Historic Lessons: Creating a Residential College System
14 June 2002 (collegiateway.org) — The residential colleges of Harvard University may have the appearance of great age, but the oldest group of them dates only from the 1930s. Harvard’s residential colleges, which are called Houses, were established by Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell with a gift from the philanthropist Edward Harkness. Lowell and Harkness were both motivated by a desire to restore the small college atmosphere that had been lost over the years as a result of institutional growth, and they were likewise determined to counter students’ natural tendencies toward self-segregation. And in executing their plans, Lowell and Harkness encountered the very same range of objections that people seeking to establish residential colleges encounter today.
On the principle that “we read to know we are not alone,” I have prepared for the Collegiate Way website a short extract from Samuel Eliot Morison’s Three Centuries of Harvard that describes the initial “House Plan” as well as the opposition it encountered. (These and other familiar complaints are also addressed on the Collegiate Way’s page of frequent objections to the residential college model.) If you are working to establish a system of residential colleges today, or are trying to explain the collegiate model to people who are unfamiliar with it, Morison’s brief account of the origin of one collegiate system may be a helpful source of ideas and encouragement.