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John Harvard's Journal

Communities We Choose

11.1.94

As he walked to Phillips Brooks House's annual plant sale, the undergraduate paused at a newfound clearing in the Yard canopy, before a recently renovated Holworthy Hall. He thought back to how that end of the Yard had looked during his own first year in Thayer Hall, which now had a new fifth floor of living space. He wondered if the renovation, part of a three-year, $65 million program completed this summer, had made the lives of freshmen any different, whether all this new paint and wood and glass made Harvard something of a different school to them. He thought he might ask a freshman this but realized that they couldn't have noticed a difference since they had never known it any other way. 

Looking a bit at loose ends there in the middle of the grass (but not unlike any number of tourists), the undergraduate beckoned to a sophomore friend and asked what she thought about all this change. It might have been nice to have that new roof in Canaday last year, she said, when there were buckets in her common room to collect the rain. "Even so," she continued, "it would have been better if they'd torn the whole thing down and started from scratch." If Canaday students have drier rugs this year, then Thayer residents must feel a bit more social with the joining of its once-separated entryways, he thought, remembering his own dark hallway and crumbling asbestos-tiled floor. Weld and Thayer now host elevators and ramp entrances, making them accessible to wheelchairs, and 29 Garden Street no longer harbors its crop of frosh in exile. The smaller dormitories, while not fully overhauled, have been repainted or refurnished. With the unwrapping of Holworthy and Grays, the Yard is capped at each end with clean, re-pointed brick. "It seems odd to refer to. it as the Old Yard anymore," said the undergraduate's friend. 

Shopping among strange and unknown houseplants at PBH, the undergraduate stumbled upon two freshmen he knew and asked them what they thought of the Yard of today. The first, from the new Hurlbut, said he felt his new dormitory lacked the charm of Wigglesworth. "It looks very new and all," he said, "but they didn't leave in any of the old woodwork. The rooms in Wigg feel much more like a Harvard room is supposed to feel." The freshman then began the usual tirade about the inconvenience of the Union dormitories. "My proctor keeps telling me that we're lucky to live near the Union," he said. "Who wants to live near the Union? It's so far from everyone I know in the Yard. I wish I lived in Matthews." The other freshman, a Matthews resident, smiled and nodded. "I came to visit my brother when he was a freshman, before Matthews was renovated," he said. "It was gross and dark. It felt like the Gothic building it's meant to resemble. But now it's beautiful." The undergraduate nodded and remarked how, even now, with everything new, all housing is still not created equal. He selected a miniature chili pepper plant and headed down toward the river. 

* * *

The campus is abuzz with news that a new faculty report on the structure of the College, made public this summer (see page 64), recommends making the demographic mix of the undergraduate Houses more uniform. This means the end of any choice at all in the lottery, say some. House diversity is more important than the meager distinctions between them, say others. The report's proposal to remove student choice from the housing lottery, in addition to decreasing the autonomy of the House masters, is believed to stem from frustrations with racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious segregation that persisted in the makeup of the Houses even five years after the institution of "nonordered choice." 

As it stands now, blocking groups of up to twenty freshmen are allowed to select four Houses, but not rank them, and are then randomly assigned a lottery number. A computer program then chooses a House for the block from those available; it tries those they have listed at first, and if those are full, randomly assigns them to a House with space remaining. In this way, about 80 percent of freshmen end up in one of their four choices. 

The flaw in the plan, it seems, is the Quad. With the three Quad Houses standing geographically separate and thus less desirable to many in the lottery, placement there is nearly guaranteed. Turning that fact to their advantage, African American students created a community in the Quad. While the three Quad Houses are still racially diverse, many see this development as reflecting negatively on race relations within the College. 

Non-ordered choice was instituted to diversify the Houses, and to some extent it has succeeded. Adams House, once renowned as an enclave of artists, actors, intellectual snobs, and the occasionaJlcrossdresser—in addition to being a haven for much of Harvard's gay and lesbian community—is far less intimidating these days in the eyes of freshmen. Now its spacious rooms, dining hall, and proximity to the Yard and Square make it a very popular choice. Upperclass Adamsians often pine for the old days, while the younger set seems to be suited just fine with the watered-down pretension. Adams House's annual events still reflect that old stereotype, yet the faces these days don't seem to match the show they put on. Most Houses have felt a similar change, a gradual sloughing off of the old guard. Yet the new crowd may still try to adopt what they feel to be the House aura, and in some cases new stereotypes have begun replacing the old. 

Even within the system of non-ordered choice, self-selection has found ways of surviving, and many undergraduates are quick to point out that Quincy House is now the quiet, science-oriented House that Mather once was, or that Dunster has become the "funk palace" that was formerly Quincy. Regardless, everyone knows which Houses are considered to be the less desirable ones and can readily describe the stereotypical resident of each. 

Some undergraduates note that they were assigned roommates their freshman year, and while that was well and good, they should be able to choose to live where and with whom they want for the next three. With four choices available, and most students ending up in one of those choices, certain groupings can be made so that students land in a House they feel will suit them. For example, an athlete might put down Mather, Kirkland, and Eliot, or an "alternative" type could list Adams, Lowell, and Dunster, in much the same way that the entire Quad could be selected. But a quick look around will make one aware that Eliot, Kirkland, and Winthrop still bear the derogatory title "The White Triangle," that Quincy is home to a great number of Asian American students, and that the only Houses that are annually "randomized" are Leverett, Mather, Quincy, Cabot, and Currier. 

Perhaps the administrative changes will improve racial integration within the Houses. One Eliot House resident contends that in a university that prides itself on its diversity, not many undergraduates are exposed to real diversity in the places they eat and sleep. "Those daily interactions might have potential," he says. Yet a Kirkland House resident notes that "even in a system without choice, people are still going to hang around in groups where they feel comfortable. Homogenizing House populations is not the easy solution to racial tension at Harvard. The loss of those communities will be disorienting, even frightening, to some people." 

House identity affects House pride, keeps unique traditions alive, and fosters an individual culture that adds what it may to the larger College community. If the administration were in fact to alter the housing lottery as planned, the system would become much like that at Yale—where students are assigned to a residential "college" after a year in the College Yard. Some colleges are physically more or less desirable, but Yalies have a hard time switching at that point. 

One Dunster House resident wonders, however, if that is what Edward Harkness and President A. Lawrence Lowell had in mind when they created the House system. "I think Harvard at large would lose a lot of its character if the Houses lost their identities," she says. "Harkness and Lowell had that dream of 'colleges within a college,' which put the Harvard experience on a more human scale. As a lesbian, I had a lot at stake in the housing lottery, and it's wonderful, as well as a huge relief, to know that I can come home at night to a queer-positive community like Dunster. I probably won't always have that sort of community available to me, but it makes my life so much easier, and makes me so much happier, to know I'll have it for three years at least." 

As the debate unfolds, freshman anxiously await their fates, and everyone wonders how, and if, the Houses will change again. In the days of ordered choice, or even when there was a system of Master's choice, students had a good idea of what was in store for them. Will randomly assigned Houses change the Harvard experience altogether? Will Harvard residential life gain in its cultural mix, or will it lose out on the communities that chosen Houses were able to foster? Undergraduates sit back in their common rooms talking to friends they decided to block with freshman year— decisions that could become even more important very soon—and think about how very much, whether they see the River or Quad from their windows, a House can feel like a home. 

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March 2018, Randolph Courtyard: The author (center) and her two future roommates, Sreya at left and Pranati at right, have just run over from the Yard on Housing Day, having learned they’d been assigned to Adams House.

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