The cupola of Eliot House
The cupola of Eliot House By Amy Y. Li

‘Don’t Test Chaos Theory on Us’: Harvard’s 1995 Switch to Housing Randomization, Revisited

Adams: artsy and queer. Eliot: preppy, blue-blooded schmoozers. Kirkland: jocks. Lowell: studiers. The Quad: Black and Hispanic students with an emphasis on activism. These were just some of the reputations that Harvard Houses had from the 1930s to 1995.
By Io Y. Gilman and Allison K. Moon

Adams: artsy, queer, and performing-arts focused population with occasional provocative theatrical performances. Eliot: preppy, blue-blooded schmoozers. Kirkland: home of the jocks. Lowell: the studious. The Quad: tight-knit community with a lot of Black and Hispanic students and an emphasis on activism.

These were just some of the reputations that Harvard Houses had from their inception in the 1930s to the end of the 20th century. Harvard House reputations, once well established on campus, no longer hold anywhere near the same grip on the student imagination — if you ask a student today about the former image of their House, they’d probably only be able to recall hearsay or rumors.

All of that changed in 1995, when then-Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett ’57 introduced housing randomization as a replacement to the longstanding preference-based housing system, which marked its 25th anniversary during Housing Day in 2021.

The 1994 “Report on the Structure of Harvard College,” presented to Jewett in the year leading up to the administration’s decision, provides clues as to why the committee ultimately proposed the switch to randomization. The report argued for the implementation of housing randomization, citing “the educational disadvantages of a housing system that does not reflect the richness and complexity of the student body, and the distractions to students and the negative stereotyping of Houses.”

A History of Housing at Harvard

The concept of a housing system is the brainchild of Harvard President Abbott L. Lowell, Class of 1877, and began in 1930 with the intent to combat the effects of socioeconomic inequality that the previous off-campus housing scheme had made blatant. “So far as subjects of concentration, pecuniary means, and residence in different parts of the country are concerned, each house should be as nearly as possible a cross-section of the College,” Lowell wrote in his 1927-1928 Report of the President and the Treasurer of Harvard College. Despite this move towards greater equality, a caveat still remained: until 1971, an application system, in which House deans interviewed students before they were admitted to reside in the house, determined student housing.

In 1971, the application system was abandoned in favor of the preference system which gave students the opportunity to rank their housing choices. This fostered homogenous communities within each House and the ensuing development of strong and well-known House reputations, as students with similar backgrounds or interests tended to rank the same Houses in their housing forms.

In 1977, the number of choices permitted was decreased from 12 to four. Since not all blocking groups would be able to get one of their four choices, some students would have to be randomized, which allowed for more diverse houses.

Lowell House Faculty Dean David I. Laibson ’88, who lived in Mather as an undergraduate, says that when he was in College, blocking groups were allowed to rank their top four housing choices and then received a lottery number. If space was still available in a group’s first choice House by the time the administration got to their number, they would be assigned to that House. If their lottery number was not considered in time, they would be given their next choice, and so on, with a small number of students not being placed into any of their four choices.

Though well-defined reputations for each House existed, they were not comprehensive — not every student in Kirkland was an athlete, not every Adams resident was involved in the arts scene. In Laibson’s words, houses “were not completely homogeneous.” Nonetheless, the reputations persisted. “My impression is that there was enough of a tilt that it actually meaningfully affected the culture of these places,” Laibson says. In 1990, under Jewett, ordered choice was abandoned in favor of non-ranked choice in an effort to increase housing diversity.

Under the non-ranked choice system, the Crimson reported that about 90 percent of blocking groups received one of their four choices, while 10 percent were randomized for housing. A former Currier House resident, Sarah J. Cooper ’97, was part of the 10 percent in her class, and covered the ongoing campus debate on randomization while a reporter for the Crimson, compelled by the personal relationship she had with the change.

Cooper recalls that at the time randomization was announced as replacing the non-ranked choice system, those who had been part of the 10 percent reacted to Jewett’s 1995 randomization announcement with the sentiment, “Well, now you get to feel like we did” — that is, deprived of choice. As an editor at The Crimson, she was frustrated about her regular commute from the Quad. Still, despite her initial disappointment, she recalled that Currier “ended up being a nice place.”

Others in this 10 percent who were put into a house without their input similarly ended up enjoying their time there, including current Adams House Dean and former Currier resident Mercedes C. Becerra ’91. “In the end, honestly, I think we won the lottery because Currier was so awesome,” she says.

Ultimately, Cooper believed that Jewett’s switch to total randomization achieved greater fairness by moving away from the “not equal” treatment of subjecting 10 percent of blocking groups to Houses in which they did not select, while the majority of blocking groups were free to enjoy one of the Houses they had chosen.

With the reputations of each House firmly cemented and the assumption of overall agency in one’s living arrangements known throughout the student body, Jewett’s 1995 spring announcement that the College was switching to a system of totally randomized housing for rising sophomores, beginning with the class of 1999, was met with waves of surprise and anger throughout students. While reasons for unhappiness in the face of randomization differed, a general feeling of one’s independence being overstepped by the administration prevailed on campus.

This shift to randomization, deeply controversial at the time, has remained largely unchanged, with the only significant adjustment being that in 1999 the maximum size for a blocking group was reduced from 16 people to eight.

Student Backlash: The End of House Community?

“Randomization will not lead to a substantial integration in Harvard’s social life, and it will destroy any sense of a house community,” a 1995 Crimson Editorial entitled “Randomization Will Not Work” wrote. The piece continues, “administrators are concerned about the high numbers of Black and Hispanic students in the three quad houses.”

J. Lewis Ford ’97, who chose to live in Pforzheimer House, recalled the role that the Quad played in generating a feeling of belonging for him on campus. “The three houses in the Quad were sort of the center of a Black community,” Ford says. “As a Black student ... in a predominantly white institution, that was a really important and a very valued, treasured community and space that we had.” As a result, Black students who sought to be “centered with the Black community” would list the Quad houses on their housing forms, according to Ford.

In addition to his affinity for the Quad, Ford felt that the randomization system “removed individual agency”; The Crimson’s 1995 editorial similarly asserted that the administration exhibited “paternalism” in assuming that Harvard students were incapable of managing the responsibility of choosing a House. “We’re in college. We go to Harvard,” one anti-randomization student told The Crimson in 1995. “We’re supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, but apparently we’re too stupid to choose where we want to live.”

They were not alone in their grievances: according to an Undergraduate Council poll at the time, 82 percent of students opposed the administration’s decision. Students wrote letters to presidents of Harvard Clubs throughout the U.S., a petition was created against randomization which garnered over 1,000 signatures, and over 200 students gathered outside University Hall to protest the decision.

“No dice throw,” “If you choose, we lose,” “Don’t test chaos theory on us,” and “82% can’t be ignored,” were all slogans used in the Housing Choice rally, according to a Crimson article covering the event. Students chanted into the air: "We won’t lose our right to choose” and “Hey, Dean Jewett, you’d better not do-it.” Ford, a speaker at the 1995 protest, echoed the same sentiments he did today when interviewed for the Crimson’s Housing Choice rally article 25 years ago: “As a member of a minority community on campus whose numbers are less than 8 percent of the College, it’s often difficult to have my voice heard.”

An Adams resident tutor at the time expressed what he saw as the implications of randomization with a real-world analogy. Randomization “would be like taking all the gays and lesbians in San Francisco and New York and relocating them in even numbers throughout the United States,” he said, describing how he viewed Adams and Dunster.

Randomization Today: A Highly-Lauded System

Nowadays, the House reputations are mostly gone. “I think they persist in the tiniest ways,” Laibson says. “It’s really just a miniscule vestige of things that existed back then.”

Becerra sees some of these hallmarks of the old character of Adams in the building today. Many of the facilities reflect the arts-focused history of the house, from the tunnels with murals to a former underground swimming pool that was converted into a theater. Additionally, traditions like Drag Night, which is still celebrated at Adams, are a holdover from the large queer population that used to reside in the House.

Current Pforzheimer House Dean and former Quincy resident Anne Harrington ’82 says that “having a sense of a house that has its own specific history and traditions is fine, so long as that history and those traditions don't in any way seem to exclude anyone in the community.”

Harrington called the former preference system “unhealthy” in the way it separated different communities at Harvard. She believes House archetypes forced students to choose between identities.

Becerra upholds that a random system is beneficial because it exposes students to more diversity. “When students come to Harvard, one of the things we want is for students to meet people of all types to become citizens of the world and a huge part of the Harvard College experience is living with people who are different from you,” Becerra says.

Ultimately, the randomization system provides a feeling of flexibility for students, according to Harrington. “Houses then are freed to evolve and reinvent themselves and become the communities that represent the needs of the student body in that moment,” she says. “It’s been very freeing.”

And while the less narrow reputations of Houses due to randomization may confer new benefits on residents impossible under Housing Choice, Ford still defends the opportunities that the old housing system afforded him and other undergraduates. “I think it was a chance for people to have agency over a major decision in their life, and to have an opportunity to explore and grow and create their own identity,” he says.

Laibson noted that while randomization facilitates the “aspiration of getting to know a broad group of people,” the burden is ultimately on the student to do so.

Regardless of the way in which you are sorted into your House, Laibson implores students not to “make the mistake of only hanging out with the people you know well,” emphasizing the value of the “education you get in the dining hall.”