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Editorials

House Life, the Crown Jewel of the College, Needs a Bit More Polish

By Julian J. Giordano
By The Crimson Editorial Board
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.

Faculty Deans are back in the news. Three years after Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie R. Robinson were pushed out of Winthrop over allegations of fostering a toxic house culture, their counterparts at Leverett have stepped down amid similar circumstances.

It was clear from early in Brian D. Farrell and Irina P. Ferreras’ term that they were destructive to house culture. From the removal of common spaces and beloved community nights to alleged incidents of screaming at students, the ex-Leverett Faculty Deans actively detracted from the positive culture that other Harvard houses typically boast.

The houses, which form a unique facet of the undergraduate residential experience, are where Harvard students most deservedly expect the comfort of a home; they are also reflective of the College’s unusually decentralized approach to higher education, which places greater emphasis on house faculty. As Farrell and Ferreras have reminded us, the relative autonomy with which faculty deans rule their fiefdoms carries risks.

For Leverett residents in the Class of 2022, the toxic culture fostered under the ex-faculty deans was their only exposure to the house. This should serve as a reminder of the stakes of getting house culture right: Choosing a bad faculty dean, even for a couple years, can mar the entire Harvard experience of a hundred odd students. Such is the cost of concentrating power in the hands of individual faculty deans.

But there are benefits to that autonomy, too — benefits to freeing deans from the overbearing bureaucracy of the central administration. Harvard’s houses are the jewel in the crown of our insistent idiosyncrasy. We take pride in our houses — latching on to their traditions, sporting their merchandise, hoping to take comfort in the communities they foster. The larger institution is made more approachable and connected as a result of our membership in these bite-size communities. In this way, each house’s distinct culture also provides an avenue for students to take greater ownership of their school identity.

Harvard has, to its credit, put considerable effort into the difficult problem of balancing autonomy and oversight in the House system. The process of hiring new faculty deans is intensive in its effort to "match…energies" of dean and House. First-year and five-year reviews keep an eye on faculty deans and, to some degree, actually do their job: the Leverett Deans resigned under pressure just a few months after the start of their first five-year review. Nevertheless, this unhappy incident presents lessons to be learned and reforms to be made.

At a high level, the College should be clearer about the ultimate responsibility of faculty deans: not just making the trains run on time, but supporting students and fostering a community that is happy, comfortable, and nourishing for its members.

Once this goal is articulated, it becomes obvious that student input must carry greater weight in the selection process. If the central job of a faculty dean is supporting students, then shouldn’t our voices be of utmost importance to those evaluating candidates? Ultimately, it was student and tutor outcry that brought the shortcomings of Leverett’s deans to light. Prioritizing the perspectives of those groups during the selection process might have forestalled four years of bad leadership.

If the College makes clearer the basic selection criteria for faculty deans and better utilizes student input in finding candidates who meet them, crises of confidence in our house leadership will become far less common.

This will free us to focus not just on avoiding disaster but on harnessing the extraordinary potential of faculty deans to actively improve campus life. To not only maintain traditions but build new ones. To not only do no harm but intentionally do good. To ensure that house life keeps its pride of place in the undergraduate experience and allow us, joyfully and unambiguously, to call the many houses of Harvard home.

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.

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