Blocked Out: Deconstructing Harvard’s Housing System

Now more than ever, Harvard administrators are considering quandaries of “belonging” in the spaces students occupy, from final clubs to Houses. The first three incarnations of the House system were born from issues of inclusivity—future changes could be motivated by similar concerns.

In the 1930s, Harvard’s housing system was changed to mitigate socioeconomic disparities. In the 1970s, men and women started living together on campus for the first time. In the 1990s, the House system saw its biggest change yet—randomization—spurred by complaints that students were self-segregating by race, interests, and personality.

Questions of inclusivity have long catalyzed change in Harvard’s residential system. With growing concerns about social spaces on campus and frenzies of “blocking stress” sweeping the freshman class each year, administrators are yet again probing the current housing model.

Looking Back

Havard’s “House System” was inaugurated in 1930 under the leadership of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell in an effort to address issues of socioeconomic inequality. Previously, when most of the student body had lived off-campus, class disparities dictated where students resided.

With the generosity of alumni, many of today’s River Houses were born. While the housing system was first established to unify students, women were excluded from these establishments, and an element of selectivity remained. For many years, the Houses operated under the “draft system,” in which House masters interviewed students before admitting them as residents. This system remained until 1970.

The 1970s prompted the second wave of change of the Harvard housing system. Women, for the first time, were welcome to participate in co-ed housing and the “draft system” morphed into what became known as the “preference system,” in which students ranked the houses they liked best.

Under this system, students of similar backgrounds consistently indicated preference for the same Houses, and according to a Harvard Magazine article from 1996, the Houses started to become somewhat homogenous. “One House had a great predominance of natural-science concentrators. Another had most of the gay and lesbian students, and one had an excess of students from prep schools,” John E. Dowling, former master of Leverett House, said in the article. Dowling supported a move to randomization to keep the Houses from becoming dominated by homogenous groups of students.

Starting with the class of 1999, then-Dean of the College Fred Jewett decided to fully randomize House assignments for rising sophomores.

Not all students were pleased with the change. Some cherished the sense of comfort that came from living with other students of the same socioeconomic, racial or religious background.

“Many minority students, in coming to a predominantly Caucasian school, may feel somewhat alienated,” Jean Tom ’96, then co-chair of the Minority Student Alliance, told Harvard Magazine. “Therefore, the only place they feel they can be fully themselves is in their dorms, where, by self-design, they are surrounded by people of the same race or ethnicity, with whom they share similar backgrounds, experiences, and tastes."

Crunch Time

Under the current system, the question isn’t where you live—it’s whom you live with.

This year’s freshmen were told to designate a group of up to eight students to “block” with by 9 a.m. on March 1. Each blocking group is sorted into one of 12 Houses, where its members will live for their remaining three years at the College.

Many freshmen spend months trying to configure their blocking group, starting as early as October.

For some students, the process can be a social nightmare. “When I was thinking about blocking, it would consume a fair share of my thought and effort,” Adam Hirschhorn ’20 said. “We tried to avoid the drama that upperclassmen warned us about, but there was some miscommunication so in the two or three days before the deadline, there was a crunch period.”

Katie Muldoon ’20 said blocking creates pressure to form a single friend group right away. “I think it causes a lot of problems due to the fact that most people don’t know their exact friend group yet only having completed one semester of college,” she said. Andre J. Senecal ’20 agreed that blocking creates “unnecessary social stress,” calling the system “more of a tradition than a success.”

Thomas A. Dingman, Dean of Freshmen, said “a number of the freshman class” has not submitted blocking forms, although the deadline has passed.

“As we go ahead trying to figure out what is happening, there are a number of situations that are kind of hard to deal with—where people, late in the game, were dropped from a blocking group,” Dingman said.

A Way Forward

Last January, the College created a subcommittee to investigate the current problems in the Housing system and identify potential solutions.

Dingman emphasized that he believes there is no “need” to change the current system, although administrators would like to enhance it. “I think we have been exploring ways to enhance students’ feelings of belonging,” Dingman said. “There is also a suggestion that we could deal with some of the blocking stress.”

While the subcommittee discussed changes to House life behind closed doors, the College unveiled historical penalties on members of single-gender social groups in an effort to reconfigure undergraduate social life. Dingman says the two—changes to student social life and changes to student housing—are related.

“There has been a concern that if students aren’t going out to the single gender social organizations, the way it may happen now, that some recentering of the social life is critical and that could happen with the Houses doing more hosting and bringing in the freshmen,” Dingman said. “Maybe this is a way for all freshmen to feel that there is a greater number of opportunities.”

No final decision have been made, but the subcommittee will present its suggestions to Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana in the spring.

One possible alternative to the current model might resemble Yale’s network of residential colleges. While Harvard students spend the first few months of freshman year eagerly anticipating their House assignment, Yale freshmen arrive in New Haven already knowing their college affiliation.

“There is a magnificent sense of belonging that comes with knowing the college you’re associated with,” Keera Annamaneni, a Yale freshman in Timothy Dwight College, said. “Immediately you know you have a place to call home and you have upperclassmen to turn to.”

Most Yale freshmen live together on “Old Campus,” but are already affiliated with the college in which they will live for the following three years. Although first-years can request to transfer colleges, Dingman said few choose to do so.

Grace Ambrossi, another Yale freshman, said the colleges serve as an inclusive space for students to socialize. “There are so many classes and clubs, so the residential college is just a place for you to hang out, but isn’t a divider,” Ambrossi said.

Now more than ever, Harvard administrators are considering quandaries of “belonging” in the spaces students occupy, from final clubs to Houses. The first three incarnations of the House system were born from issues of inclusivity—future changes could be motivated by similar concerns.