Harvard University Drops ‘House Master’ Title After Protesters Suggest Connection To Slavery

This week, Harvard University has retired the term “house master” in favor of the more familiar “faculty dean.”

In 2015, protests began on the Harvard campus that indicated students believed there was a link between the term “house master” and a history of slavery.

By the beginning of December, Harvard had decided to change the “house master” title, with the unanimous support of their residential leaders.

“Never before had the house leaders been so united in their belief that such a change is important to our efforts to create an intellectually, socially, and personally transformative experience for our students,” Michael D. Smith, dean of arts and sciences said in a letter to the students, staff, and faculty of Harvard University on Wednesday.

The choice made to change the term “house master” did not come easily to Harvard officials. It took them a couple of months to settle on a new term, one that would be instantly recognizable and inclusive.

The term “faculty dean” was revealed this week and will be in effect immediately.

“[The faculty dean] title reflects our House leaders’ high standing in the joint academic and administrative hierarchy of [Harvard] College and is easily understood by prospective students and their families, who might not (yet!) be deeply familiar with Harvard College’s residential system,” Smith went on to write, according to the Boston Globe.

Rakesh Khurana, another Harvard University dean, was interviewed by the university newspaper when the decision to make the change was made public. He told the Harvard Gazette that he, personally, saw the change as long overdue and a step in the right direction.

“I have not felt comfortable personally with the title … The recommendation to change the title has been a thoughtful one, rooted in a broad effort to ensure that [Harvard] College’s rhetoric, expectations, and practices around our historically unique roles reflects and serves the 21st century needs of residential student life.”

Despite the positive feedback from students and faculty alike, officials from Harvard University have gone out of their way to defend the use of the “house master” term.

According to Smith, no real connection has ever been shown between slavery and the use of the “house master” term.

“I have not been shown any direct connection between the term House Master and the institution of slavery,” he wrote. “The term House Master is and will remain a part of [Harvard] College’s long and proud history.”

The title “house master” was developed from the European roots of the word “master,” which referenced heads of household, teachers, and chief servants. It was not meant as a reference to the corrupted version of the word “master” as used in times, and areas, affected by slavery.

Although the change of the “house master” term was well-supported, Smith has urged people to understand that it is more about making Harvard University more inclusive and not about admission of guilt.

“I want to emphasize that a decision to change does not necessarily mean that what came before was wrong,” the Harvard University dean wrote. “The academic context of the term has always been clear. Many alumni will remember House leaders as the Master of their beloved House, and they should have no qualms in doing so.”

Although many of the protesters are happy with the change, some are a little more skeptical.

“I think it’s a good title, my only worry is that the college might pat itself on the back for doing the name change and then forget about issues of greater cultural import on campus,” Harvard University undergraduate student, William Greenlaw, told the Crimson.

[Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers]