UPDATED: April 21, 2016, at 7:22 p.m.
It’s late on Sunday night when House Committee Co-Chairs Kristen Y. Shim ’17 and Muhammed Ors ’17 wait for a handful of students to settle into the Hastings Room of Pforzheimer House. The group reviews its 5 v. 5 Bubble Soccer games held the previous evening and discusses final preparations for Quad Formal, the third annual collaboration between Cabot, Currier, and Pforzheimer Houses.
Every week, groups of students in all the Houses will do much the same, coming together during their “HoCo” meetings to take a central role in planning their Houses’ social programming.
Since the induction of the House system in the 1930’s under then-University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, Houses have selected students to serve as leaders within their residential communities. Addressing issues ranging from hot breakfast to security guidelines, the House Committees have historically been active participants in the residential experience at the College.
“Harvard has long valued student leadership in shaping the undergraduate experience and the Houses have been vibrant centers of intellectual [and] social life for students,” Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich said.
College administrators have for ages hailed the House system as the cornerstone of the undergraduate experience, a tenet the recent push to shift social life back toward the Houses reflects. But as student House Committees seek to carry out this initiative, challenges—including disparities in available space and engaging busy undergraduates—remain.
INEQUITIES OF SPACE AND SPENDING
Despite similar sources of funding, however, disparities continue to exist among the different House Committee budgets, with some Houses’ projected expenditures totaling five times more than others.
According to current budget data available from the Undergraduate Council, Eliot House is projected to spend the most of the House Committees this semester at $43,350 while Dunster House is projected to spend the least at $12,481. Broken down per capita, Eliot will spend approximately $100 per resident, while Dunster will spend only about $31 per resident.
The UC provides each House Committee with a semesterly $6,000 grant, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the UC’s annual budget. The majority of the UC’s budget is financed by the student activity fee requested from every student, and Houses are able to use the funding as they choose. In addition to the UC grant, laundry revenue, merchandise sales, and ticketing from events like House formals make up other significant sources of funding for House Committees.
Despite the disparity in budgets for House Committees, the College has long promoted the importance of maintaining a balance between consistency and individual experiences within each of the Houses, giving discretion to each House in how it spends its money.
“It’s really important that the House leadership, based on their history, culture, traditions, [and] architecture, really think about how those funds are best used to promote the distinctive experience that comes along with being a part of that House community,” Friedrich said.
However, the diversity of experiences extends beyond budgets. Inequities continue to persist in the availability of large social spaces across Houses.
According to Kirkland House Committee co-chair Francesca E. Childs ’17, Kirkland House lacks sufficient space to hold a diversity of social events, with options limited to venues like the Junior Common Room.
“I think Kirkland’s challenge is we don’t have a very ideal space for these parties,” she said.
As the College continues its long-term House renewal project, some student leaders pointed out that discrepancies in available social spaces are becoming more apparent. Quincy House’s Stone Hall, Leverett House’s McKinlock Hall, and most recently, Dunster House have already undergone renovation, and now feature improved common spaces. Renovations on Winthrop House will begin this summer and Lowell House will undergo its two-year renewal starting in summer 2017.
Some Houses yet to be renovated have already responded to the need for more social spaces. Last fall, Adams House opened the “Molotov,” a private space for students to hold parties, and Cabot House opened “The Aquarium,” a renovated version of the Junior Common Room in which students may convene or host events.
Despite its new venue, Adams House still receives requests for space that far exceeds the availability, according to Adams House Faculty Dean John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67.
“We just don’t have those venues yet and our hope is that the House Committees will be very active in House renewal planning,” he said.
AN EFFORT IN COLLABORATION
Although House Committees are largely autonomous, their work often requires coordination with College administration to secure additional funding and other Houses to plan larger events.
Alongside a $3,000 grant from the UC, the Office of Student Life recently allocated money to each House neighborhood for a pre-YardFest “block party” that aims to create an inclusive social environment.
“In working with student leaders, we came up with this plan to try out for the first-time this year these neighborhood events that can be open, welcoming, inclusive events just prior to the start of YardFest,” Friedrich said.
The Office of Student Life declined to specify how much money the College has allocated for the block party events. Still, many House Committee leaders said that funding for the pre-YardFest block parties represents a new step toward promoting social life in the Houses and hope to see the progress continue.
“It’s been really nice to see the College rally around these pre-YardFest events for various neighborhoods,” Leverett House Committee Co-Chair Alec K. Reed ’18 said. “They’ve been pretty generous in providing a lot of funding for all the House Committees to have these kind of group events together as a community.”
In addition to the pilot funding for the pre-YardFest events, the College Dean’s Office and Office of Student Life allocated new funding this year for “student initiated programming,” “student-faculty engagement,” and retreats led by faculty deans that also promote the College’s reinvigoration of House life.
The Office of Student Life also created a new position this year to focus its efforts to bolster students experiences in their Houses. Fellow for House Programs Emily S. Rutter ’13, a former Crimson sports editor, oversees the collaboration between the House Committees and much of the new pilot programming funded by the Dean’s Office.
The Office of Student Life also works closely with House Committees to coordinate city licensing, emergency medical services, security, and ticketing that House formals often require, Rutter said. House Committees also receive funding from the Office of Student Life to cover some of the bartending and Harvard University Police Department costs of House formals each year.
Co-chairs of the 12 House Committees meet approximately twice a month to plan campus-wide events that involve multiple Houses, including festivities like the Harvard-Yale Tailgate and Housing Day.
House leaders frequently cite the relationship between students and House administrators as critical for effective House event planning.
“The House Committee is our right hand to be one, or two, or three steps closer to as many of the House members as they can,” Palfrey said. “They are one of the layers of administration, they meet with us every week.”
SEEKING ENGAGEMENT WITHIN THE HOUSE
While Houses remain an important part of the undergraduate experience for many students at the College, House Committees still face challenges in engaging House residents.
In a 2015 survey conducted by the Crimson, only 55 percent of respondents said they were “somewhat involved” or “very involved” in House life. Additionally, when asked about involvement in the House Committees themselves, a plurality of respondents— 33 percent—said they occasionally attend House Committee meetings, while 9 percent always attend, 26 percent sometimes attend, and 32 percent never attend meetings.
As an officially-sanctioned group directly under the supervision of House administration, House Committees often face the challenge of breaking down stigmas surrounding their social events.
“When you put a HoCo name on something, or a House name on something, it automatically takes the coolness factor down a bit,” Winthrop House Committee Co-Chair Matthew T. Disorbo ’17 said. “Our job is to combat that, to try and get people to buy in.”
Additionally, House Committees acknowledge that it is difficult for many students who simply do not have time to participate in House life because of other commitments.
“Harvard is inherently a busy place,” Reed said. “I think this is a broader challenge of other Houses as well is to encourage and promote attendance at House events.”
Despite the limited amount of time some students can spend on House activities, House Committee members said they do not see themselves as competing with other student organizations. Rather, they see their role as providing a space where all students feel they are included and welcome.
“It’s really on the onus of the House to promote a greater sense of inclusivity because we are some of the larger organizations on campus and having House spirit is a way to bring a lot of people together,” Kirkland House Committee Co-Chair Nicholas D. O’Brien ’17 said.
Similarly, Shim emphasized the importance for students to have some community at Harvard, no matter what form it takes.
“All that matters is that people feel like they can come home to something,” Shim said. “HoCo is so great because it can encompass so many types of communities.”
In approaching their residential experience, Shim said students should ask themselves how they can contribute to their House communities.
“Freshman year we’re like, ‘What is Harvard going to do for me?’ and it shouldn’t be like that,” Shim said. “It should be like, ‘What am I going to do for my community? What am I going to do for my House?’”
—Staff writer Brian P. Yu contributed reporting to this story.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 21, 2016
A previous version of this article and an accompanying graphic indicated that Dunster's projected House Committee budget was $8,841. In fact according to data from the UC, the projected budget was actually $12,841. A previous version of the article and another graphic also incorrectly stated the total the Dunster House Committee projected to spend on each student was $21. In fact, it projected to spend $31 per student.