Senior (Un)common Room

Some say Senior Common Rooms are characterized by affiliates’ meek involvement, low student engagement, and inconvenient program scheduling.
By Nina H. Pasquini and Samuel W. Zwickel

By Amy Y. Li

When Lowell House resident Jessica C. Levy ’18 decided to stay in Cambridge over the summer, she didn’t have to worry about finding an apartment. After contacting an administrator in her House, she made a connection that led to house-sitting the entire summer for a local professional affiliated with Lowell.

The professional turned out to be a member of Lowell’s Senior Common Room.

“I actually am a really big proponent of the SCR, and I think it’s one of the more underutilized aspects of House life,” Levy said.

This experience is one example of an interaction between students and faculty members that the House system was established to facilitate.

While several administrators and graduate students live in each House as residential staff, the Senior Common Room also includes a group of non-residential affiliates, including Harvard faculty members, alumni, and people working in the Boston area.

Both a physical space and a group of people, the Senior Common Room system is meant to facilitate interactions between undergraduates and people who can provide mentorship, job opportunities, and House-wide camaraderie in an informal setting.

Harvard’s Senior Common Room system as it exists today was conceived nearly a century ago, but since its inception, many argue that implementation and quality vary widely among the 12 upperclassmen residences.

While some Houses boast black-tie dinners where students rub shoulders with famous professors, many students interviewed for this story were unaware of the existence of their House’s Senior Common Room beyond a physical space.

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences worked through the planning stages of their more than $1 billion House Renewal project in 2009, an extensive modernization of the upperclassmen residences, its initial report noted that the Senior Common Room is “an outdated concept that in many cases is not working well for current students and faculty.”

One line from the report simply reads: “There is presently a lack of clarity about what the group known as the SCR is and what it is supposed to do.”

While the 2009 report suggested several recommendations to structurally improve the program, evidence of these changes is lacking, and many students and SCR affiliates raise the same critiques that the report identified almost a decade ago.

More Than a Room

Like Harvard’s House system as a whole, the Senior Common Room draws its inspiration from the residential college systems of Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

According to Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck the concept of a Senior Common Room is as old as the House system itself.

Lowell House Faculty Diana L. Eck pictured in 2011.
Lowell House Faculty Diana L. Eck pictured in 2011. By File Photo

Eck said that the first House Master of Lowell and an early senior tutor had “quite a significant exchange of letters” about developing the SCR. They asked questions like, “Who should be a part of this? What kind of people?”

“They wanted people who really were engaged with and cared about undergraduate education, not just the smartest scientists in the world,” she added.

In Lowell House, one vestige of the British model is an event known as “High Table” dinner for seniors—a black-tie affair where students dine with the Harvard faculty members and local professionals in their Senior Common Room.

“People have gotten jobs at High Table, and made connections with people in London or Bolivia,” Eck added.

According to the House renewal report, one of the key aims of the House system is to “promote meaningful faculty-student interaction, with the understanding that House life should engender an intergenerational community of scholars.”

“I think we have a larger and more active Senior Common Room than many other Houses, and it’s one of the things that brings to life the idea of the residential House system,” Eck said, referring to Lowell.

Lowell resident Natalie I. Swartz ’20 said that SCR members often eat in the House’s dining hall and attend formal events, like the Yule Dinner.

Swartz recounted meeting an SCR professor at breakfast in Lowell’s dining hall and speaking with him about the seminar, which she didn’t get the chance to take her freshman year.

“It was so cool to finally meet him, and this whole year whenever we run into each other, I get to talk to him, ask him how the seminar's going. He asks me how sophomore year's going, so it's been a nice relationship to have this semester,” Swartz said.

For alumna Caroline K. Lauer ’14, a first-year master’s degree student at the Graduate School of Design, connecting with members of her House’s SCR facilitated meaningful relationships with experts in her field.

“One of them ended up being incredibly informative for me thinking about graduate school and actually ended up being one of my professors last year at the Graduate School of Design,” Lauer said.

In addition to Harvard professors, House Faculty Deans invite a combination of non-resident professionals and alumni to participate in Senior Common Rooms.

Aspen Institute CEO and famed biographer Walter S. Isaacson ’74, a former resident of Lowell House, said that he returns to Harvard every few months to spend time at Lowell.

“When I come to Harvard, I often eat in Lowell House with some of the students and go to the tea in the Masters’ residence,” said Isaacson, also former member of the Board of Overseers.

Daniel C. Cohn, a lawyer living in Cambridge, said that he regularly attends Adams SCR meetings, participates in House-related festivities, and gives talks on contemporary issues.

Adams House.
Adams House. By Megan M. Ross

He said, however, that the most meaningful part of his SCR membership has been developing one-on-one relationships with students.

“I don't like the word ‘mentorship’ because it implies a one-way relationship. I'd rather call it ‘friendship’ because I get at least as much from the students as they get from me,” Cohn said. “Whichever term you want to call it, it's definitely the most rewarding aspect of the position.”

But Cohn said that this degree of personal outreach does not necessarily characterize the majority of regularly attending SCR members in Adams.

Cohn estimated that roughly a dozen of Adam’s Senior Common Room members are “actively involved with students,” while most of the others are less engaged.

An Uncertain Future

While some students have reaped benefits ranging from career opportunities to informal mentorship, the quality of Senior Common Rooms—and what students get out of them—varies widely across the House system.

Several House leaders and SCR members interviewed for this story said that some Houses’ Senior Common Rooms are characterized by affiliates’ meek involvement, low student engagement, and inconvenient program scheduling, all of which are possibly symptoms of decentralized implementation at the College.

Some students interviewed for this story did not understand the SCR to be anything more than a physical space in their House.

“I’ve been in there, like, once for a study break,” Eliot resident Molly S. Zeme ’20 said.

“I know what the Senior Common Room is; I have never been in there. I’ve only ever been in the Junior Common Room,” said Quincy resident Marisa R. Trapani ’20. “I have no idea where it is, at all.”

Still, Eck said that she does not believe the SCR concept is “outdated,” as the 2009 report on House Renewal suggests.

Instead, she hopes to make changes to Lowell’s SCR to fix the issues that it faces. But according to Eck, other Houses have been deciding to deal with the SCR’s problems by just doing away with them completely.

The Committee on Student Life, a student-faculty committee that oversees residential policies, discussed the issue of student-faculty engagement at length during their November meeting. Some of the House Faculty Deans in attendance acknowledged that they had disbanded their SCRs due to problems with implementation.

Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair, whose role includes oversight over the residential House system, said that the decentralized nature of the SCR system allows for significant flexibility in its implementation.

“The Houses each, independently, run their own Senior Common Room. So, they have different processes for inviting faculty and alums, or friends of the House,” O’Dair said.

O’Dair added: “I have participated in senior common rooms in Lowell House and in Mather House, and they do it slightly differently in each place that has a Senior Common Room.”

Lowell House.
Lowell House. By Derek G. Xiao

Lee Gehrke, Faculty Dean of Quincy House, wrote in an emailed statement that Quincy holds events for faculty to interact with students and hosts several visiting scholars each year who live in the House and participate in programming.

“We host a regular afternoon social time, called the ‘Quincy Kettle,’ which has been running for several years, and highlights faculty and Quincy alums,” Gehrke wrote. “This event was initiated in response to students who wanted low-key interactions with faculty and alums to hear about their lives and career trajectories.”

But even for the Houses that have chosen to continue their Senior Common Rooms, the involvement of the faculty members and non-resident affiliates, themselves, is inconsistent. For example, Isaacson said that there is no specific requirement for annual involvement of a Lowell SCR affiliate.

“You know, it’s something where you’re not paid and you don’t get any free benefits, so you just sort of come when you want,” Isaacson said.

Though the Lowell House Handbook lists 26 resident tutors and more than 160 non-resident faculty members and professionals as SCR affiliates, Eck says that fewer than two dozen regularly attend its weekly meetings.

Cohn echoed Eck’s sentiments, noting that Adams SCR meetings are attended by a “core group” of roughly 15 members, with the majority of the affiliates rarely in attendance.

Some also note that student attendance at events hosted by SCR affiliates is dismally low.

Eck said that during a recent evening SCR talk with a renowned faculty member, the crowd consisted of “one or two students we dragged in from the dining hall at the last moment.”

At Adams, Cohn said that after inviting around 15 or 20 students to one of his talks, the Senior Common Room event had “around half a dozen students there listening to the thing, too.” Cohn added that was the highest turnout for an SCR event, in his experience.

Eck said that maintaining a robust SCR takes work and that some Faculty Deans may not deem the task of maintaining a Senior Common Room to be worth it.

“It does take time. It does mean that you’re committed to this vision of having faculty engaged in a House community, as well as simply providing for students,” Eck said.

CollegeHouse LifeStudent LifeCollege LifeAlumniFacultyHouse Renewal