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The Other Housing Lottery

Dissatisfied Students Describe an Opaque House Transfer Process

The Quad

This is Part III in a three-part series on the College’s residential House system. Part I ran on March 10 and Part II ran on March 11.

Two springs ago, Erika M. Veidis ’15 was the odd one out. A member of the women’s track team and a resident of Pforzheimer House in the Radcliffe Quad, Veidis had to shuffle back and forth from home to practice and back, so some days she stayed with friends on the River to avoid making the trek. Unhappy with her living arrangements, Veidis applied to transfer and live on the River.

But when her two roommates received word that they could move to Lowell House, Veidis’s application was denied. She had agreed to apply solo because undergraduates cannot transfer between Houses in groups larger than two.

Her next option was to apply again, and with the second round inter-House transfer deadline a few months away, Veidis entered the process necessary to reunite with her friends on the River. She would eventually transfer into Lowell the next fall, but only after she lobbied for her case with administrators and navigated what she said was not a completely transparent system.

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“It didn’t seem like the most transparent or the easiest of processes,” said Veidis, who is now the co-captain of the women’s track team. “I definitely had to take a lot of initiative, especially once the first round didn't work out, and then I had to really take it upon myself.”

Early Thursday, with fanfare, the College will welcome freshmen into one of its 12 residential Houses. But by this time next year, some of those students, dissatisfied with their assignments, will have made attempts to relocate. Fewer than 3 percent of upperclassmen consistently attempt to transfer between Houses in any given year, according to Associate Dean of Student Life William Cooper ’94.

Harvard’s inter-House transfer system is an important escape valve for students dissatisfied with their House experience. College administrators argue that the transfer the process is as fair as it can be and maintain that they do their best under limitations to ensure that every student has the option to move.

Still, not all applicants are granted the chance to relocate from the House in which they were randomly placed freshman year. The College does not release statistics detailing the number of students who apply to transfer between Houses on an individual or aggregate year-to-year basis, but students who try and fail say the process remains confusing and opaque.

MAKING THE MOVE

Harvard administrators boast that its residential Houses are the “cornerstone” of the undergraduate experience, but not all students are immediately satisfied with their placement in the system. From location preferences to more personal motivations, students apply to transfer between Houses for a variety of reasons.

Grace E. Dhanraj ’16, for instance, said she met most of her blockmates on Housing Day when they were placed into Mather House, but she feels more connected to Leverett, where she will live next semester. Many of her friends live there, and she already eats a bulk of her meals in Leverett dining hall, and she attends open houses there, so she said the transfer fit.

Others, like Charles G. Alver ’17, who tried to transfer out of Winthrop this winter, simply feel that their House is not as welcoming or close knit as others residences are. Others have a preference between the River and Quad Houses.

Upperclassmen who wish to change their House affiliations may enter a first-round lottery—this year, the deadline was Feb. 9, only two weeks into the spring semester. Limited to groups of two, transfer applicants fill out a form designating the Houses in which they would prefer to live, and then an “impartial lottery” assigns successful applicants to new Houses, according to Cooper, who responded to questions on the process via email and refused to speak over the phone or in person.

In Preparation
Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde works in his office in University Hall on Monday afternoon in anticipation of Housing Day.

Administrators assign students to Houses based on factors including the number of available spaces in each House and students’ preferences with the goal of maintaining proportional class sizes and gender ratios within each House, according to Cooper. If accepted, the offer is binding.

College administrators say they are working within several logistical constraints, especially space, and try their best to grant as many transfer applications as possible. “Ideally, we would be able to have everyone transfer into whatever House they wanted to and to fulfill all those requests,” Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde said.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who also serves as co-master of Cabot House, said he wants “everybody to be in a place where they’re happy” as a House master. But, he added, “we also recognize that we’re working with a set of constraints.”

By and large, students who do succeed in transferring by luck of the first round draw are satisfied with the outcome. Dharanj, who successfully applied in the first round to transfer from Mather to Leverett, described the process as “pretty painless.”

But not all prospective transfers are so lucky. For students who lose the first round lottery, there is another chance: a second application round that may take more than filling out a form.

The deadline for this application round does not come until May, and it usually involves a smaller number of transfer applicants than the first, according to Cooper. While students who transfer in the first round participate in their new Houses’ fall room lotteries, second round transfers do not hear whether their requests to move are accepted until midway through the summer, according to the Office of Student Life’s website, meaning that they must live in rooms that are left over.

During the second round, students are encouraged to communicate with individual House administrators about what housing may still available, according to Cooper; for students like Veidis, this translates into trying to negotiate a move.

Adams House usually sees an in-House student turnover of fewer than five students per year, according to Adams House Co-Master Sean Palfrey ’67. Part of what makes the second round more difficult is the fact that it is hard to predict how many rooms will be available, according to Palfrey.

Palfrey said transfer applicants have approached him and co-master Judith “Judy” Palfrey ’67 to “lobby” them for a spot in Adams, but the House administrator runs the process.

AN OPAQUE PROCESS

Even though administrators maintain that the process is as fair as possible, students who apply to transfer detail several criticisms of the system, both relating to how it works and how much information about it is available.

One common critique is the rule that students may only apply to move alone or in a group of two; this forces students to leave their blockmates, some say, arguing that the College should do more to accommodate larger groups.

Serena F. Hagerty ’16, who lives in a suite with three other close friends in Pforzheimer House, applied this spring to transfer with one of her roommates, while her two other roommates also applied as a group. Only Hagerty’s group’s request to move to Lowell was granted in the first round, leaving her other roommates to navigate the second round process this spring.

In an email, Hagerty wrote that she understood the possibility of being split from her other roommates, but not the rationale. “We knew the risk going in and take responsibility for that, but the University has done nothing to clarify the process for us,” she added.

Cooper, for his part, wrote that the limit is “necessary for practical reasons; given the limited number of open spaces, we can’t approve every request, and so we focus on the smaller groups of one or two in order to provide support to those who would benefit most.”

But beyond that structural critique, students who fail to transfer after the first round of applications offer a further complaint: They say they face an unclear process in the second round that is much more difficult to navigate successfully.

Not much information on how many students apply to move each year, or how many are successful, is available; unlike the Administrative Board, which releases annual statistics on disciplinary cases, the Office of Student Life does not make public yearly statistics on inter-House transfers.

And while Cooper wrote in an email that the College has generally been able to grant the majority of requests each year and in some years nearly 90 percent of them, he denied repeated requests for statistics broken down by House detailing the number of transfer applications received and granted. Cooper wrote that the data was not "information we disclose” and did not respond to a question asking him to clarify the reasoning behind his stance.

When asked for comment on the transfer process, residential House administrators either did not respond or referred reporters to Cooper.

Students suggest that the actual process of transferring is also opaque. While some students who applied for a second-round transfer interviewed said they understood that they must talk with House administrators, they said the process overall is confusing.

Hagerty wrote that the second round is “much more complicated and far less transparent” than the first round in part because every House is relaying a slightly different message to her roommates. Veidas said she met with multiple House administrators while navigating the second round process, but overall felt the onus was on her to figure out what she needed to do to transfer.

These factors combine to create frustration from students whose requests to move are denied and still stress for those whose are eventually granted. Annie K. Winerip ’16, who successfully transferred from Cabot to Winthrop through last year’s second round, learned last summer—only a short time before the start of the fall semester—that she would be able to transfer. She said the summer-long wait was daunting.

"I was nervous, but I just didn’t really feel like there was another option," Winerip said.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at noah.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.

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