An unusual item in the curriculum vitae of Raoul Bott, for a mathematician at least, was his tenure as the Master of Dunster House in 1978-84. At Harvard the undergraduates live in social units called ``Houses,'' modelled somewhat after the Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. A House is more than a place to sleep; it is a way to create a sense of a small community within a large university. Each House has its own dining hall, dormitories, social activities, and a staff headed by a Master. The academic staff consists of a bevy of resident and non-resident tutors.
Whether out of a lack of interest or a perceived mismatch of temperament, pure mathematicians are rarely called to be Masters of the undergraduate Houses. In 1978, in a break with tradition, the President of Harvard University appointed Bott the Master of Dunster House. This entailed living in the Master's Residence in the midst of three hundred undergraduates. Bott's gregariousness was a good match for the post.
Every year the Houses compete in a water-raft race on the Charles River. This is no gentleman's canoe race as practiced in England. In the Harvard version, attacks on other Houses' rafts are condoned, even encouraged. One year the Lowell House team had its Master at the helm, resplendent in an admiral's hat. Bott, commanding the Dunster House armada, saw the beautiful hat. He hollered, ``Get me that hat!'' Now, this is the sort of order undergraduates love to obey. In no time the Dunster students had paddled to the Lowell raft. A struggle ensued, and like any good pirates, the Dunster contingent captured the admiral's hat. It was later hung, as a trophy, high in the ceiling of the Dunster House Dining Hall.
Showing true House spirit, the Dunster House Crew Team had its official team T-shirt emblazoned with ``Dunster House,'' a pair of oars, and the exhortation: ``Raoul, Raoul, Raoul your Bott.''
The Harvard Houses have counterparts at Yale, where they are called Colleges. A friendly rivalry has always existed between these two august institutions, and it extends to the Houses and Colleges. Some of the Houses at Harvard even have ``sister Colleges'' with which they are loosely affiliated. They would, for example, visit each other during the Harvard-Yale football games.
In the aftermath of the Sixties, many of the traditions at the Ivy League universities, such as the dress code and the parietal rules, have gone by the wayside, and for a number of years Dunster House had not had contact with Berkeley College, its sister College at Yale. One year the Berkeley College Master, a distinguished historian, decided to revive the tradition. He wrote to Bott suggesting a visit to Dunster House during the weekend of the Harvard-Yale football game. Bott readily agreed, but decided to make the occasion a memorable one. Why not fool the Yalies into thinking that Harvard has kept up, at least to a certain point, the Oxbridge tradition of High Table and academic gowns at dinner? Why not show that, perhaps, Dunster House was more ``civilized'' than its Yale counterpart? With enthusiasm, the Dunster House undergraduates all supported the idea.
On the appointed day, the Dunster House Dining Hall was transformed from a cafeteria into a hallowed hall, complete with linen, waiters and waitresses, and even a wine steward wearing a large medal. Unlike on a normal day, there were no T-shirts or cut-offs in sight. Every tutor was attired in a black academic gown. An orchestra sat in waiting. When the Yale Master and his tutors arrived, Bott asked, with a straight face, ``Where are your gowns?'' Of course, they didn't have any. ``Well, no problem, you could borrow some of ours.'' So the Dunster tutors led them to some gowns that had just been lent from Harvard's Chapel. As Bott entered the Dining Hall with his guests, trumpets blared forth and the orchestra started playing. The undergraduates were already seated, looking prim, proper, and serious. Bott and his tutors dined with the Yale visitors at a High Table, on a stage especially set up for this occasion. The orchestra serenaded the diners with music. Everything went according to plan. But the Yale Master, ever sharp, had the last laugh. He opened his speech by saying, ``I'm glad to see that culture has finally migrated from New Haven to Harvard.''