Struggling to Get Past ‘Master’

By Harvey Silverglate

Harvard College appears locked into one of those momentous transformational challenges that from time to time roils the eminently roil-able undergraduate campus: What title should replace the sobriquet “House Master?”

While the term “House Master” has been used for generations to denote the faculty members who reside in, and oversee, the student residential houses at Harvard, it has apparently become associated, by some, for reasons not entirely obvious, with the notion of slave masters. It is unclear whether the push to abolish the master title arose because students became upset that a position of honor and responsibility might be conflated with a historically abhorrent concept, or whether the mere mention of the word “master” causes some angst via the now-fashionable fear of traumatization in the absence of timely “trigger warnings.”

The search for a titular replacement by the 12 residential masters, who had unanimously agreed to change their title back in December, has encountered unexpected delays, as reported by The Harvard Crimson on January 26th. Despite an announcement in December by Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana that the masters would announce their replacement title sometime early in 2016, progress “has been slow going.”

Indeed, when asked whether deliberations among the masters had even begun, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., the co-master of Winthrop House, simply replied, “No.” (One does wonder, hopefully, without becoming too cynical about yet another capitulation by the adults to the tantrums of the children, just how urgent the masters deem the need to remove this irritant in the lives of the college’s highly sensitive students.)

This delay has occurred despite the fact that the entire re-naming enterprise began late last semester, when, according to the Crimson, “a group of Harvard Latino students issued a set of demands to University President Drew G. Faust, one of which requested changing the existing nomenclature.” To emphasize the overriding importance of this initiative in the life of the College, one co-master wrote, “This change is a meaningful and important illustration of the sensitivity and the caring of those of us who are the heads of the Harvard Houses.” Dean Khurana, who is also a co-master of a house, was careful to assure the Crimson that he, too, was “personally uncomfortable” with the title.

Reflecting the extraordinary recent expansion of the cadre of student life administrators at Harvard College – a phenomenon mirrored on virtually every campus throughout the nation – the Crimson had a plethora of administrators to whom to turn in order to get the “story” of the status of this momentous change-to-be. Rachel Dane, described as a “College spokesperson,” is reported to have “confirmed that no decision on a new name has been made yet.” Masters of four of the houses – Winthrop, Mather, Eliot, and Adams – were also unable to say much in the way of progress of the selection process, although he did reveal that it was “slow going.” The Adams House co-master was reported to be less than excited by one suggested new title – “leader” – as being “too boring a title,” though if “Dear Leader” is good enough for the master of North Korea, one would think it should not be too boring for Harvard.

To those of us who wonder how and why it is that student life bureaucracies at Harvard and elsewhere have grown so rapidly in recent years, we now can see that administrators are required for a wide variety of undertakings to soothe the ruffled feathers of the sensitive beings who populate our college student bodies today. Out in the real world, we have master electricians and mechanics, chess masters, masters of the universe, taskmasters of all kinds, and other such varieties of positions and titles connoting particular skill, knowledge or authority. Only on college campuses, it seems, is the title so disturbing as to require a cast of a dozen, plus support staff, to remove this source of anxiety among students who see themselves (and are widely seen) as the future leaders of the nation.

One gasps at the very idea.


Harvey Silverglate is a Boston lawyer and co-founder and Board member of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

15 thoughts on “Struggling to Get Past ‘Master’”

  1. Harvard (and the entire Ivy League) = Overrated.

    It’s more of a brand than anything else. Unfortunately a brand that dominates the NE corridor and dictates societal trends.

  2. Silliness reigns supreme at Hahvahd.

    And I’d say the university’s handling of this matter falls somewhat short of masterful.

  3. When we finally get everything politically corrected we could end up with a festering undertow. That will be every situation and response we worked so hard and foolishly to duct tape over with words chosen to avoid the realities but celebrate a bogus fix.
    Festering inevitably gets loose in very ugly ways.
    The delicate students who can’t let irrelevant old titles lie are not doing themselves any service.

  4. I am quite dismayed to see such nonsense occurring at Harvard. I expected a higher standard of intellectual prowess from students capable of gaining entry to such a prestigious institution.

    To change a tradition simply because someone might mistakenly conflate it with an unrelated term and take unnecessary offense is ludicrous.

    Sadly, if these students were to read my post, I now doubt they would have the comprehension skills to understand what is written here.

  5. I take it “overseer” is out of the question … ?

    If I were the word “plantation” I’d be looking around nervously.

  6. The co-master’s Ode to Caring put me in mind of a statement by Marvin Minsky (RIP) in 1985: “We are all on earth to help others. What I can’t figure out is what the others are here for.”

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