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To Randomize Or Not To Randomize?

By Gautam S. Kumar, Crimson Staff Writer

As rising sophomores settle into their new residential housing next fall, they will join a group of students that embody no particular stereotype, as Houses used to only 11 years ago.

These communities, intended microcosms of the College, are the product of many student-faculty debates—the first of which were started by the class of 1985.

The conclusion of such discussion was to maintain the traditional system under which students would select their top three choices for Houses and be sorted into one of the Houses or be randomly placed into another. Typically 85 percent of the students received one of their three choices.

“Houses had reputations,” Dr. Benjamin I. Broder ’85 remembered. “Adams House was artsy, Eliot House was preppy, Kirkland House was jocky.”

The residential system led to the establishment of certain stereotypes of Houses, sometimes isolating students who might have different interests from the mainstream culture of that House, some administrators said.

Yet some alumni remembered their undergraduate days as times when they were able to celebrate each House’s independent culture—when each House represented a different home for a distinct group of students.

“Most people were happy with the status quo,” said R. Scott Falk ’85, who served on the 1985 Committee on Housing. “The evidence showed that, by and large, students didn’t want change.”

Although the class of 1985 may not have implemented a change in the residential housing program, its debates—the first large-scale discussions on the topic—would come to inform and prepare the College for the randomization of the housing selection system 11 years later.

BEFORE THE BEGINNING

Even before the class of 1985 matriculated, the residential life system had undergone significant change from its inception in the 1930s.

House Masters were appointed for indefinite terms and handpicked their future residents, who would have to go through an interview with the House Master to join the residential House of their choice.

“That was dropped because it felt like people were anxious to get into Harvard, and people thought that it was sort of odd that once you get in that you had to interview to get into a House,” said Freshman Dean and former Associate Dean of the College for Housing Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

The College evolved into the system that the class of 1985 experienced—which began in 1971—where freshman students would select their top three preferences and be sorted by a computer into either one of their choices or a random House.

Bundled in this reform, Masters and their spouses were also deemed “co-Masters,” and began to serve five-year terms, for which they could be reappointed.

But even in this system, alumni from the class of 1985 said they recall certain self-selection.

Eliot House was famous for drawing competitive skaters because of the long tradition of supporting the Jimmy Fund with the “Evening With Champions” skating show, as well as non-skating students who were interested in supporting the high-profile charitable event, according to Falk.

Even without active input from House Masters, however, the Houses became “lop-sided,” with Houses retaining distinct personality types, Badgers said, leading the College administration to begin its review of the housing system.

STARTING THE BEGINNING

The Committee on Housing, for which Falk and two other students represented the student body, was the main advisory body for the discussion on housing randomization.

The committee’s discussion on House randomization was prompted by a 1984 study authored by Associate Registrar Jay A. Halfond and Mather House Senior Tutor Steven A. Epstein, which confirmed that Houses conformed to perceived stereotypes.

In his final years at the College, then-College Dean John B. Fox Jr. ’59 proceeded to establish the Committee on Housing.

The dean handpicked his committee’s members—three student members, three House Masters, and Former Dean of the Students Archie C. Epps III—who would meet quarterly to discuss whether or not to make the housing system random.

“We [the committee] worked with the Dean of the College, John Fox, to survey students and determine whether they favored randomization of housing assignments,” Falk said. “While some students certainly favored randomization at the time, most did not, and so the committee could not recommend that the housing lottery convert to a purely random system.”

Students and House Masters were seemingly united in their opinion to maintain the status quo.

Students were loath to change the system, Broder said, because “people, by and large, went where they wanted to go.”

Falk said that the Committee on Housing survey demonstrated that “many House Masters joined the majority of students in their belief and concern that complete randomization could adversely affect the positive traditions that many Houses had proudly maintained for many years.”

The system remained untouched for the next four years.

BEYOND THE BEGINNING

The College only modified its system in 1989, increasing the number of students randomly assigned to Houses from 15 percent to 25.

And in 1995, the College endorsed a randomized House lottery system for all freshmen to be implemented in 1996.

Students today believe that as a function of this new system, their exposure to students of various backgrounds has increased.

“Because of blocking stuff, you still have large clumps of type of people in each House,” Andrew Y. Badger ’12 acknowledged. “But I’m on the football team, and I’m the only football player in the whole House.”

Dingman said that this trend is distinct from former patterns, when all varsity athletes used to live in the same House—and, as further studies showed, all concentrated in Economics, taking very similar classes.

“What’s the point of going to Harvard, with its diverse student body, if you get smothered into these communities that look like yourself?” Dingman said.

Derek M. Flanzraich ’10 recalls how his blocking group became close to a blocking group that had very different tastes from his own.

“Our blocking group [met] them in Currier—and that wouldn’t have been possible if this House system weren’t randomized,” Flanzraich said. “Becoming friends with those people was probably one of the most valuable things that happened to me at Harvard.”

“Randomization is a good example of an institutional policy that supports this core value of diversity,” Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson said. Former University President A. Lawrence Lowell’s “vision was to have this House system where there wouldn’t be this divide between the Gold Coast, where students were more wealthy, and the Yard, where students were less wealthy.”

“Harvard is saying this is really important,” Nelson added.

—Danielle J. Kolin and Naveen N. Srivatsa contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Gautam Kumar can be reached at gkumar@college.harvard.edu.

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985