This week, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana sent an email to students informing them that the school would be scrapping one of its most treasured traditions: The heads of its 12 undergraduate residences would no longer be called house “masters.” The decision, the result of an unanimous vote by the masters themselves, was partially in response to the racially fueled unrest that’s transpired on college campuses, including Harvard, in recent weeks. According to The Harvard Crimson, although the term as it’s used in the Ivy League has nothing to do with slavery, some students have nonetheless criticized the word “master” as reminiscent of it, and Khurana and other officials say the change had been under consideration for some time.
“The recommendation to change the title has been a thoughtful one, rooted in a broad effort to ensure that the College’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st century needs of residential student life,” Khurana, who oversees the Cabot House, told faculty members in a prepared statement.
It may seem like a silly thing to cause so much ballyhoo on campus—to make headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time. But the custom is a beloved one that contributes to Harvard’s Hogwarts-esque sense of community. The houses “serve as the foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College,” each with its own shield and reputation, and students often form intimate, cherished bonds with their “masters,” who are either senior administrators or faculty members. (Some of the houses also have “elves”—an affectionate nickname for the Master’s Resident Assistants who work in exchange for room and board.) Both the “house” and “college” systems at Harvard and Yale are modeled after ones that originated at Oxford and Cambridge, which have also referred to their heads of house as house masters, among other terms.