale—as evidence that the reduction has had a positive impact.
And masters say the policy has succeeded in the extent to which it has broken up concentrations of groups like racial minorities and athletes while evening out gender ratios across the Houses. In short, it has ensured the full randomization of the Houses, they say.
“We have really been committed to attempting to create a demographic diversity within the Houses,” and the cut in blocking group size has helped to “avoid concentrations of particular groups,” says Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson.
The type of group usually cited is a single athletic team. Leverett House Master Howard Georgi ’68 notes that when he first became master, there was a 16-person group of men’s hockey players in the House which had a “significant” effect on House life.
With the new eight-person groups, the College can guarantee that 16 hockey players will never again be placed in one House because the lottery is not completely random, explains Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04. The Freshman Dean’s Office can tell University Hall if certain groups—for instance, two groups of eight athletes from one team—should not be put together.
And Georgi doesn’t think that they should. “It’s more fun to have a greater cross-section of students,” he says.
But Pforzheimer House Master James J. McCarthy, who had advocated for maximum groups of 12 as a compromise solution, disagrees that groups of 16 are necessarily negative. “Groups that size,” he says, “could be the critical mass that could have an effect on the House for the next three years.”
Not all of these groups need be single-sex athletic teams—McCarthy cites a group of 16 ballroom dancers assigned to Pforzheimer early in his tenure that he says had a positive impact on the House. In the Class of 2002, only three of 28 blocking groups of 16 were single-sex.
Chopra argues that the real target of the cut from 16 to eight was not athletes—few teams are large enough to have 16 players in a single class—but black students, a large proportion of whom traditionally block in black-only groups. The new limit has resulted in more of these groups to distribute among the Houses, delighting diversity-conscious masters but irritating black students for the same reasons of dilution that many racial minorities opposed randomization in the first place.
One uncontroversial success of the change is that the College has been able to create greater gender balance in the Houses. The housing office gives the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation, which conducts the lottery, a floor and a ceiling for allowable gender ratios in each House that are based on the composition of the first-year class as a whole. Since the reduction from 16 to eight, it has been easier to stay farther away from that ceiling and floor.
The ratio of women in the Class of 2002 assigned to a single House ranged from 41.60 to 54.63 percent of the House—a 13-point spread. But for the Class of 2003, the spread was less than eight points, and in this spring’s lottery it dipped below seven.
The desire to balance the sexes in all the Houses was one reason administrators gave for the change, but it was not “a driving thing,” recalls Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who oversees the House system.
The real driving force was a desire to reap the full benefits that were supposed to result from randomization—fully integrated House communities where students would be encouraged to transcend the boundaries of insular blocking groups and reach out socially to other groups. But while the smaller blocking group sizes have increased demograhic diversity, the masters largely say they have not witnessed an increased sense of overall House community, class spirit or involvement, as hoped.
McCarthy says it is “hard to say” if the cut has had any effect on the level of involvement in the House community.
“I wouldn’t say there’s been any noticeable change,” Georgi says, calling the reduced block size a “move toward more randomization” but emphasizing that he has not seen a pattern toward more socially cohesive classes.
“There’s an ebb and flow,” Hanson says.
And while Adams House Master Judith Palfrey says that eight is “as good as any number,” she laments the fact that Adams students still don’t know all of their classmates in their House.
Chopra agrees that it is hard to see an appreciable change in House communities.
“I saw two classes with the 16, and I think it’s hard to make a characterization that [the Class of 2003] was better than those two,” he says. In Adams House, he adds, members of the Class of 2002, with its larger blocking groups, were “much closer with each other than the ’03 people.”
In addition, Chopra says the College’s main proof of the success of the eight-person groups—the senior surveys—is misleading. He says students’ rising satisfaction with House life tends to reflect their satisfaction with their dining halls, for example, rather than indicating their affinity for their House community.
But consensus is difficult to come by. Some students, such as former Eliot House Committee Chair Emily R. Murphy ’03, say there has been a noticeable change in students branching out socially beyond their blocking groups, for the better.
“It seems from people in my year that there’s a lot of mixing,” Vivero says. “I don’t remember that happening [the previous year].”
But the change has had an “unintended side effect” as well, as Currier House Master William A. Graham puts it. While coed blocking was once the rule, single-sex groups have become increasingly dominant as students have found the new limit too low to accommodate both male and female rooming groups—evidence, Rampell says, that the decision was not well thought out.
Rampell had claimed that the decrease from 16 to eight would discourage coed blocking groups, arguing that most of the new groups being formed by his classmates were all-male or all-female. Though he had no hard evidence to back up his claim at the time, data from the past four years shows that coed blocking has effectively been cut in half and is becoming less common over time.
In 1999, when blocking groups could include up to 16 students, nearly 60 percent of the blocks formed by the Class of 2002 were coed, comprising over 80 percent of the class. Thirty-eight of the 75 single-sex blocking groups were not groups at all, but merely floaters. Among the largest groups, those with over 12 people, almost all were coed—more than 93 percent.
In 2000, when the Class of 2003 was restricted to eight per group, the numbers were reversed. Instead of 60-40 coed, more than 60 percent of blocking groups were either all-male or all-female, though the majority of the larger blocking groups—those with more than four students—were still coed. Next fall, when the Class of 2006 moves into the Houses, over 70 percent of their blocking groups will be single-sex, and single-sex groups will exceed coed groups at all eight possible sizes.
Lewis, who next month will return full-time to his duties as McKay professor of computer science, notes that the decrease in coed blocks is statistically all but assured.
“It is, of course, combinatorially harder to get homogeneity with larger groups,” he writes in an e-mail. “No one would suggest that a random model would be accurate here, but it’s fair to note that you have to be a lot more selective to get 16 of one sex than eight of one sex, drawing from a population that is roughly 50-50.”
Rampell says the issue is not selectivity, but the simple law of rooming: rooming groups, except in unusual circumstances, must be single-sex. So, to maximize rooming configurations in smaller blocks, it is necessary to block with as many students of one’s own gender as possible. Lewis says he has not heard any “reports of a diminution of male-female friendships at Harvard” and thus believes the decrease in coed blocks to be inconsequential.
But some students say they resent being limited in effect to blockmates of their own gender. Kathleen A. Urbanic ‘03, whose all-female group lives in Quincy House, says she feels her relationships with her close male friends have suffered as a result of the eight-person maximum.
Palfrey says “it’s possible” that coed friendships may have diminished as a result of the change, noting that she sees many single-sex groups eating together in the dining hall.
As single-sex blocking has increased, so have floaters. Thirty-eight members of the Class of 2002 chose to live alone, a number that rose to 44 the following year and 54 this year—a four-year increase of more than 40 percent.
“Wherever you draw the line, there will be people on the line who will be unhappy,” Georgi says. But with more lines being drawn, he adds, more people get left out.
Hard to Assess
Whether the reduction from 16 to eight has alleviated the other problems cited by advocates of the change is harder to tell, as many of them are difficult to measure or else fairly subjective.
In addition to the pure desire for randomized Houses, administrators and masters hoped that the change would make it easier for rooming groups within blocks to live near one another. They also wanted to stop first-year entryways from forming large blocking groups that inevitably excluded a few students, as entryways are typically larger than 16.
And while they wanted to cut down on the number of large blocking groups in which students were not close friends with all of their blockmates, they also hoped the smaller block size would make groups less cliquish and more involved in the larger House community,
If there is a consensus on the issue, it is that the change has not drastically affected House life one way or another. The process of picking a blocking group is still stressful, rooming difficulties still arise, and most students still do not know all of their classmates in their House.
“I’m not sure this is one of the tools you can adjust to really change the House system,” concludes Chopra, who says he supports an increase to 12 but doubts that the system will be reviewed.
As long as masters and administrators—and most first-years, who from this year on will have no memory of the old group size—remain satisfied with the eight-person groups, it seems unlikely to be headed for review, leaving intact the legacy of the Class of 2003 as the hesitant pioneers of the reigning system.
—Daniel P. Mosteller and Jenifer L. Steinhardt contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer David C. Newman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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