Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith (left) and Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana discussed the history behind the term “House master” and its impending change.

File photos (left) by Kris Snibbe, (right) by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographers

Campus & Community

Q&A on changing House master title

7 min read

Deans Smith and Khurana reflect on the desire and decision to rethink that longtime name

Two Harvard deans sat down with the Gazette late last week to talk about the impending change to the House master title that was announced at the Dec. 1 faculty meeting, and to relate the thinking behind the switch.

Michael D. Smith, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has led the FAS since 2007. He has been a member of the Harvard faculty since 1992.

Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, assumed the role in July 2014. He is also the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School, professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and co-master of Cabot House. Khurana has been a member of the Harvard community for 16 years, earning his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1998. As Cabot House co-masters, Khurana and his wife, Stephanie, have lived in the House with their three children and 375 undergraduates since 2010.

GAZETTE: What is the role of a House master?

KHURANA: Each of Harvard College’s residential Houses is co-led by a senior faculty member and their partner, traditionally called House masters, who work together to foster a tight-knit community that supports and encourages our students’ personal and intellectual growth and well-being.

GAZETTE: How did the request to change the House master title come about?

KHURANA: The House leaders have been considering the possibility of changing their titles for quite some time — well before I was a House master, and I believe even before Dean Smith’s deanship began nine years ago. My understanding is that the general feeling has been that the title causes discomfort, both for those serving as House masters and for many of our students, and that it doesn’t fully communicate the responsibilities of the role and how it has evolved.

GAZETTE: What is uncomfortable about the title?

KHURANA: It’s an ancient word that is now being used in a 21st-century context, and that layers on new meanings that we have to grapple with. “Master” is rooted in the Latin term magister, a form of address for scholars and teachers that ties back to the medieval universities of Europe. But when we use it in the context of a university in the United States — a country with a history of slavery and of racial discrimination — that adds meaning and significance to the term that we can’t easily dismiss by focusing narrowly on its classical roots. There are many symbols and words in the English language that have morphed from their original meanings and usages. Some have become associated with odious ideas or are used in a derogatory way.

SMITH: I agree. In our country, with our history, I can’t call someone in an oversight role “master” without having images of human subjugation come to mind. But I don’t have this association when I congratulate a student on attaining a master of arts or on the mastery of a subject. Mastery over people is what is at issue here. I have long reacted emotionally to this traditional title because I cannot simply delete from my mind the additional context provided by our nation’s history.

GAZETTE: Why is this change just happening now if it’s been in discussion for several years?

KHURANA: Recent events on our campus and across the country have renewed our conversations and inspired us to take action. Now that we have approval from Dean Smith to move forward, we are beginning a process in which members of the House leaders’ docket committee, working with a senior College team member and the House leadership community as a whole, will suggest a new title that reflects the current realities of the role. We feel this change will be small but meaningful in our continuing efforts to build a culture of inclusion on our campus.

GAZETTE: The term “House master” also celebrates Harvard’s connection to Oxford and Cambridge universities. Will House leaders consider this as they explore a new title?

SMITH: Our faculty House leaders are certainly looking at opportunities to continue to celebrate this connection, but in a manner that is appropriate for our time and our history. I’m certain we will find a way to preserve these roots.

GAZETTE: Do you think changing the House master title will have an impact on campus?

KHURANA: Yes. Words matter. They shape our opportunities, our self-perceptions, and our possible futures. They can open doors, and they can shut them. They can help build a community that belongs to all of us, or they can delineate difference and assert privilege or create boundaries between people. Will changing words right every wrong and solve every problem? Of course not. But decisions like these can play an important part in the long-term process of institutional change. One of the great things about Harvard is that we don’t follow tradition blindly or without thought. Indeed, the fundamental nature of a liberal education teaches us that tradition has to be in conversation with the present. Otherwise it is simply a mechanical, empty ritual. The shared dialogue about our Houses helps renew and reanimate the meanings.

SMITH: There are very thoughtful conversations taking place on our campus today, and on this particular issue, I have learned — learned a great deal, in fact — from listening to our students, faculty, and staff. I am particularly proud of the way our students are approaching these difficult discussions. Harvard has often spoken about the learning that can take place when we bring an incredible diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and experiences together. A fellow dean once told me that we should be generous listeners at times like these, in an environment like ours. He was right. My understanding of the emotional, cultural, and personal meanings of words has grown, impacting me and my thinking in significant ways.

GAZETTE: You mention this is one small part of continuing efforts to build a culture of inclusion on campus. What other opportunities or activities are underway?

KHURANA: As you hopefully know, the College issued the final report of the Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion last month. It offers recommendations for how we can support our students, pointing out that while the College has made progress, we have much more work to do. I am proud of some of the initiatives that are already underway. For example, in September, the Office of Student Life introduced a revamped system for reporting issues of bias that now includes an option to submit anonymously. We have designed a cultural competency training program that was implemented last June with a small group of College staff and that will repeat this spring. And we have also scheduled trainings for the Administrative Board and Honor Council.

SMITH: Beyond the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, President [Drew] Faust also issued a statement about the importance of inclusion on our campus, in which she committed to looking at opportunities for University-wide efforts.