Campus & Community

Strengthening the House tradition

5 min read

House renewal report highlights successes, challenges

A draft report on the House Renewal Program highlights a residential system that has in many ways worked as planned as it has aged, providing not just a roof over students’ heads, but fostering a supportive community that frames students’ years at Harvard and inspires House loyalty for decades after graduation.

The report, which will be the subject of continuing revision throughout the spring, also highlights challenges facing the House system, both physical and programmatic, that will guide the long-term renovation project.

Increased privacy for student rooms, more and varied spaces for group study and casual interactions, specialty spaces that are shared with nearby Houses, and residential programs that foster greater engagement with faculty are a few of the areas identified for improvement in the draft.

Several subcommittees of faculty, students, and administrators worked for much of 2008, traveling to other schools to examine how their residential communities operate, holding focus groups at Harvard, and conducting a survey of students. The survey shows a great deal of satisfaction with the House communities, even as it also highlights areas for improvement. Focus groups with alumni around the country are planned for the coming weeks before the report is finalized. Information gathered will be used to inform preliminary design plans, with the report serving as an advisory document for the students and staff in the Houses.

Though the report is still in its draft stage, it contains the findings and recommendations of five subcommittees of the House Program Planning Committee, chaired by Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds and charged last spring by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith to review aspects of House life in preparation for the upcoming renovations.

Three of the subcommittees were led by current or former House masters and consisted of faculty, staff, and students. Two were co-chaired by House masters, an assistant dean, and House committee chairs and had membership entirely made up of students.

A prime target in the House renovation will be the aging building infrastructure — electrical, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning systems — as well as the buildings’ physical structures. There is agreement in the report that the buildings’ unique architectural appearances should be preserved and that student rooms are an important site not just for sleep and daily living activities, but also for academic study. Improved privacy, better soundproofing, and eliminating walk-through rooms are among the focus group findings and subcommittee recommendations.

Common areas were another major target for the subcommittees’ discussions, owing to the fact that much of the community-building in the Houses occurs in these spaces. Committee members discussed the importance of a diversity of common room types, from the common rooms of suites to larger common areas shared by residential floors, to general-purpose meeting rooms such as the Junior Common Room, the dining hall, and larger multipurpose spaces. Such a range of rooms will allow students and other House members to use these spaces to create and foster different types of community. These common areas are among the most successful parts of House life, the committee found, with House Junior Common Rooms, dining halls, and libraries all cited as strengths of House living. Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, Summer School Dean, and former Kirkland House Master Donald Pfister, who headed the Subcommittee on House Life, said there’s a tension between the desire for a House to be a more closed space, reserved only for House members, and a place for interaction with members of other Houses or of the broader Harvard and Cambridge communities.

Striking that “inside/outside” balance is an important part of the planning process, Pfister said.

Pfister said that students have changed greatly over the years, with the computer revolution creating new ways to communicate and interact. Student schedules have shifted as well, with students today staying up later, leading to a need for late-night study spaces and food services.

The Houses’ intergenerational nature, engendered by interaction between students, tutors, and faculty members, is part of what makes the Houses different from typical dormitories, according to subcommittee members and focus group participants. That said, an area for improvement identified in all fact-finding vehicles is in the Senior Common Room structure. While some Houses have successful Senior Common Room functions, the committee’s draft recommends beginning to revamp the system where it’s not working well, and perhaps replacing it with a House Fellows program that has clearer requirements for interaction with students by faculty members affiliated with a House.

Similarly, the draft recommendations also include retaining and expanding the Resident Scholar program, which allows visiting fellows and other scholars to rent apartments in the Houses, but which would also include more-clearly defined requirements for interaction with students, such as presenting a set number of programs per year.

A close analysis of the Houses’ staffing structure is also among the draft recommendations, based on the current reality that House masters, resident deans, and tutors all have seen their administrative responsibilities grow at the cost of academic and programmatic functions. The committee recommends that staffing be re-examined to ensure masters and resident deans have adequate administrative support.

All of these changes, and others included in the draft report, would be done with an eye to environmental awareness and sustainability.

Ultimately, both the survey findings and House Program Planning Committee report will be available to the Harvard community. These fact-finding processes mark the first steps in an ongoing conversation about the House Renewal Project.