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Harvard resolves to ditch ‘House master’ title

Harvard University’s campus.
Harvard University’s campus.(JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE)

Harvard College officials plan to stop using the term “house master” for the faculty members who oversee undergraduate residences at the school.

The move, which was similar to a change made at Princeton University, was partly spurred by student concerns over race issues on campus, officials said. But they also said the move has been under consideration for some time.

Dean Rakesh Khurana told students in an e-mail this week that the decision was unanimous among residential leaders, who are aware of the issues of racial sensitivity tied to the label.

“The desire to change this title has taken place over time and 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 wrote. “The house masters feel confident that a change in title at this point in time makes sense on very many levels.”

Khurana said the faculty has the full support of president Drew Faust. A new designation hasn’t been chosen. Officials will need to go through a formal process to enact the change.

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“The house masters understand that the ‘master’ title can be interpreted in various ways . . . but they also have considered the social meaning of the word,” Rachael Dane, a Harvard spokeswoman, said in a statement. “They know that language is powerful, and they think they have to be very conscious about how language is used.”

In the coming weeks, the college will work to identify and suggest a more appropriate term that “reflects the current realities of the role,” said Khurana, who is the master of Cabot House.

The term “house master” traditionally refers to a male faculty member who oversees a dormitory at a boarding school.

At Harvard, the house masters preside over the residential halls for sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

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But the Harvard Crimson has reported that students have argued that “master” has a negative overtone, evoking the term used for slave owners.

Sean Palfrey and his wife, Judy, who called themselves “house-something-or-others” at the Adams House, said in a joint statement that the term “master” has been shunned for years, and house masters often tell students to address them by their academic titles.

“Moving on from the term ‘master’ is just one of hundreds of ways that Harvard is adapting to this exciting, new, and powerful modern global reality, and making itself a stronger, more stimulating, more respectful environment,” the Palfreys wrote.

The announcement about a name change comes as Harvard Law School considers changing the school’s official seal.

The law school’s shield is derived from the crest of the Royall family, who owned and abused slaves. Isaac Royall used his wealth to help fund the first professorship at the school.

At Princeton University, the residential directors of dormitories are now called the “head of college,” according to the school’s website.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.