Campus & Community

Renewing a venerable experiment

4 min read

House renewal is a cornerstone of University’s effort to reinvigorate the undergraduate experience

Even as we absorb the implications of the global financial crisis and plan for how we might react to it, our commitment to provide our undergraduates with an unparalleled academic experience remains as strong as ever. Progress continues with our new Program in General Education and with planning for our ambitious House renewal effort. It is about the latter initiative that we are writing today.

Renewal of our House system is a cornerstone of the University’s overall effort to renew and reinvest in the Harvard undergraduate experience, both inside class and out. Many of the Houses need basic physical upgrades, and students have voiced their need for more privacy, more flexibility, and improved comfort, in the context of protecting and enriching House life at Harvard.

We are faced today with the question of how a University seeking to invigorate the experience of its undergraduates builds on the noble experiment of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell and adapts it for the 21st century. How do we connect enhancements in our curriculum to improvements in campus common spaces, and link those to a renewal of the Houses that our students call home?

As we consider these questions, it is important to hear as many voices from the Harvard community as possible. Toward that end, we are gathering input from Harvard students through discussion groups and surveys, are hearing from faculty, especially House masters, and will solicit input from our alumni and alumnae in the weeks and months to come. We welcome your thoughts and ideas, so please share them with us by e-mailing

The Houses have played an important role in Harvard’s history. Reflecting back on their original purpose and mission reminds us anew about the goals of a residential college.

In 1904, Lowell called for the creation of the House system as a way to rescue American educational institutions from becoming merely “automatic brain-fattening machines” that turned out graduates with no inclination toward “hard thinking.”

The problem, to his mind, was a failure of the College community. Harvard was outgrowing life long centered around the Yard. Yet in bursting the Yard’s bounds, something essential was being lost: the physical proximity and social interaction with faculty and fellow students that not only enriched the College experience, but were an integral part of it.

The Houses were intended to recapture that lost community, providing hubs around which College life could organize — places to eat and socialize, to build teams to vie for the Straus Cup, and to pursue scholarship with tutors, at lectures, and in libraries.

The three of us have come together, with many others at the University, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the College, to consider those original purposes and other aspects of House renewal. Among the significant questions before us are: How best to accommodate programs and activities that are part of House life? Should new Houses be built in Allston? How best to accomplish the myriad tasks in physical planning, financial analysis, and modeling that await? Given the importance and size of the project, it must be integrated with our other ongoing building efforts.

In April, we announced that planning for House renewal would begin and that the entire process will stretch perhaps a decade or more. Dean Hammonds is leading planning related to program considerations through the work of five subcommittees, two of which will be made up solely of students. The subcommittees will consider issues of residential living spaces, the purpose of House life, and the need for academic and social spaces within a House.

Much of College life involves striking balances — between academics and social life, between individualism and community, between personal growth and shared experience. In undertaking renewal of our Houses, we are committed to maintaining and enhancing the faculty and adviser interactions that House life encourages, while recognizing the need for privacy and quiet spaces. Our plans must recognize the place the Houses hold in our history even as they clear the way for future growth — both personal and physical. Our living spaces must support our ambitions for scholarship even as they foster our students’ health — physical, emotional, and mental.

We have an obligation, in short, to continue to carry out Lowell’s vision (crafted as he struggled against “the spirit of the age, which is materialistic and plutocratic”) and ensure that Harvard’s nearly 80-year-old experiment in House life continues, updated and energized.

President Drew Faust
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith
Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds