Good Move Dropping the ‘House Masters’ Nomenclature, Harvard

Good Move Dropping the ‘House Masters’ Nomenclature, Harvard

I was completely unsurprised, and glad, to learn that Harvard College has decided to rename its “House Masters” as “Faculty Deans.” The fact that you probably have no idea what a “House Master” is unless you’ve attended or taught at Harvard (they’re faculty who lead residential communities) seems reason enough to make the change. Harvard has enough idiosyncratic nomenclature (you may think you know what “concentration” and “tutor” mean, but if you’re talking about Harvard, think again) without hanging on to the stuff with creepy associations.

Well, the Crimson editorial board has taken exception. Its reason? The college administration’s reasons, the paper says, are insufficient — and poorly articulated.

In a long email filled with high-minded rhetoric (it references “intellectual, social, and personal” growth twice), we are instead left to piece together clues to the University’s intent based on copy-and-pasted mission statements and PR platitudes. It emerges that the term “House Masters” is too antiquated and gender-specific to be workable. Perhaps more significantly, the email hints and subtly implies that the emotional health of our fellow students are at stake. Semantics aside, these are not terrible rationales.

However, the editorial board concludes, after further criticism of the process by which the new name was determined, “this has felt like Harvard’s New Coke: change for the sake of change.” If there’s anything about this editorial that surprises me more than its gist, it’s the fact that undergraduates in 2016 are dropping New Coke references.

I completely buy that the process for determining the new name was clunky, and that the roll-out was awkward. Sounds like Harvard, all right. But really, is that sufficient basis to oppose the change? The fact that the new name is imperfect — any concise description of the complex role of House Masters Faculty Deans would be — doesn’t add much weight to the paper’s argument. That name had to change, and it’s had to change for a long time.

(Yeah yeah yeah, its origin had nothing to do with slavery. If my parents named me “Hitler” just because they really loved Swedish rockabilly, sorry, I’d still change my name.)

I went to grad school at Harvard, and worked in the House system as a tutor (a super-RA, kind of) for six years, including five years as a resident tutor at Pforzheimer House. My time as a tutor started in 2001, which means I’ve now spent 15 years telling stories about my time at Harvard that often — when they involve House life — come up to the awkward moment when I mention the “House Master” and then have to backtrack, acknowledge that it’s a title that sounds distasteful and distant at best, and explain what they did. The need for explanation may be inevitable, but the need for apology isn’t.

“Well,” I presume the Crimson‘s editorial board would say, “you never needed to apologize!” Uh-huh, sure. Anyhoo, Harvard administration, you get the thumbs-up from me on this change. That may not be worth much, but I know my thumb’s not the only one inclined airward on this one. In fact, I think it’s in some pretty good company.

Jay Gabler