Happy Founders Day, Kiddos!

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House professors speak with students at the School House event on February 26

As I peeled the knock-off red wax seal from my envelope, I made my way to the Allen reception area. Though I would not call some red balloons and a couple informative posters decorations worthy of such a momentous occasion, there was house attire that made the visit worthwhile. As I reached for my complimentary red scarf I had a Harry Potter flashback. Dartmouth has finally made it possible for Muggles to have the magical education experience. I donned my new scarf that deemed me a founding member of Allen House and felt ready for a Quidditch match. Despite these nostalgic magical memories, I was confused by the whole event. Every couple seconds residential staff congratulated students on their new house. I couldn’t help but think: why are we being congratulated? We did absolutely nothing to determine our new house. How can one derive pride from a house that I was randomly assigned?

In recent months, the College has been touting the merits of the new – and unpopular – residential house system. The official description claims, “House Communities will promote intellectual engagement, community and continuity. House Communities, led by House Professors, will increase student access to members of the faculty in residential spaces, build community by creating opportunities for enhanced social ties and shared experiences in the residential system, and respond to the long-standing call from students for more continuity in their residential experience.” Rhetoric, however, does not always match reality, and the future of the pride and joy of President Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign does not look particularly bright.

Upon arrival in Baker Library the evening of Friday February 26, I was caught off guard by the surprising number of people attending the Founder’s Day Event. As students frantically searched for their alphabetized line to receive their new house assignments, residential housing employees offered words of encouragement to the crowd. The residential staff watched gleefully as students received random housing assignments that determine their living situation until graduation. No matter which house one were assigned, the benefactor would place the envelope in your hand with a smile and point to the house’s reception area. These false pleasantries became quite frustrating for underclassmen, who just discovered that they have been condemned to their last choice house and separated from their friends. However, no empathy was to be found for students displeased with their house. At one point, a residential life staff member even scolded a student for rubbing his awesome location in the face of a disappointed friend. Apparently, in this new housing system, every dorm is separate but equal.

In reality, despite all the pomp and pageantry, the new housing system is extremely costly to Dartmouth’s donors and student autonomy. Though the previous room-draw lottery housing system was far from perfect, it granted students the maximum number of housing options. Students essentially had the full freedom to decide where and with whom they lived, optimizing their residential experience  The new houses will limit students to only three or four residential halls when picking a room, and, more importantly, it limits possible roommates to those in your house. Though the old housing system offered an option for students to guarantee being assigned to houses in groups of six, the new system offers essentially no flexibility to meet and foster relationships with students in other houses, and could damage existing relationships with students assigned to other houses. A house system would have trouble functioning with student friend groups so scattered, as it prevents students within houses from bonding as a house, as intended by the administration.

The biggest issue and obstacle to a successful house system, however, is the lack of suitable infrastructure necessary to facilitate such a system. Schools that sport such a system already boast individual buildings built to house students in a community, rather than a dorm, providing all the necessary trappings needed to unite students living there. Dartmouth, in contrast, has simply constructed “communities” out of buildings merely located in relatively close proximity to one another, ranging from the row of buildings on Gold Coast, which form Allen House, to the disjoint South House, where the secluded Lodge is divided from the other two buildings by the HOP and the Black Family Visual Arts Center. In fact, only one of the six communities has any semblance of “community” built into its construction: the East Wheelock cluster. Apart from boasting relatively luxurious dorm space, its amenities also include plenty of general multipurpose space for college-organized social events and ample study space. The McLaughlin cluster also offers similar amenities; however, instead of being used in the system for which it is built and organized, such spaces are instead divvied up among segregated Living Learning Communities. Without the proper infrastructure necessary to make residential communities truly a “home” for the member students, such a system will surely have difficulty gaining momentum and ultimately, achieving its goals.

In addition, one of the major obstacles to the success of the system lies in the general sentiment of the Dartmouth studentry. A video recently posted to Dartmouth’s YouTube account, which detailed the new “official colors” of the housing system, received nearly four hundred fifty “dislikes,” in contrast to only twenty-eight “likes.” Also occurring around the time of the video’s posting was a campaign on the app Yik Yak that encouraged students to dislike the video, allowing students to express, in a passive-aggressive way, their disdain for the system’s implementation. Such backlash against a system with such resounding effects across campus could only result in, at the very least, a rough implementation period. It is like government without the consent of the governed; if the system, which relies so strongly on student support and involvement, does not have the necessary participation, achievement of the administration’s delineated goals is next to impossible. A true community cannot be built if the participating students do not seek to build a community.

Another significant obstacle to the success of the system comes in the form of the existing Greek system. The fact is that student support is overwhelmingly behind the fraternities and sororities versus the current effort at residential houses. Though the administration has repeatedly claimed that the two systems are meant to coexist, many students continue to see the new system as an attempt to supplant, if not eventually replace, the storied and traditional Greek system. Student loyalty to the Greek system is strong and unwavering, and moves made against it (such as the recent de-recognition of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity) are always met with outcry. The situation thus devolves into a dangerous dilemma: as long as student loyalties lie with the Greek system, the house system will not stand a chance at thriving; yet, if the Greek system were to be abolished, student tensions with the administration would surely reach an all time high. It seems more and more clear that such a system is doomed from its inception.

The event, however, was not without its positives. Though the house meet-and-greets were not as well attended as the letter reception (students seemed ultimately more anxious to simply find out where they will be living for their future Dartmouth careers, instead of actually engaging with the system’s new offerings), involved students and professors were more than enthusiastic about their new communities. In fact, the individual house events were almost more populated by associated professors than students themselves. Said professors were confident about the future success of their communities, and seemed more than dedicated to the initiative. Their end of the bargain will certainly be held up; it is up to the students, they stress, to mold the housing system into what students want it to be. Only time will tell how things will ultimately pan out.