Allen: Refinance our Houses

The house communities' budget must be reinvested in more worthwhile causes.

by Spencer Allen | 9/16/21 4:00am

Established in 2016 as part of College President Phil Hanlon’s Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, the house communities were designed to revolutionize the social lives of students. A way to subvert the influence of Greek life, the advent of the six house communities brought a Harry Potter-esque promise of camaraderie and continuity to what some would consider an otherwise disjointed campus.

In the last five years, it has become apparent that the system has failed. This is not news; previous columns have lamented the house communities, and surveys conducted by The Dartmouth show that the system is overwhelmingly unpopular. What’s worse, millions of dollars have been poured into the system despite its failures. Dartmouth cannot maintain the house communities. In its place, the system’s budget ought to be reinvested in other institutional necessities — mental health support chief among them.

Officially, the house communities aim to foster — you guessed it — community among students. They have, in fact, built community, but have done so by uniting students against it. In two surveys conducted by The Dartmouth of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 — the first two classes to experience four years of the house communities — only 14% and 13%, respectively, said that the system was important to their life on campus. What’s more, the houses are immensely unpopular: The system earned a net favorability rating of negative 22% among the Class of 2020 and negative 31% among the Class of 2021. Students have also often complained that the houses impose unnatural barriers on their social lives by preventing friends from rooming together if they are not members of the same house.

Unofficially, the house communities are known as a way to mitigate the influence of Greek life on campus — they were announced in the same 2015 speech that Hanlon laid out new regulations on Greek organizations and the hard alcohol ban. That goal has squarely failed: Greek membership has not changed in any noticeable way since the house communities were introduced. In the first four academic years that the house communities existed, Greek membership hovered between 63% and 69% among eligible students, roughly the same as the 65% to 69% in the four academic years before the house system, according to statistics from the Office of Institutional Research. Students are also much more fond of Greek life than they are of the houses: 66% and 59% of members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 surveyed, respectively, saw the Greek system as important to their lives, and Greek life had a 24% and 17% net favorability in those classes, respectively.

Despite consistent failure of the house communities, Dartmouth continues to waste money on them. It’s hard to know the exact scale of the house communities’ budget — the figure, as far as I can tell, is not public — but it is contained within the $285 million that the Call to Lead allocates to “build[ing] a stronger community through strategic investments in the residential life experience.” Other items in this category include building a new 350-bed residence hall, endowing the FYSEP program and expanding mental health services. Associate dean of residential life Mike Wooten has also previously called each house’s individual allotments “generous,” suggesting that the entire system’s budget is indeed bountiful. While it is true that much of the funding goes to projects that are well-attended — like field trips and free swag giveaways — that does not mean the house communities are popular. Rather, it only indicates that those particular events are successful. Instead, the dismal favorability of the house communities demonstrates that, at its core, the whole system is not producing the results the College so desperately desires.

The money that is being poured into the house communities would be better spent elsewhere. For example, as others have argued over the past several months, improving Dartmouth’s mental health resources is a worthwhile place to redirect that money. Following three suicides of first-year students and reporting by The Dartmouth highlighting areas to reform mental health infrastructure, the need to overhaul mental health support at Dartmouth has never been greater. The house communities’ budgets can be reinvested to hire enough counselors to meet the needs of the student body and expand access to mental health services outside of normal business hours, among other things. Simply diverting the system’s budget to mental health resources will not magically fix the perception of those resources on campus — students are still enormously distrustful of the Counseling Center, for example — but attempting to fix the present shortcomings is a good place to start.

The house communities system was a fun experiment, but it is no longer tenable. The College has far more pressing issues than eradicating Greek life that it ought to shift its attention to. Distributing free food or hoodies won’t solve the mental health crisis on campus; it’s time for Dartmouth to actually put its money toward services that will support its students in constructive — and not flippant — ways.