Perspective on house system four years after founding

by Lorraine Liu | 8/30/19 3:00am

house-communities
by Sunny Tang / The Dartmouth Staff

In 2015, Dartmouth introduced a new house system in an effort to provide more continuity in the student residential experience. The system was introduced as a part of the Moving Dartmouth Forward plan, which aimed at eliminating high-risk behavior and increasing inclusivity, with a goal of promoting “intellectual engagement, community, and continuity.” 

The system officially went into effect in fall 2016, with the Class of 2020 as the first incoming class to participate in the system’s programming. With the entrance of the Class of 2023, all classes will have entered Dartmouth assigned to a house.

The six house communities, which include Allen, East Wheelock, North Park, School, South and West, are configured based on the proximity of different residential buildings to each other and the appropriate bed space so as to create communities, according to dean of residential life Mike Wooten. Incoming students are randomly assigned to a house community before they arrive at the College and live with members of their house during their four years at Dartmouth, with the exception of those who choose to live in Living Learning Communities. 

The Class of 2023 was assigned living spaces for the upcoming year according to an updated house plan, according to math professor Craig Sutton, the house professor for School House. In past years, freshmen in the same house community have lived on the same floor, but different floors in the same building might have accommodated members of different houses.

However, this year, freshman members of Allen House will live in Wheeler and Richardson Halls; South House freshmen will live in the Fayerweather dormitories; and West House freshmen will live in the River cluster. School House and North Park House will share the Choates cluster; North Park freshmen will reside in Brown Hall; and School House freshmen will occupy in Bissell, Cohen and Little Halls. Freshman members of the East Wheelock house community will live in McCulloch, Morton and Zimmerman Halls. 


“[The house system] has gotten better at connecting with students’ interests, getting them involved, and including them as a part of the governance and programming of the houses. It’s just that we’ve become more sophisticated over the last four years and a little bit more precise at what we’re doing.”


In addition to the slight change in the layout of freshmen residences, the ’23s are also likely to encounter more involved upperclassmen student leaders who help with programming house events, according to School House assistant director Joseph Brenckle. Allen and School House administrative assistant Erin McMahon noted that, compared to student engagement in the first few terms of the system’s establishment, clearer student leadership teams, known as the house executive councils, have started to take shape and stabilize.

For instance, School House currently has 20 members on its executive council after recruitment efforts in the spring of 2019 boosted membership up from five, according to Brenckle. Virgil Alfred ’22, who serves on the executive council of Allen House, said his house had six students who frequently came to weekly executive council meetings in spring term.

“The actual leadership structure of the house has grown a lot since I’ve been here,” Brenckle said. “I think because the students that are currently on campus have fully known the house system, there is a little bit more involvement and engagement.”

Alfred noted that in planning house events, executive councils first need to obtain approval from their assistant directors to provide them with the proper funding. Funding comes from an overall budget assigned to the house leadership teams — house professors and assistant directors — in different amounts annually depending on the needs of the executive councils, according to Wooten.

Wooten said the budgets assigned to the house communities are “generous” and have offered the executive councils the resources to organize programming over the last few years. 

Overall, Wooten pointed out that the system and its personnel have become more skilled at utilizing its programming and appealing to the students. 

“[The system] has gotten better at connecting with students’ interests, getting them involved, and including them as a part of the governance and programming of the houses,” Wooten said. “It’s just that we’ve become more sophisticated over the last four years and a little bit more precise at what we’re doing.” 

While the house system is mostly operated by students now, when it first hit the ground in the fall of 2016, it was completely run by the College’s residential education staff, including the assistant directors and administrative assistants for the houses, McMahon said. She added that she thought initially, many students were unaware that they were supposed to be an “integral” part of the system. Now, with the help of students, the house system functions much better, she said

At present, however, Alfred said increasing house members’ participation in community events proves to be a challenge to members on the house executive council who organize programming. He expressed that his team has been struggling with improving students’ engagement in School House events. Currently, Alfred said his team’s main efforts to raise the participation rate are reaching out to different groups such as undergraduate advisors and house professors to spread the word.

Graduate students are another element of house community leadership. They were incorporated into the house system when it was established as residential fellows,who organize house activities and often hold office hours within their subject areas. Each house has approximately four residential fellows who serve as members of the house leadership teams, according to Brenckle.

Wooten said that, in the future, he hopes to involve more graduate students in the house system, though he noted that the primary goal of the system is to improve the experience of Dartmouth undergraduates.

The house system also aims to increase staff and faculty involvement in future years, according to Sutton. He said that this goal aligns with the house system’s mission to promote intellectual engagement and is an element unique to Dartmouth’s system as compared to other Ivy League’s residential systems, which he claims put less effort towards cementing students’ contact with faculty.

The system was never explicitly announced to downplay the role of Greek life, but many undergraduates worry about this aspect, according to Sutton. As more students accept the system over time, apprehension has decreased, according to Wooten. Still, some students who are critical of the house system would compare it to the Greek system and indicate the former’s inability to create strong communities.

“Our new program, the house system, needs to drive how we imagine residential space,” Wooten said. "And that will be our future."

This article is a part of the 2019 Freshman Issue.