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Problems at Home: Take the Pulse in the Houses

In light of the recent efforts by the new Harvard central administration to “take the Pulse” of the Harvard community regarding diversity and inclusion, there remains an angle that has not been fully addressed. This is one regarding the living space and the living environment of College students. I wish I could say differently, but in my time at Harvard, the College’s House system made me wish I had chosen another school.

I graduated from the College in 2016 and now work for the University. In my time here, issues of belonging and inclusion have always been a part of the discourse around exclusive spaces on campus. Final clubs and exclusive organizations are seen as inaccessible and problematic. Yet, regardless of morality or tales of wrongdoing, there is still a pull for students to spend time on the couches in their darkly-lit halls. It is supply for a demand that the outgoing administration did not manage to put its finger on.

The House renovations began in my freshman year. The old Houses had large common rooms in suites. The new, renovated Houses? Single bedrooms on a hallway and common rooms with unfathomable glass doors. Suites were having common rooms removed from their plans. Most confusingly, adults were everywhere.

It is all but required of Harvard students to live on campus in the Houses. Finding an affordable apartment in Cambridge is near impossible for a 19-year-old, and finding a group of friends to leave a House with is even harder. Accepting Harvard means accepting the status quo as far as House life goes. This is why it is crucial for this status quo to be one that meets student needs.

Right now, the current status quo promotes a sense of being halfway — of being not quite free to be “in college” while also being a quasi-adult living in an apartment complex. Students’ freedom is limited by the lack of resident assistants who are their ages, as are common at other colleges. Instead, the Houses are home to graduate student tutors and other adult administrators who live in the same building or even in the room next door.

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By day, many of these adults are administrators. By night, they are neighbors with the power to enforce hazy rules however they want. In my time at the College, I knew of adults in Houses enforcing behavior due to personal preferences, such as discouraging drinking culture and demanding music be turned down because they had sleeping babies. I always felt like I was living in someone else’s home.

Our House believed in hosting activities such as financially sponsoring pastry decorating contests, in screening Finding Nemo, and in doing Disney Karaoke with tutors’ kids in the main common rooms on weekends.

I might sound like a jerk for saying this, but no thanks.

These activities are all lovely, but let us be clear — this is a college. College students have a right to a college existence, and to opt-into any cozy support system when they need it. These sorts of social events can’t compete with final clubs, which provide the age-appropriate events that college students want.

It is possible the College seeks to support students via such coddling. But live-in administrators are not a substitute for well-functioning mental health resources. Most importantly, the freedom to live in one’s environment as a true college student goes a long way in terms of independence and mental health. The College would be better able to support students by improving access to mental health services and making House support systems opt-in, rather than opt-out environments.

The benefits of House life that Harvard extols during the admissions process operate as a major selling point. Students are told they will have a support system built in, a sense of family. And though this may be true, prospective students have the right to know that these glowing statements conflate the great things about residential living with the idea that residential living must come hand in hand with living with adults.

Students who are essentially forced to be on-campus have the right to live in a college environment, with tacit permission to have fun in their rooms and the right to be rowdy within acceptable boundaries found on other campuses. Students should serve as resident assistants. Tutors should serve as on-campus mentors, not as live-in adults who students interact with every day.

Let students have some murky spaces where they live, but ones that are filled with support systems made of peer networks that they create at home.

Reinventing House life to allow Harvard students to live in an intelligent collegiate living environment is a massive step towards a sense of belonging. It is a step toward gender equality and addressing sexual assault, creating an alternative to potentially problematic, off-campus parties. It is a step toward a sense of belonging for all identities, allowing students to be empowered to build community among themselves. It is a step in creating a “supply” so that the demand of students is met, away from external risk.

While the administration is renovating Houses, I implore them to also renovate the structure that promotes these power dynamics and make House life fun again. Not little kid fun, college student fun. This has a great chance to make students feel safe, included, and free in the Houses. As a result, students can be truly proud of a House community that reflects real student desires.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow, you can accomplish this easily. Spending large sums of money renovating brightly lit public spaces like the Smith Campus Center is only one part of the solution. Get your fingers on the wrist again.

Katie A. Farineau ’16 is a Program Coordinator at Humanitarian Academy at Harvard at the School of Public Health.

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