The "Masters" of Harvard's undergrad residential houses are senior faculty members who serve as the chief administrative officers within the houses. They are responsible for shaping the cultural and intellectual life of these smaller student communities and also play a role in giving each house a distinctive character.
Ivy League institutions adopted the term from British schools, notably Oxford and Cambridge, where master survives as a shorthand for schoolmaster or headmaster. But in the American context, the Master moniker, which is also used at Yale and - until very recently - Princeton, has been criticized for its associations with slavery. Students and faculty alike have pointed out the title's unsettling historical connotations. Its elimination has figured among demands from student protesters at Harvard and Yale.
Now it's becoming clear the hoary old title is on its way out.
Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana announced in an email to students Tuesday night that leaders of the university's undergraduate residences had agreed to forgo the title of Master.
"In the coming weeks," the email said, "the College will launch a process in which members of the House leaders' docket committee, working with senior College team members and the House leadership community as a whole, will suggest a new title that reflects the current realities of the role."
The email further noted that the decision, which has been approved by uiversity president Drew Faust, "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."
Officials at Princeton announced last month that masters of residential colleges would from that point forward be called the "head of college."
At Yale, where calls to remove the title have so far been unfruitful, the master of one residential college asked students to instead address him as "doctor" or "professor" in light of the "deeply problematic" racial and gender hierarchies tied to "master," the Yale Daily News reported.
The "master" debate comes alongside other efforts to purge higher-education institutions of names that now carry controversial, racially charged associations.
On the same day that Princeton announced the title's elimination, students occupied the president's office to demand, among other things, that the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs be renamed. The 28th president of the United States and 13th president of Princeton was a segregationist believed by some to have supported the ideas of the Ku Klux Klan.