Verbum Ultimum: Building a Better Home

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 2/20/14 7:57pm

Russell Sage. South Mass. Topliff. North Fay. Woodward.

For many at Dartmouth, home is just a string of building names.

While the D-Plan offers us opportunities to learn and grow outside of Hanover, this exploration comes at the expense of feeling connected to the College. The composition of our student body changes from term to term, and as such, housing after freshman year feels transient — each new room is a temporary arrangement rather than an opportunity to make meaningful connections. For many upperclassmen, dorm rooms are nothing more than a place to sleep for 10 weeks. Floormates are acquaintances at best and complete strangers at worst.

The office of residential life recently announced that it is working on a neighborhood initiative, a plan that would sort students into residential communities after their first year at the College. Students at peer institutions laud their residential colleges and houses, and we commend the College for taking steps toward this system. We hope that the administration follows through with this initiative, which could provide students with a sense of place and a connection to a group of peers.

This is a complicated task, and we recognize that it cannot be completed overnight. We are encouraged, though, by the recent hiring of Lisa Hogarty as the new vice president of campus planning and facilities, which indicates that the College is willing to make concrete changes. At Harvard University, Hogarty led innovative communal spaces, introducing lawn chairs to Harvard Yard and setting aside a patio for pop-up performances.

Placing students in communities after freshman year does raise a few possible problems. Students may have already formed close friend groups, making them less likely to branch out and get to know their new neighbors. If they join a Greek house, they may devote less time to their residential community. The program will only be successful if students are interested and engaged.

Making it a four-year residential college system and including incoming freshmen is the obvious solution.

The neighborhood plan could better build community than other proposed housing initiatives. Next fall, the College will introduce three new programs: a global village community, an arts and innovation community and a design-your-own living learning program.

Dartmouth does not need another set of self-selecting societies to which students must apply. Friends searching for decent housing may sign up for these programs in blocs, turning them into nothing more than homogeneous bubbles of established friend groups.

The disparity in dorm quality also complicates the progress of any new housing initiative. No one wants to live in the River for four years, regardless of programming or close ties to floormates. Any serious overhaul of the College’s residential system requires Dartmouth’s financial commitment to refurbishing physical plants.

The new residential projects and the logic behind them echo a larger theme emerging in College President Phil Hanlon’s administration — the creation of learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Much like Hanlon’s focus on experiential learning, these new programs promote alternate forms of education. Housing is arguably the avenue through which the College can best improve student life. As these plans take shape, we need leadership that understands innovation and isn’t afraid to shake things up.

Dartmouth must move beyond programs that may further divide the student body. Instead, the College should throw its weight behind the neighborhood initiative. Students should look forward to coming home.

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