Reaching Towards Randomization

Masters consider ways to foster more heterogeneity in Houses

These days, as Harvard freshmen grow from Yardlings into full-fledged sophomores, they no longer have a say in determining their House assignments. But over 50 years ago, when members of the Class of 1955 made their way to the River Houses, their residential fates were, for the most part, within their control.

In 1952, rising Harvard sophomores applied to three Houses, ranking them in order of preference, and met with the House Master and Senior Tutor for a brief interview prior to selection.

Officially, House Masters were supposed to make sure the House populations were not too homogenous in terms of concentration, secondary school background, and extracurricular interests. But House Masters gave preference to students who ranked their House first, and student housing requests often resulted in communities of similar backgrounds and interests. According to The Crimson in April of 1953, this meant that around 80 percent of a House was made up of students who often chose their Houses in order to be with people similar to themselves.

Indeed, by the time members of the Class of 1955 entered their sophomore years, the Houses had acquired distinct stereotypes. David Royce ’56 noted in The Crimson with more than a hint of irony that “there are not—indeed there could not be—what are called house ‘types.’”

“Nevertheless,” he wrote, “it may be pertinent to note that Winthrop is full of sweaty athletes; Lowell is the poetry house; Dunster’s drunks give that house its only spirit...[but] aside from these variations, the houses are really quite the same.”

Richard F. Zwetsch ’55, treasurer of his class and a former resident of Lowell House, recalls the character of the Houses and confirms that description, saying that Winthrop was athletic, Eliot was preppy, Dunster was the party House and Adams residents were a “different kind of people.”

In a 1956 Crimson article, Lowell House was described as being “typed in the past as the house of the scholar.” And even today, Adams House acknowledges on its website that it once was “a concentrated haven for the artistic and idiosyncratic.”

However, the housing system slowly started to change in 1953, when the House Masters and deans decided that each House should lower its acceptance of first-choice applicants to 70 percent, rather than the 80 percent average that had long been upheld. The new rule was created as “the latest step in the plan to integrate Claverly Hall into the House system,” according to The Crimson—not specifically to address the increasing House homogeneity.

In March of 1955, however, the 70 percent rule was dropped and the old system was amended to include an advisory committee of three House Masters to oversee the process and make tentative House assignments. A committee of deans was then added to make final placement decisions, in the event that the House Masters felt there was an unbalanced distribution of students.

But, while Harvard relied primarily on the Masters to make its housing decisions, Yale handed the task over to the impartial algorithms of a machine.

Administrators in New Haven adopted a then-cutting-edge IBM computer that generated random residential assignments to its nearly 1,000 freshmen. The Crimson argued that Harvard should emulate Yale’s new housing policy, so that “the stigma of not ‘getting the first choice’ would disappear, along with cliques of dissatisfied people and uneven distribution.” But in Cambridge, Masters resisted such a change.

“There is too much turning over a human responsibility to machine,” Elliott Perkins ’23, Master of Lowell House and Secretary of the Master’s Council, told The Crimson in 1955, “and I hope the University will continue to have men make their own decisions and stand by them.”

“I deprecate this thing of taking question out of the human free will, and putting them into something you operate by punching buttons,” he added.

Perkins’ reluctance to hand over the task to a machine may have reflected a general student sentiment of satisfaction with the process by which assignments were made.

Murray “Bud” H. Helfant ’55, class technology officer and the self-described oldest member of today’s popular online college directory, recalls being far more concerned with his studies in biochemistry, his extracurricular activities, and “the very strict rules on women visitors,” than about which House he wanted to live in. “I got Kirkland House,” he says. “My buddies were all going and we all got in.”

Zwetsch affirms the importance of living with friends. “People want to be with the same kind of people,” he says.