'Big Green' Houses: An Alternative Dartmouth Experience

05/03/2013 07:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2013

Have you ever driven through a poor county on a state highway or rural road, where the town opts to systematically fill in new cracks with fresh tar as they develop, in lieu of repaving the road anew every year? Ultimately, this policy of quick fixes produces a road with an uneven surface that more resembles a complex network of varicose veins. The alternative very well could've been a smooth ride on a newly paved road -- and would have lasted longer for it. But the town was too shortsighted to see the long-term payoff of completely scrapping the old surface layer. This, unfortunately, is Dartmouth's story -- and we are in for that bumpy ride.

It's quite obvious that there are expanding cracks within Dartmouth's student body. In light of this, the administration implemented a new comprehensive policy that sought to further regulate Greek life on campus. This has resulted in the temporary closures of many on-campus Greek houses. The only problem is that these policies are only treating the symptoms of the true problem that plagues our community. There's no doubt that Dartmouth's robust Greek life has the ability to create social inequality and other various adverse effects -- but the source of our problem is the relatively weak residential system that allows Greek organizations to flourish. In essence, today's residential housing system fosters an unsustainable dependence on both Greek and affinity houses, which distorts Dartmouth's social structure.

Dartmouth's social structure can be illustrated by a three-layered scheme. The base is what we would consider the Dartmouth community: all individuals who have some connection, whether distant or personal, to the college. This is the lowest level of association between two individuals who aren't acquainted. The middle layer includes Greek organizations, affinity houses, and residential clusters because these institutions facilitate broad-based social interactions at the sub-community level. Finally, the top layer includes student clubs, organizations, sports teams, and social groups. These are at the top because they provide the most localized social interactions. Granted, this is a generalization; in reality these lines and distinctions are more blurred and fluid.

Nevertheless, it's no secret that the bond found between two strangers at the most basic level of association are strongest when those individuals are removed from Hanover and placed in an outside environment. They will naturally gravitate to one another. When off campus, we find commonalities on generic terms: our D-plans, Winter Carnival, the bonfire, etc. When on campus, this latent sense of kinship tends to appear most prevalently at times of tradition, sport, and crisis. Outside of these moments, those generalized associations amongst strangers become too abstract and ultimately fail to hold. As a result, Dartmouth students look to more unique common experiences -- like freshman trips or a cappella groups -- to forge deeper, more meaningful bonds.

Affinity houses and Greek organizations are currently best suited to service this need. These institutionalized social spheres fuse an organization with a residential experience. The combination of which creates a unique sense of solidarity, group identity, and sub-culture -- hence why memberships to these communities are so sought after. I question, then, if the residential cluster system provides an equally strong sense of solidarity amongst its residents.

Though praised for its flexibility, the D-plan offers many unadvertised consequences. The greatest of these is our loose sense of citizenship to our residential spaces. Under the current system, when you leave for an off term, you pack your possessions and place them in storage -- with the expectation that you very well might return to a new roommate, room, floor, building, cluster. Simply put, the residential experience is forced to work against time. The episodic nature of our current housing system prevents student from developing and maintaining a strong sense of citizenship to one particular residential community over the course of his/her Dartmouth experience. It's important to emphasize the importance of citizenship because it builds the micro-communities, and sub-cultures that make Dartmouth vibrant.

Moreover, the ever-shifting populations create a dangerous sphere of anonymity within the community. An individual can remain relatively unknown and go relatively unnoticed when moving from cluster to cluster, which could give rise to a sense of impunity in committing acts of theft, sexual assault, and other infractions. The sick irony is that our community is fractured enough for perpetrators to feel as though sexual assault will go unnoticed, but still relatively tight-knit enough that the victim feels pressured to not report his/her assailant in fear that it would make daily social interaction difficult. It's important, however, to remain cognizant of the fact that this is not a uniquely Dartmouth phenomenon. Colleges across the country face the problem of under-reported cases of sexual assault. In short, we simply cannot build a broad-based culture of mutual trust when people are leaving and returning to campus in 10-week intervals.

In contrast, the Greek organizations and affinity houses are relatively timeless because their social spheres are institutionalized. Both their physical structures and membership bases are maintained, while the sense of community and sub-culture are enshrined. With the expectation of returning to that specific group, members are in the unique position to become sedentary and begin to plant lasting roots. This phenomenon gives rise to unfair characterizations amounting to the labels of self-segregationists or exclusive. These sub-cultures just have a more dynamic residential experience than what is otherwise offered in the traditional housing system. This is in part the result of the deliberate action of those within the small communities; but I believe its in large part due to institutional design. While these members are afforded the luxury of planting roots and remaining sedentary, those who live in clusters are relegated to a residential experience that most closely parallels the life of a potted plant.

The current system leaves a void in the residential experience that we then fill with our collective involvement in the Greek system. In a social sense it appears that we flock to the Greek houses -- but in an institutional sense, it appears that these houses encroach on what should be the responsibility of the Office of Residential Life. Furthermore, if left to our own devices to construct social spheres large enough to service a large swath of the student body and fill this void, all without a randomized component, we are more likely to see the ugly faces of sexism, racism, classism, and other undesirable social inequalities.

These chronic social cleavages call for a residential housing system that does more than divide undergraduates into amorphous residential clusters. Dartmouth needs a system that employs randomization and fosters broad-based horizontal relationships by creating institutionalized residential communities that remain constant over the course of a student's Dartmouth experience. This system would produce a more vibrant social network with time no longer as the enemy. For once, Greek/affinity houses will exist in time together with the residential houses--thus equalizing the effect the D-plan has on social interaction. Over time, we could expect higher levels of trust and accountability across peers.

The administration would play a vital role in the realization of this new plan. To create the new system, the Office of Residential Life would have to reorganize and/or reassign buildings to either first-years or upperclassmen. This would be an opportunity to create an innovative capital campaign in which donors could contribute toward the remodeling of study and common spaces in specific residential halls. Many great spaces go unused because of their austere environments and dated amenities. This is both wasted physical space, and wasted opportunity to create an environment that could foster new relationships.

In this system, the first-year residential experience would remain intact by housing the incoming class in exclusively first-year houses. After discussing the prospects of moving towards a residential house system with current students, many have shared their concern regarding the disparities in the quality of housing between dorms. It's for this reason that there would need to be a reassignment of dorms to freshmen and upperclassmen. First-years would be randomly assigned houses freshman spring, and would subsequently move into three-year residential houses the following fall -- with the guarantee that one would return to that house for every term in-residence.

In addition to the reassignment of current dorms, I would like to see an expansion of the Gender Neutral Affinity Program. Currently, there's only one gender-neutral floor -- and it's located on the basement floor of a predominantly freshman hall. It's safe to say this floor goes widely unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. However, in our daily lives here at Dartmouth, we interact with students whose genders and sexual orientations span the spectrum. It's only logical that housing should better reflect this phenomenon. This new residential system should have at least one gender-neutral program floor per house. Our housing should mirror Dartmouth's priorities -- similar to how substance-free floors reflect the school's desire to provide residential spaces for those who abstain from consuming alcohol.

Overall, I would hope a transition to a new residential system would spark higher levels of cooperation, trust, and solidarity within the Dartmouth student body by way of creating horizontal associations outside of the Greek system. Dartmouth is not the first college to suffer from social inequalities stemming from a dominant institutionalized social scene. The residential college system has been a hallmark of the Yale experience dating back to the days of old. Harvard instituted the house system in 1930 in response to the growing population of undergraduates who opted for off-campus housing, which negatively affected the social scene as a whole. In 2007, Princeton transition to a four-year residential college system to account for the social dominance of its Eating Clubs. The University of Chicago, Caltech, and Rice University have all switched to a house/college system too. This is all to say that Dartmouth is not unique in this respect. These peer institutions offer multiple variations off which Dartmouth could model its system.

To fully complete the process of creating a more robust residential and social experience, additional social spaces will have to be created. I propose the establishment of a clubhouse system in which a residential house would have its own clubhouse, or would share with each other (e.g., Fayerweathers Clubhouse, McLaughlin-Wheelock Clubhouse). Residents of every house, both male and female, would have equal access to these social, study, and lounging spaces. The college would also have greater authority over the management, and upkeep of these clubhouses since they would be college-owned properties. Because the Greek system is time-honored facet of the Dartmouth experience, I advocate that this new social scene be created in conjunction with the current Greek system.

All of this will no doubt be challenging for the administration, student body, and alumni. Regardless of the idea, changing a community that is so strongly attached its traditions will prove difficult. But imagine Dartmouth's campus with scores of students wearing house scarves and sweatshirts, in addition to Greek letters, as opposed to just the relative few who currently sport their fraternity/sorority gear. If we try to transition now, we will be one step closer to building a more vibrant, inclusive and innovative community one should expect from an Ivy League institution.

Even if the residential house system is deemed an inadequate remedy for Dartmouth's difficulties, it's time for the student body and administration to enter a period of open debate over possible solutions -- solutions that do not hinge on the abolition of the Greek system. If Dartmouth wants to remain a leader in undergraduate education, the school cannot afford to maintain the status quo, and therefore must take substantial steps towards long-term progress.