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Harvard drops ‘House master’ term in favor of ‘faculty dean’

A student walked on Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Mass.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File 2012

A student walked on Harvard University’s campus in Cambridge, Mass.

After months of consideration, Harvard University has announced that the school is dropping the term “House master” when referring to those who oversee undergraduate residences at the school, and instead going with the word “faculty dean.”

In a letter sent Wednesday to the school community, Michael D. Smith, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told students and staff that the change reflected input heard during a series of wide-ranging debates and meetings on campus.

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“This title reflects our House leaders’ high standing in the joint academic and administrative hierarchy of the 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 wrote in the letter, which was forwarded to the Globe.

The change takes effect immediately, officials said.

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Harvard officials had announced plans to phase out the use of the term House master in December.

At Harvard, the House masters — now faculty deans — preside over the residential halls for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Freshman students live in dorms in Harvard Yard.

The move, which was unanimously supported by the residential leaders, was partly spurred by student concerns over race issues on campus, officials said. But they also said the move had been under consideration for some time.

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Smith said despite the change, the term “House master” has not lost its place in Harvard’s history. The term “house master” traditionally refers to a male faculty member in a position of authority at a dormitory at a boarding school.

“I want to emphasize that a decision to change does not necessarily mean that what came before was wrong,” Smith wrote in the letter, saying he had seen no “direct connection” between the “House master” term and slavery. “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.”

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