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The Class Menagerie

The outlines of Phil’s housing policy are becoming clear. Though the Moving Dartmouth Forward meetings are meant to elicit student opinion, it is evident that a great deal of work has already been done, and decisions have been made. The picture isn’t pretty.

Allow me to circle around to my argument. I know a faculty member who believes that in each of the four decades in which he has been at the College, the intellectual capacities of the student body have declined by a year: by now, seniors have the wherewithal of freshmen in days gone by. That position may or may not be true, but it is not as extreme as that of the administrators who have crafted Phil’s new housing policy. They seem to regard students as no more than kids in daycare, in need of constant entertainment and supervision.

The new policy starts off by holding fast to freshman dorms, a follow-me innovation at the College that only dates back to the 1990’s. That’s a first mistake. By grouping freshmen for a year, and then breaking up their hard-earned social cohesion, progress that has been made is thereby lost.

Daycare Center.jpgThe core proposal is to replace today’s faceless transient-hotel-like dorms, where students come and go each term never to return, with a magical mystery tour of theme halls populated by faculty members (ha! Phil can’t even get professors to teach in the summer), grad students, ever-so-well-meaning administrators (how have the Community Directors worked out so far?), and sundry folks who supposedly will animate the residential spaces and end students’ desire to go to the Greek houses. We can look for dorms to be part of a Global Village, the Entrepreneurship Program, a “Design Your Own Community” initiative, East Wheelock-type intellectual gatherings, and the usual affinity housing. The entire carnival will be supervised closely by the Office of Residential Life and an ever-growing number of administrators.

Everyone setting policy agrees that many new dorms will need to be built. That was a given in the discussions, even though the College has no more students than in my day. Back then each dorm had a distinct personality, participated in thriving intramural sports leagues and social activities, and offered a sense of home. Since my time the East Wheelock Cluster, Fahey and the Maynard Street dorms have been added to the campus.

Here’s a counterproposal that I have made in the past: return to mixed dorms with students from all four classes. Freshmen will bond with each other as a matter of course, but they will also benefit from the wit, wisdom and calming influence of upperclassmen. Then allow people the option of returning to their home dorm each time that they return to campus (I mean to the actual building, not just to a cluster; the larger the grouping, the more facelessness you get).

After that, stand back and watch what happens. Familiarity breeds organization and social life. Dorm parties will start again (especially if S&S turns a blind eye to the drinking that will otherwise go on anyways behind closed doors), teams will coalesce in dorm leagues (I played touch football, soccer and softball for North Fayer, and hockey for the Fayerweather Cluster), and any number of other dorm-based activities will be revived.

Most importantly, all of these things will take place with randomly chosen, diverse groups of students. Lifelong friendships will be made because scared freshman hang together regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, veteran status and sexual orientation.

Of course, some students will drift off to live in the frats or the sororities (we need many more of the latter), and people will come and go as they enjoy the College’s unique variety of off-campus programs (today we offer far more than other schools; but let’s go one better: we should make participation in a Dartmouth off-campus program mandatory for everyone), but by offering a home dorm to which to return, we will restore a vital element of the College’s residential life.

Not only is this set of ideas more effective than Phil’s current proposal, it will spare us the costly army of supervising adults that modern educators seem to think is necessary to run a college. Give students the freedom to live together continuously, and then take the administrative budget from Phil’s proposed policies and put it towards hiring more faculty who will teach small, engaging classes. That move will be a departure from the last twenty years’ policies of an ever-growing administration, policies that have not worked at all. In fact, they have had the opposite effect from that which has been intended. You see, centrally planning students’ residential lives works just about as well as centrally organizing an economy.

Addendum: If the College increases the number of students off-campus on FSP/LSA programs and adds the necessary sororities, then the pressure on housing in the fall will be alleviated. The Choates can be torn down and re-built as decent dorms, and then the River Cluster can be turned over to Tuck. Once those steps occur, there will be a rough qualitative equivalence between the College’s dorms, and the administration can easily put in place steps to give students the option to stay all four years in the same dorm.

Addendum: The current proposals are just the plain-vanilla thoughts of plain-vanilla administrators. One would think that an alum like Phil would recall when Dartmouth’s great dorms were the heart of the College.

Addendum: Here is the College’s press release and The D’s report.

Addendum: The D’s editorial seems to pick up my themes.

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