Evicting “House Masters” Title

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Reevaluating which traditions are worth keeping.

By HUNTER RICHARDS

 

Within Harvard’s residential system, House Masters oversee the students living within an upperclassmen house for a renewable five-year term. However, the term ‘House Master’ has lasted far longer but will soon cease to be in use at Harvard College for the leaders of a house community.

Dean Khurana announced the change In an email sent out to the college on Monday on behalf of fellow House Masters. As a current House Master of Cabot House, Khurana has stated his discomfort with the title in the past and the House Masters unanimously expressed interest in rethinking the title. With full support of President Drew Faust and approval of FAS Dean Micheal D. Smith, the next step is to develop a new title for leaders of the House communities. Under Dean Khurana, social clubs and the administration alike have received suggestions and committed to improving current circumstances to better provide an inclusive community at Harvard College.

Following the responses to Harvard’s Diversity Report, recent instances at Yale, and Dean Khurana’s initiatives to create a more inclusive and responsive Harvard, the suggestion for changing the title is now on the table. The term has long been questioned by the public, as well as students, for its historical ties to slavery. In previous years, Harvard has hosted rallies to raise awareness of how racism persists on college campuses. I, Too, Am Harvard, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter campaign last year, have caused more momentum in social movements on campus. This year’s instances of racism at Mizzou encouraged students of color and allies at Harvard College to speak out. However, the confrontation between a student and one of Yale’s equivalent of a House Master (who, incidentally, is a previous Harvard House Master for Pforzheimer House) forces leaders of house communities to recognize their responsibility to students in providing a safe and respectful space within the House.

While it will not be a quick shift, the discussion and consensus in reconsidering how to best describe the roles of those leading the House communities signals improvement. Harvard values tradition and its longstanding history, but the administration’s recognition of how using culturally inappropriate language when referring to members of the residential system is significant.

When freshman are randomly sorted into their upperclassmen houses, they’ll be joining an intimate community of tutors, classmates, and peers that are led by House Masters. For Harvard students, house life will shape much of their undergraduate experience. Upon graduating, students return to their upperclassmen house for a reception where they’ll receive their diploma and hear from their House Master. With such deep-rooted investments in the residential life for students, it’s important to provide appropriate language that considers the cultural implications they may have in order to offer all students an inviting community within each House. For the House Masters to be responsive to the concerns of students (as well as the public), it signifies a mutual respect and the intention to create a home for those living in their respective House.

Harvard’s peers are also undergoing change in language to remove racist connotations from their institutions. For colleges with such long histories, it’s important to recognize that the reputation cannot supercede social issues or controversial decisions made by the college or its affiliates in the past. With Houses named after slaveowners and the history behind each flag and crest, redeveloping certain traditions is a necessity for the survival of a strong House community. Students have long noted the resemblance Kirkland House’s flag bears to the rebel flag, which is steeped in a history of racism and slavery. Even after last year’s movements to remove the rebel flag from being displayed at universities and even the South Carolina state Capitol building, there was no discussion of how Kirkland’s flag may put students at unease for being similar in appearance.

While each house has race relations tutors, it takes more than a select few individuals to be designated point persons for a house. If Harvard hopes to emphasize the community within upperclassmen houses and strengthen the effects of and investment in residential life, the entire House administration must recognize and attend to the needs and concerns of students. In a period of social action and urgent rallies for such issues, Harvard must be responsive and accept that just because a practice may be tradition, that does not mean it’s applicable or even acceptable to the current day and situation.

As the administration continues in the process of establishing a new title for House Masters, other developments may already be underway to create a safer, more inclusive Harvard.

 

Hunter Richards ([email protected]) looks forward to seeing what changes are yet to come.