Harvard Rooming Assignments Abroad

It is mid-July, and piles of papers are scattered across the floor and tables of Assistant Dean of Freshman Lesley Nye Barth’s Hurlbut Hall apartment. As she sorts through the collection of papers, her cat wanders into the room, stepping on and destroying a few carefully ordered stacks—groups of four roommates that she had spent hours assembling as she culled 550 or so housing applications for the perfect match. The cat’s romp sends her back to step one, and she gathers the papers to rematch the students.

Such is the life of the three assistant deans of freshman (ADFs), Lesley Nye Barth, James N. Mancall, and Sue Brown, who spend nearly two-and-a-half months hand-picking rooming groups and then assigning these groups to create entryways.

It’s a process that takes hundreds of hours and turns the summer—when most administrators take a relaxing break from the frenetic pace of the school year—into some of the busiest months for the Freshman Deans Office (FDO).

“The process is enormously time-consuming,” said Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, “but I think it’s Harvard at its best.”

While the freshman deans at Harvard spend hours hand-picking roommates, a number of other elite colleges—including the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University, Brown, and Cornell—conduct the process mostly by computer. Other schools such as Johns Hopkins and Tufts first divide up students based on dorm preferences and then assign roommates by hand—working, by that point, with much smaller pools of students. Of the nine colleges The Crimson contacted, only Dartmouth and Stanford also match roommates entirely by hand.

AN UPHILL BATTLE

The whole matching process begins in late March, when the Admissions office stuffs a freshman housing application into the envelopes containing acceptance letters to Harvard College. The application contains three parts—a housing section, an advising section, and a records section.

The form itself is quite simple—it asks students to list their academic and extracurricular interests, music tastes, and the number of roommates they prefer. It also requests that students list—on a scale from one to five—how neat and how quiet they want their rooms to be. The form also requires students to choose one of three options for the times they go to bed and wake up. On the back, the form asks students to write an essay describing themselves and what they want in a roommate.

“The whole application is important,” Nye Barth said. “We are trying to get a whole picture of the student. It is more helpful when students say a lot in their essay.”

Mancall and Nye Barth both said that they assume students are honest in their application, although many of the questions are open-ended.

While the Freshman Dean’s Office receives the rooming forms, the Admissions Office puts the names of all the students who have accepted Harvard’s offer into a computer that performs a random sort. That sort is then used to divide the class into three “Yards” of 540 to 580 students: Crimson, Ivy, and Elm. A set of dorms comprises each “yard,” which is overseen by one of the three assistant deans of freshman.

THE PERFECT MATCH

In early June, each assistant dean receives a tall stack of rooming applications—one from literally every student in their Yard. First, the deans read the entire stack of applications from top to bottom. Once the deans read through all the housing applications, the ADF’s start matching up roommates.

There is no hard-and-fast rule for making roommate matches, but Dingman says that the common goal in all cases is “to find people who, based on their self-reporting, will be compatible and also have the chance to learn from one another.”

Each ADF goes about the process in a particular fashion, but all begin making assignments based on the size of suites in their yard. For example, Nye Barth’s Crimson Yard—which included Grays, Wigglesworth, Greenough, Hurlbut, and Pennypacker—contains a variety of room sizes, so before she begins assigning rooms, she sorts the pile into two groups: students who want smaller rooms of three or fewer and those who want larger rooms. On the other hand, Mancall’s Ivy Yard—which includes Claverly, Hollis, Holworthy, Lionel, Massachusetts Hall, Mower, Stoughton, Straus, and Thayer—contains mostly doubles, so Mancall focuses on making pairings of people instead of larger group assignments.

After looking at students’ preferences for rooming-group size, ADF’s look for is compatibility. “We try to find people who have at least one thing in common with academic interests, extracurricular, personal descriptions,” Nye Barth said. She said she also takes into account things like “messiness and hours, though those change dramatically when [students] get here.”

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Jewett said that most freshmen completed the last statement by indicating concern about the degree to which a desirable roommate would smoke, drink, or insist upon neatness. These preferences, as well as the more general ones expressed in response to the first three questionnaire items, were followed as closely as possible in selecting roommates.

Diversity in the dorms was achieved by following three standards of balance. Public and private school graduates were mixed together. "For instance, we cannot have an Exeter dorm," Jewett said. Also, some freshmen with athletic talent or interest were placed in each dorm, so that intramural athletic competition would not prove completely one-sided. Finally, geographical distribution was sought and realized without great difficulty, since many freshmen specifically asked to be assigned a roommate from a different section of the country.

Jewett admitted that the committee can make mistakes in roommate combinations, because it is difficult to tell from paper forms what a boy will really be like when he arrives in September. The number of actual roommate break-ups is about eight or ten a year. "Generally, these splits occur because one roommate plays his violin at all hours of the night, or for some other reason connected with personal habits," Jewett continued. "Roommates almost never break up over large questions of educational or cultural values."

He suggested that one reason for the small number of roommate changes during the freshman year is that almost all rooms are well suited to multiple living since the renovation of the Yard dorms. In a suite of several rooms, it is possible for roommates to live together and get by their freshman year comfortably, even if they are not particularly compatible.

The opposite situation exists for freshmen in many Radcliffe dormitories, according to Catherine D. Williston, Dean of Freshmen. The "economy double," a room originally meant to be a single which now houses two girls on bunk beds, can make life difficult for roommates who are not close friends.

Miss Williston said that her office sees "no point in trying to mastermind" the assignment of freshman roommates too much, since the "very nature of this college and of these students means that the 318 girls in the Class of 1966 are already diversified." She added that Radcliffe girls are likely to be people who can adjust to a range of personalities, and who will therefore be able to get along with any roommate.

Radcliffe's freshman rooming problem, according to the Dean, is essentially a matter of space, and will therefore be partially remedied by the erection of the Fourth Hose.

The 'Cliffe class of '66 also completed a questionnaire on rooming preferences, largely concerned with study patterns, sleeping hours, and smoking. ("Do you think that social activity or study will be more important to you at college?" prospective 'Cliffies were asked. "Very few thought social activity would be more important," Miss Williston reported, "or at least they wouldn't say so.")

Using questionnaire responses and application folders, the Radcliffe Residence Office attempted to avoid major errors in freshman roommate assignment. "But there is a minimum number of things we can do, and after that the situation must and does take care of itself," Miss Williston said, "in this area, there is such a thing as working very hard for very little reward."

In freshman room assignment at both Radcliffe and Harvard, the working theory seems to be that freshman roommates need not be soulmates or confidantes of a lifetime, but only "chums" in the current colloquial sense of the term. "The rooming situation should be one in which a student can relax," Jewett concluded, "not one in which he must be converted or educated."

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