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A Critique of Phil’s Housing Plan

Carson Hele ‘16 had a good column in The D last Wednesday that is critical of Phil’s cluster/neighborhood housing plan. Entitled An Ill-Conceived Initiative, he rightly notes that segregating freshmen from upperclassmen dooms the upperclass dorms to irrelevance. If you don’t get the College’s housing right from freshman year onwards, you are not going to make things better during the upperclass years, especially given the mobility engendered by the Dartmouth Plan.

Hele also correctly observes that a cluster made up of many different dorms — he cites the “Fayerweathers, Ripley/Woodward/Smith, Wheeler and Richardson” clusters — is not really a cluster at all from a social point of view. Is a student from South Fayer going to feel any affinity during sophomore fall with someone from North Fayer? And when both go on LSA during their sophomore winter, will they build on their friendships when each goes to another Fayerweather dorm in the cluster in the spring term. This rhetorical question is not rocket science; it not even complicated social science: the bigger the cluster, the less likelihood there is that an enduring community will come into existence.

You see, the goal in housing policy should be to encourage repeated random interactions among a limited number of students, say, by crossing paths repeatedly, term after term, in a dorm lobby. As students grow to recognize each other, they grow more confident and they begin to speak to each other. Friendships form, and are deepened by further interactions. Then dorm-based structures spontaneously come into being: teams, parties, other initiatives. Once these are in place, students seek each other out to support their ventures. And the culture is off and running. We can say that familiarity leads to real content in relationships, and then familiarity breeds contentment.

However, Hele is wrong on one count. The dorms can be an alternative to the frats, and they are so in part because of the students who leave dorms to go live in the frats. Let me explain: over the years, under the old dorm priority system that I have written about for a decade, each individual dorm had its own culture and personality. Students who enjoyed the atmosphere could come back each term. But students who wanted something different would move to a fraternity or to a different, more convivial dorm (where they could move in with friends, and then keep the room for consecutive terms on campus). In that way, the culture of dorms and frats reinforced itself.

North Fayer.jpgThis natural churning, or perhaps winnowing is the better word, gave dorms character and a sense of community, and, as Hele points out, active intramural teams, too (I played softball, touch football, and soccer for North Fayer, and hockey for the combined Fayerwearther team). Sports were a great way to integrate a dorm: in North Fayer during Freshman Week, the juniors who were our unofficial IM organizers came to your humble servant’s room to ask the three of us to play for the dorm softball team. Unless everyone in the dorm participated, they said, we would not have enough people to field a team. We were only too happy to say yes, a response that we followed upon with questions about professors, libraries, meal plans, and many other things about the College.

Why does ORL (called in our day, the Office of Ruining your Life — though they did a much better job of it than than today’s larger bureaucracy) insist on segregating freshmen today, a feature of Dartmouth life that has only existed since the mid-1990’s? I think the administrators’ idea is that they want to protect ‘shmen from the supposedly pernicious influence of upperclassmen. Wrong. Their goal should be just the opposite.

In the end, I agree with Hele:

Rather than turning to neighborhoods as yet another Band-Aid in its series of residential life initiatives, the College should reassess the fundamental setup of our dorm system.

Sadly, there is no sign that this is being done.

Addendum: Back in the day, there was no official UGA program, with pay and a bureaucracy. Upperclassmen advised freshmen as a matter of generous support, and as payback for the upperclassmen who had advised them. No Community Directors were needed. The College had too much sense to waste money and space on people like that.

Addendum: A professor writes in:

Today’s post with quotes from from Carson Hele goes to the heart of the issue. One of our core problems is the inadequacy of our dorm structure and policies. Hanlon should seek the mega gift that will convert our existing structures into real “houses,” with their own identity and social space. Continuity in residence from the first year on is desirable. We might also re-think the presence of alcohol. In modest amounts (wine and cheese socials; pretzels, beer and movie nights), parties in the dorms could take away the Greek system’s lock hold on and abuse of alcohol.

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