Mastering in the '70s

Drugs, sex, and hot breakfasts

In the spring of 1973 Harvard president Derek Bok asked my husband, Jim Vorenberg, to be master of Dunster House. We had been married three years and had five kids between us. Jim was the first law-school professor to be a master.

We moved into the House in June. Jim had already left for Washington to help his law-school colleague Archie Cox set up the Watergate special prosecutor's office, leaving me surrounded by boxes. All that summer I worked to get the master's residence in order for the opening of the school year. I was able to borrow art and furniture from the Fogg, and many wonderful people from the buildings and grounds department cooperated by painting and installing lights and especially by making major changes in the kitchen, which had been designed for an age when servants did all the work. Since we were a family who liked food and liked to cook and eat together, changes were imperative.

Later, I learned to relax and laugh at the "olden days." I was amused to find out that the master bedroom in Lowell House had no closets because the valet for Lowell's first master kept the master's clothes in a room down the hall. But in the summer of 1973, Harvard traditions did not appear so quaint. One afternoon a senior buildings and grounds administrator said to me, "We're not used to dealing with the masters' wives, Betty." He later became one of my dear friends, but the Houses were changing and more than one administrator was bewildered.


At diploma ceremonies at Dunster House, Master Vorenberg hands a degree to John T. Day Jr., Ph.D. Õ77, now an administrator at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Day holds his son, Nathaniel.
At diploma ceremonies at Dunster House, Master Vorenberg hands a degree to John T. Day Jr., Ph.D. '77, now an administrator at Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Day holds his son, Nathaniel.
Courtesy Betty Vorenberg

Although some of the houses, including Dunster, had already had undergraduate women in residence on an experimental basis, the decision that women and men would live together in all the Harvard and Radcliffe Houses represented a major shift. Our first senior tutor, who had lived in Dunster since 1969, told us that not too many years before the Houses were integrated, he had a call from the then master at 6 a.m. saying "There's a woman in the Dunster yard; what are you going to do about it?" He also recalled that one frequently voiced objection to admitting women to the Houses had been that the "level of conversation in the dining hall will drop."

The Houses were simply a microcosm of the outside world and, like the outside world, Harvard was sexist. When I attended a masters' meeting in Jim's place that first spring it was awkward. But within a year some of the masters' wives were petitioning President Bok for official status. His response was equivocal: we could be "assistant masters" or "associate masters." I told the Crimson that women were always the "a's"—associates, assistants, administrative this or that—and that wasn't good enough. Derek relented and let us call ourselves anything we wished. That victory came with a small stipend. The newer masters' wives called themselves co-master; the wives who had been there before 1973 chose associate master.

By the end of the first summer we were very comfortable in the House, Jim was commuting only one day a week to Washington, and we were looking forward to the students' arrival. They were earnest, energetic, and eager to meet us.


Hiring really good tutors—to advise on professional and graduate schools and to cover the major concentrations—was the single most important job of the masters, in our opinion. We had to turn down many fine candidates, including (as he recently reminded me) a graduate student in economics named Larry Summers.

It was well known by tutors in the other Houses that there was no free lunch at Dunster: in exchange for a suite of rooms and meals, the tutors were expected to know the students who lived in their entry as well as those who concentrated in their field. Jim was quite strict about their responsibilities and their obligation to the students. No tutor was guaranteed a chance to stay on if he or she failed to meet those standards. Very few flunked out.

Each fall we invited the tutors for a supper at which Jim delivered his annual admonition, what came to be known as the "no sex or drugs" rule: tutors were not to have sex with the undergraduates nor were they to "do" drugs with them. The senior tutor had informed us that at least 90 percent of the students smoked marijuana, and Jim felt it was too much of a challenge to put a stop to that, so he compromised. The tutors did not have to leave parties if drugs were being used, but they were not to participate. He was flying a little bit by the seat of his pants here, for it was a new experience.

Many of the tutors taught and graded house sections of the large survey courses, so although tutors and students were friends, there was also a teacher-student relationship and the inherent danger of favors being traded: sex for grades. But sexual harassment was not even a phrase in use, much less an issue, in those days, and there was no universal policy for the Houses; the Vorenberg policy may have been the first. After one orientation dinner, a nonresident tutor was heard—unfortunately for him by the most militantly feminist tutor in the House—asking what the use was of being a tutor if you couldn't sleep with the girls. Within hours, this was reported to Jim, who told the fellow he could not remain part of the House.

(I was not immune from poor judgment and a bit of sexism. I interviewed a female candidate for a job in the House office and asked if she planned to have a baby any time soon. She reported me to the central administration and I was admonished, rightly so. It never happened again.)

The sex-and-drugs policy led to the first big protest by the students, many of whom had been "revolutionaries" in high school and still thought of themselves that way. They demanded a meeting. Students, tutors, Jim, and I gathered in the junior common room. Curiously, drugs were more of a concern than sexual restrictions. One student announced, "We have an absolute right to get high with our tutors!" And the conversation took off from there.

Jim and Bob Ferguson, our senior tutor, were temperate and reasonable. But after an hour I was so angry that I blew up. "We're so good to you," I said. "We've had ice-cream parties and open houses, we worry about your can you be so nasty and ungrateful?" I even sputtered that, after a recent open house, I found a paper napkin with a note that said, "Next time get more pizza!" The meeting broke up and I thought that Jim and Bob would never talk to me again.

At our next open house, the students were on their best behavior: "Oh Betty, this is so nice," "The food is delicious," and other appreciative remarks. I felt vindicated, the sex-and-drugs rule stuck, and there were no more complaints.


Above: A cartoon by Robert P. Young Jr. '74, J.D. '77, then a law tutor in Dunster, now a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. With the Vorenbergs, from left: Jerome Culp, J.D. '77, G '80, then assistant senior tutor, now professor of law at Duke; Michael Roberts, J.D. '79, Ph.D. '80, then assistant senior tutor, now executive director of the PEN American Center, New York City; and Jeremy A. Sabloff, Ph.D. '69, then senior tutor and assistant professor of anthropology, now the Williams director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Courtesy Betty Vorenberg
One year a terrible fire broke out in the middle of the night in an entry. The Cambridge fire department came, all the residents were evacuated safely, and the firemen put out the blaze (which appeared to have started from a bedspread arranged over a ceiling light). About 2 a.m. we were sitting in the residence with the senior tutor, his wife, and a couple of other tutors, when the doorbell rang. It was a Cambridge policeman with a water pipe (for the uninitiated: a hookah-style contraption used for smoking marijuana).

The policeman clearly wanted to make an arrest, and Jim and the senior tutor encouraged him to walk out to Memorial Drive. The three of them talked with the others in the patrol car. I have no idea what argument Jim, a professor of criminal law, put forth, but I imagine it was a complicated presentation of search and seizure rules and precedents, and he prevailed. The cops left. Jim and the senior tutor crossed Memorial Drive and threw the incriminating evidence in the Charles. The first toss did not make it in, so they had to search the ground in the dark, find the water pipe, and finally get it into the river. We all ended up sitting in our kitchen drinking whiskey, happy that everyone was safe and wondering what would happen next.

Looking back, I see that we were naïve about drugs. One year the student drama group produced The Wizard of Oz. We went to all of the performances, not out of obligation but because it was so much fun. At the closing performance, when Dorothy returned to Kansas, the student playing Uncle Henry said, "Dorothy, have you been smoking any of that marriage-ah-wanna?" The audience broke up. Neither Jim nor I had recognized that the funny smell that evening was indeed marijuana.


How to assign so-called "rising sophomores" to the Houses has always stirred controversy. For many years students were admitted under an elitist system known as "master's choice." Masters and tutors interviewed freshmen and chose those who appeared to fit the House "image." When the House system began, there were not enough rooms for all freshmen; those who weren't chosen had to live elsewhere. After Jim was appointed master, I happened to chat with a prominent professor who told me that when he was a tutor, he had recommended Theodore White '38, the future journalist, as a good candidate. The master responded, "White is a Jew; we can't have him."

By the time we came to Dunster, master's choice had been replaced by a system in which roommate groups ranked the Houses where they wanted to live and the administration tried to place as many as possible in their first choice. (This was the precursor to the current randomized system.) Black students found the high-rise towers of Leverett and Mather Houses and Currier, the newest Radcliffe Quad House, more to their liking than the traditional Houses. Perhaps naively, Jim and I hoped that our involvement in the civil-rights movement and in diversity efforts before and after our marriage would make Dunster an attractive place for some black students. By 1976 we had hired a number of black tutors and felt we had an advising system that could be helpful to all students. But when the sophomores moved in that fall, there were very few new black students. We were disappointed.

We began to realize that, in order to change the perception that Dunster was not a place for black students, we needed to do more than be welcoming. Students had to be convinced that Dunster was indeed a comfortable environment, so Jim told the administration that he would not stick to the procedures used by students requesting a transfer into a House in the middle of the year, and that we would take only black students. That spring our assistant senior tutor wrote every one of the African-American freshmen, urging them to apply to the House and, as a graduate of the College and a black man, explaining why he thought it made sense. The next fall a substantial number of black students moved to Dunster. We were able to realize one of our most important goals—making Dunster a more inclusive and diverse House.


Although civil rights and civil liberties were major interests and concerns of ours, it wasn't always easy to follow our principles, particularly on issues of privacy and censorship. Every year the students produced a Christmas play filled with raunchy and often funny lines. After a while, we required that the script be submitted in advance so we could rule out jokes that might seriously hurt the feelings of particular tutors or students. At the twenty-fifth reunion lunch in Dunster House a year ago, one alumnus remembered that—which was a bit mortifying, because in the interim I had been president of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The tension persisted between respecting privacy and making sure we knew what was going on that might be harmful. It was clear that each tutor was expected to know what was happening in his or her entry. It wasn't necessary to tell us everything, but we wanted to know who was in trouble. The tutors took their responsibilities seriously and it seemed to work.

I believe the students liked our worrying about them, and sometimes they came directly to Jim for advice. Quite often the problem related to sleeping arrangements. One woman complained that her roommate slept with her boyfriend in the lower level of their bunk bed. Jim asked to see the roommate, who asserted, "But we don't do anything." Jim gently said the arrangement had to stop.

One evening, after a dance in the dining hall, a student knocked on our door quite late to report that another student had been talking about killing himself. Jim hurried over to find the student and bring him back to the residence, where they talked much of the night. We both had turns at walking students up to the health services for counseling. And although I had no objection to students' having access to their files in the House office (the result of Congressional passage of privacy legislation known as the Buckley Amendment), I was never comfortable —perhaps because I was a parent of college-age students—with constraints that kept us from telling parents when their children were in serious trouble.

Betty and James Vorenberg
Courtesy Betty Vorenberg

In the late 1960s, SDS—Students for a Democratic Society—had its headquarters in the basement of Dunster House. But by 1978, our last year, what little countercultural spirit was left surfaced, perhaps because some students felt they had missed the excitement. That spring, when the dining halls decided to save money by offering hot breakfasts only in some Houses, the Dunster House president organized an early morning march to protest our loss and asked if we would join the group.

Although we supported the students' right to march, they had to do it without us. However, we tried to respond to other requests, in particular the perennial complaint that there was not enough faculty contact. The tutors organized dinners with faculty guests, and sometimes we invited interested students for supper in the master's residence with our friends from the faculty and community. But I always felt the students were so busy that they didn't take advantage of these opportunities. When our pre-law tutor arranged for the great Constitutional scholar Paul Freund to come to dinner and barely six students showed up, Jim and I remarked that at the small colleges our own children went to, several hundred students would probably have paid for tickets.

On the other hand, there were some star attractions. When Jim invited Archie Cox to speak one evening, the junior common room was filled. The same was true when Tom Lehrer came over to play some of his songs. Probably the most extraordinary turnout was our reception for Margot St. James, president of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a union of prostitutes. We had been investigating how prostitution was handled by the criminal justice systems in places like Nevada and Amsterdam, and interviewed Margot after a worldwide convention of prostitutes in Brussels; she gave us introductions to prostitutes in other European cities. (Our research formed the basis for an Atlantic Monthly article.) When she was in Boston the next year, we invited Margot to the House. I can still see her sitting in our living room, the women clustered close by asking questions and the men (boys, actually) sitting with their jaws agape, not saying a word.


I came to believe that one of the best—if not the best—things about Harvard is the House system. I still have many friends among the former students and tutors, and I feel great warmth and nostalgia for our years in Dunster. The most touching annual event was the tea for seniors and their families in the master's residence the evening before Commencement. Some of the seniors were the first in their families to go to college, and they would come in the door not only with their parents and siblings, but with cousins and aunts and uncles as well. I found it incredibly moving and often had to hide my tears.

It was a privilege.


Betty Vorenberg and her husband, James Vorenberg '49, LL.B. '51, the late dean of Harvard Law School and Pound professor of law, left Dunster House after five years, a year after she began working full time at the state department of public welfare. In a letter to the students, the Vorenbergs wrote: "We are finding it difficult to get enough time for our work and enough time for ourselves, while being involved in the life of the House in the way we believe the masters should be."


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