Building a More Robust, Equitable House System

Winthrop House

This spring, Winthrop House — one of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate houses — became the center of controversy and protest surrounding Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.’s January decision to defend former film producer Harvey Weinstein in his Manhattan sex abuse case. Sullivan’s decision to defend a man whose repugnant actions sparked the #MeToo movement led students in Winthrop to report feeling uncomfortable in their House environment and stage demonstrations calling for his resignation. Over the next few months, a series of conflict and clashes ensued between faculty deans, tutors, administrators, and students — all of which culminated in the announcement earlier this month that Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, would not return as Winthrop faculty deans the following year.

In light of the elevated tension within these House communities, we are compelled to ask: What role do the Houses play in the undergraduate experience? How can House administrations ensure that this role is a positive one? Students spend three out of their four years eating, sleeping, and studying in these buildings, which are structured to be the epicenter of upperclassmen life. Students also receive academic advising and advising for their post-graduate careers in the Houses, making them important not just in the short term, but also beyond college.

Despite these consistent functions belonging to every house, each one is unique in its structure and organization, as faculty deans have the important responsibility of setting a distinct culture for their residents. Yet recent events have shown that the culture within certain Houses has not always been positive.

In every House, faculty deans assemble a leadership team encompassing resident tutors, resident deans, and other staff. The way that these members of House administrations interact with their residents is thus vital to the Harvard student experience. The events of this year — particularly within Winthrop — show how students can feel deeply troubled by the actions of their House leaders and how such actions can have massive effects on students’ sense of belonging in their on-campus homes.


The College’s role is to serve its students. When students voice concerns about their comfort, security, and investment in their House community, we recognize that House administrations play a considerable role in such shifts. In light of the series of protests and conflicts surrounding Sullivan’s decision, therefore, we encourage the College to consider looking at inconsistencies across House leadership and determine whether students feel adequately served by the resources and staff. When examining the roles and responsibilities of faculty deans in particular, it is critical to understand the scope and scale of the effects their decisions can have on student life.

The events in Winthrop this year should stand as clear evidence of the material impacts faculty deans can have in their respective Houses. Despite Sullivan’s invocation of constitutional law and the rights of due process and a fair trial in defending his decisions, we believe Sullivan showed a deep lack of understanding of the gravity the words and actions faculty deans have on House affiliates. Sullivan’s decision overlooked that a faculty dean’s role involves recognizing and upholding the College’s efforts to combat sexual assault on campus, which troublingly persists.

This disconnect between a faculty dean’s responsibilities and Sullivan’s actions this spring — and, as a May Crimson report revealed, a hostile climate in Winthrop that stretched back years — made many students feel alienated from the House, a feeling students should never experience during their time at Harvard.

But the broader context of the Sullivan scandal also gave rise to positive and constructive examples of the power faculty deans can wield at the College. In April, Eliot Dean Gail A. O’Keefe sent an email to House affiliates criticizing Winthrop Tutors Carl L. Miller and Valencia Miller’s decision to file a police report against Eliot resident Danu A.K. Mudannayake ’20 — an outspoken leader of protests against Sullivan. O’Keefe’s message of solidarity underscored to Eliot residents — and other students at the College — the importance of their “right to be heard,” as she wrote the email.

Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck similarly displayed signs of support by attending a student-led protest in February. Eck later penned a May op-ed in The Crimson that explicated what faculty deans should do — an action that we believe tangibly showed how House leaders have major influence on the well-being and success of their students.

By design, the Houses and their leaders are set up to be students’ first point of contact with the University. Yet differences in student satisfaction with living situations in different Houses offer evidence of how the College can fall short of this goal. In the 2018 Crimson Senior Survey, students expressed varying levels of satisfaction with their Houses, ranging from Adams’ 72 percent satisfaction rate to Quincy’s 92 percent. These rates of satisfaction are overall high, but the divergence between them tells us the College can — and must — do better. While House renewal may play a critical role in these numbers, they also speak to the idiosyncrasies of each House, which can help or hurt students’ overall sense of belonging at Harvard.

The College should thus consider these inconsistencies across all 12 Houses as it moves forward from this spring’s series of events in Winthrop. As a first step, the administration should evaluate each House’s leadership and determine if any adverse or unequal trends exist in any of the Houses. Though faculty deans and resident tutors are evaluated on regular cycles, it may be worth developing a new pathway to ensure that Houses offer comparable cultures, advising, and resources for their residents across the board, especially as freshmen cannot pick their own upperclassmen houses.

Most significantly, this semester has called into question across Harvard students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and others as to what exactly a faculty dean is, or should be. The faculty deans and the College must concretely define their roles for students to reduce ambiguity about their precise responsibilities.

While faculty deans currently undergo an orientation process, we believe there should be greater efforts made to impress upon them the expectations and implications their roles can have on students. If faculty deans are to be good stewards of the Houses they lead, there must be a set expectation of what will be asked of them, not just from College administrators, but also from the students they will serve.

We recognize that faculty deans have professional lives and academic projects they pursue outside of their specific positions in the Houses. However, when taking on the kind of public-facing stewardship that their position entails, faculty deans inherently establish themselves as resources to a large number of undergraduates. They must recognize that if they wish to establish trust across the Houses they lead, decisions made when acting outside of their role as faculty dean take this relationship into serious account.

Moreover, faculty deans have unique opportunities to construct a positive climate within their Houses during their tenure, especially as the student body changes. Traditions are constantly being questioned and challenged, and one of the roles of the faculty deans should be to work with their students to address concerns while maintaining a spirit of continuity and stability. For example, this semester saw changes in long-running House traditions, such as Dunster House’s goat roast. Lowell also began to engage with the complex history of one of its namesakes: former University President Abbot Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1887. These changes concretely demonstrate how taking students’ concerns into account can positively influence House character. We encourage other faculty deans to take similar measures when considering changes students may care deeply about.

This semester's controversy has given the College a prime opportunity to clarify the roles and responsibilities of faculty deans and reflect on how those in the role might have fallen short in the past. As the large number of protests this semester has shown, many students feel as though the House system has failed them. It is important that the College listen to students and adequately respond.

Beyond the faculty dean, the College must also work to make upperclassmen residential life more consistent across all 12 Houses. Students clearly have mixed relationships with their Houses. In order to truly live up to its goal of making the Houses the foundation of campus life, the College must define and communicate to Harvard affiliates the role of the House system for students as those who run these on-campus residences have the power to influence and enhance student life as well as life beyond Harvard.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.