Housing Changes at the College

Under the current housing system, dormitories have become devoid of any sense of community or permanence.

Under the current housing system, dormitories have become devoid of any sense of community or permanence.

On March 21st, the Chair of Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees, Steve Mandel, announced the College’s intention to make sweeping reforms to the undergraduate housing system. The proposal, once enacted, would establish a “house system” under which students would live together in upper-class residence clusters after freshman year, for the duration of their Dartmouth careers. Currently, upperclassmen are forced to move from dormitory to dormitory in accordance with their “D-Plan” schedules, a lottery system that causes some students to live in a different dorm every term. The administration and Board of Trustees aim to address the lack of continuity in this current system, and to once again “allow for a sense of community in our residence halls,” as Mandel wrote in his email to campus.

Until the early 1980s, it was not uncommon for a Dartmouth student to spend all four years of his or her time at Dartmouth living in the same dormitory. Under the current housing system, dormitories have become, for all intents and purposes, hotel rooms for Dartmouth students, devoid of any sense of community or permanence. The D-Plan and current housing system combine to make life as a Dartmouth student a peripatetic existence, effectively precluding any opportunity for students to develop emotional bonds with their residential clusters and the people within them. Unlike the temporary lodgings that Dartmouth dormitories have become, the residential clusters of old were hubs of social activity, from dorm parties to intense inter-cluster intramural rivalries.

Despite the apparent distaste for the traditions of “old Dartmouth” generally apparent in the administration’s decisions, this reintroduction of the house system is a plan that, if implemented correctly, will benefit all Dartmouth students. Faculty, administrators, and opponents of the Greek system among the student body have long called for an alternative to the social monopoly enjoyed by Greek houses. After years of developing contrived “alternative social spaces” (and despite the administration’s best efforts to pretend that these spaces actually present an alternative to Greek life for the majority of students), the proposed house system may present the first organic social alternative to Greek life since the College moved towards the housing lottery system years ago.

The current housing system allows fraternities and sororities to wield an undue amount of influence over campus social life. Students rush Greek houses for many reasons, but surely the most prominent among these reasons are a lasting sense of community and camaraderie; a dedicated space to socialize with friends; a sense of communal pride in the institution you’ve joined; and, for many upperclassmen, a place to live. The proposed house system would not, on its own, render Dartmouth’s Greek system superfluous. However, as older alumni can attest, the decision to rush a Greek house when Dartmouth still employed a residential house system was not quite as straightforward as it is for the majority of students today. Like Greek houses, each dormitory had its own traditions, passed down from one generation of inhabitants to the next. Dorms were also hubs of nightlife, and fostered relationships between underclassmen and upperclassmen through social events and intramural sports. A dorm did not necessarily provide all the social opportunities of a fraternity or sorority, but it was certainly a viable alternative.

Of the aforementioned qualities of dorm life under the house system, the most rewarding may be the facilitation of friendships among students of different ages.  The current housing system limits interaction between underclassmen and upperclassmen to organized sports teams, some performing arts groups, and Greek houses. Under the house system, on the other hand, every freshman was immediately part of a diverse residential community with its own sense of pride, tradition and shared experience. A common story shared by many older alumni is that of receiving a knock on their door during their first week at Dartmouth from upperclassmen who encouraged them to join the dorm’s intramural teams. Of course, the house system did not guarantee that freshmen would develop close relationships with upperclassmen, but it facilitated these relationships much like athletic teams and Greek organizations do today.

While the house system still appears to be in the preliminary planning stage, the administration has also introduced a new housing initiative that will take effect in the fall. Three new “Living Learning Communities” will integrate student learning with residential life: one community will focus on entrepreneurship, another on the LGBTQIA community, and a third on global citizenship and issues. These new residential communities will supplement the existing Affinity Houses, recently rebranded as “Special Interest Communities.”

This initiative, while well-intentioned, will not foment the revolution in community-wide social norms that Board of Trustees Chair Steve Mandel called for in his email to campus. If the administration truly wants to create a social alternative that will attract students away from fraternities or sororities, it needs to accept college social life for what it is, and abandon the pursuit of a utopian community absent of drinking and partying. A Dartmouth student who would spend Friday night participating in Living Learning activities at the entrepreneurial community would be unlikely to spend much time in a fraternity basement anyway. The administration should not delude itself into believing that the introduction of three new affinity-based themed residences will alter the campus social environment in any significant way.

The house system is a far more promising and sweeping initiative than the Living Learning Communities. It will prove similarly ineffective in altering the College’s social climate, however, if the administration doesn’t approach the issue of student drinking realistically. Admittedly, this is no small endeavor to ask of our administrators. Dartmouth’s original house system was discontinued before New Hampshire’s minimum drinking age was raised to 21 in mid-1980s. Therefore, the administration did not have the onerous responsibility of controlling underage drinking in the residence halls of old. Still, if the proposed house system is to provide an alterative to fraternity basements on Friday and Saturday nights, drinking must be part of the conversation.

The current method of discipline employed by Dartmouth’s Office of Residential Life, Safety and Security, and Hanover Police is one of the foremost factors driving students to Greek houses for their social activity. Dartmouth leads the Ivy League in alcohol-related arrests by a long shot. According to Business Insider, in the three-year span between 2009 and 2011, Dartmouth had 12.53 alcohol arrests per 1,000 students. Compare that to second-place Yale, which had 2.27 arrests per 1,000 students, and Harvard, Columbia, Penn, and Brown, all of which recorded 0.00 arrests per 1,000 students. Some might attribute these appalling statistics to Dartmouth’s dominant Greek life; to the contrary, the popularity of Dartmouth’s Greek life is among the symptoms of the College’s disciplinary tactics, not the cause.

Dartmouth students are unable to socialize in dorm rooms in sizeable groups without attracting the unwanted attention of Undergraduate Advisors and the College’s police force; any dormitory social event involving alcohol and moderately loud music is subject to the wrath of Safety and Security. As much as the College may choose to believe otherwise, drinking is part and parcel of campus social life at any school. The inability of undergraduates to socialize in residence halls is one of the primary factors driving students to Greek houses for fun, when many of those students might otherwise choose to spend their weekend nights partying with friends in residence halls. Accepting this, the administration must adopt a pragmatic approach to the issue of drinking in residence halls, addressing the risks of binge drinking while not precluding consumption of alcohol entirely. The College needn’t encourage drinking in the student population; it must merely accept that alcohol will remain a prominent feature of campus social life, regardless of any punitive disciplinary measures aimed at stemming underage consumption.

One method of discouraging high-risk drinking while opening residence halls as social spaces would be an “open door” policy. If beer or wine were being consumed in a dorm room, the students in the room would have to keep their door open. Undergraduate Advisors could monitor the hallways and ensure that no hard alcohol was being consumed. UGA’s could also ensure that music remained at a reasonable volume, and prevent gatherings from becoming too crowded. Any failure to abide by the rules established under this system, or any failure to keep a door open during a gathering involving alcohol, would warrant a call to Safety and Security by the UGA. This is one of many ways that the College could realistically grapple with the issue of binge drinking, while not futilely attempting to stop college students from drinking entirely. If, however, drinking of a more social and low-risk nature continues to be policed with the same vigor that is indicated by Dartmouth’s alcohol-related arrests, then it will merely drive students to fraternity basements or secretive dorm room “pregames” that encourage high-risk behavior.

Drinking aside, there is a pressing issue that the College must address before reinstituting a house system: dorm equality. Is it fair, one might ask, if one student spends all four years living in Gold Coast while another student must live in the River Cluster? This very issue has been an obstacle to the reintroduction of a house system in the past. In January 2000, President James Wright presented his Student Life Initiative to the College’s Board of Trustees as a comprehensive approach “to strengthen the institution’s social and residential system.” Among the chief objectives of the Student Life Initiative was to transform the residential system to more closely resemble the “house system” of old by allowing students to “elect to return to the same residence hall or cluster for at least two years and preferably three—with the possibility of all four years if the student so wished.” The report acknowledged that to accomplish this, the “quality gap” between the College’s best and worst residence halls needed to be reduced. “This may require the replacement of the River Cluster and Choates,” reads the report. Fourteen years later, the lottery system remains and the River Cluster is no more inviting. The disparity in dormitory quality has only gotten worse since President Wright’s Student Life Initiative and the College will have to address this issue forthrightly if the “house system” is to be successful.

The changes to residential life proposed by the administration and Board of Trustees will take the better part of a decade to fully implement, if not longer. The return to the house system is, as of now, more a vision than an actionable plan. Financial constraints and limited space may eventually hinder the realization of the vision. There is a tough road ahead, but the objectives laid out by the College’s leaders are admirable, and stand to benefit the Dartmouth community as a whole if properly enacted.

John Hammel Strauss also contributed to this article.