As most students know by now, Fall of 2012 brought with it a new mode of thinking in Duke’s residential life—what is now called “the house model.”
If you ask administrators, they’ll tell you that the house model came about to give students living in independent houses the same community that those in selective houses enjoy. They’ll point to the community first-years feel on East Campus and say they want to replicate that on West and Central Campuses.
For such lofty goals, the initial model put into place had shockingly little in the way of infrastructure that would help fulfill its initiatives. Block size was severely reduced, and house selection was completely eliminated, which together meant that students would not only have less say in the new community they wanted to be a part of, but also that they would know fewer people in that new community itself. Benches, which were a Duke tradition that had long provided a place to both build community and display it, had not been incorporated into the house model—too many smaller houses meant, in the eyes of some in the administration, that there was simply no room for each house to have its own. On top of these problems, the new house model put in place harmful restrictions on the existing and, for the most part successful, communities that had already been established in fraternities, sororities and selective living groups on campus.
These were changes my committee went about fixing last year. We overhauled the blocking policy and put an element of student choice into the house selection process. We negotiated with the administration on a bench policy that would let every house on campus continue building benches, albeit with some size constraints, and worked with the leaders of the Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association and Selective House Council to reform new restrictions that would hamper their success on campus. We are continuing to work with them in this effort to this day. At the same time, we focused on expanding alternative community choices for students, such as our new expanded gender-neutral housing options on West Campus.
All these changes, however, just bring us back to square one, the real crux of what this model was supposed to provide—an independent house community.
So what did we learn from last year?
First, I think a tough lesson confirmed what most students and administrators already knew: that community was going to come slowly. Unlike on East Campus, where the arbitrariness in the placement process creates a sense of community, the randomness in the placement process for upperclassmen, the line of argument went, would only serve to divide. With students already having an established friend group based around extra-curriculars, academic interests or literally anything else of relevance to their respective lives, what impetus would there be for them to want to meet the near-stranger down the hall?
Despite this negativity, last year saw some real, if modest, successes. Sherwood House, located in Craven D, was able to run programming, build a bench, purchase house clothing, create a motto and even design a house website. Other houses, such as House Marquis, located in Kilgo K/L, were able to enjoy similar success. Even more surprising to some was that particular houses in Edens, traditionally thought of as one of the less desirable locations on campus, enjoyed some of the highest rates of return among students.
Encouraged by these results, the next step for my team was to try to determine what these individual house successes had in common. The cases we could identify did not lead to any obvious solution. All of the house council presidents were not even purely independent students; the president of Sherwood House, for example, was also a member of a sorority.
The conclusion we ended up coming to was that the only thing that linked successful houses was strong leadership. These leaders, often just a member or two per house, were not only willing to start a house community, but also had the wherewithal to somehow make that community-building process a reality.
Of course, that seems like a rather simple deduction, but it has to become the basis for how community is built at Duke going forward. Neither Duke Student Government (DSG), nor Housing, Dining and Residence Life (HDRL) nor any other body at Duke can force any of our new independent houses to establish a sense of community. Additionally, we cannot install leaders in those houses that will definitely lead their house well. A desire to lead has to be within each house president. What we can do, however, is give house leaders a path, a little nudge in the right direction. It will have to start modestly at first—encouraging them to create a house Facebook page, getting them in contact with their Residential Assistant so they can collaborate rather than compete when planning events and creating clear avenues to purchase bench supplies and house apparel. Yet, quite frankly, all change of this sort must start at the micro level and must start from some organic source.
When we were first debating the house model, some spent a long time arguing that building community in West Campus residential houses would be difficult. There were enormous hurdles, both in the lack of infrastructure and in the deeply ingrained custom that, after their first year, independent students look for community outside of their living spaces. In turn, many of the people advocating for the house model spoke of the incredible value of turning every dorm on campus into a real community.
Looking back on the model's first year of implementation, I have to say I think both sides have convinced each other. Community has been slow to develop, and people are generally disillusioned. But in places where it has, it's been even better than we could have hoped. So I encourage you: If you're a leader who craves community, build it. If you're just a student who wouldn't mind a few friends on your hall, allow yourself to become a member of that community. I like to think of residential life right now as being under construction, just like the rest of campus. Change is slow and a little painful. But in the end, we can build something great. The difference here is that doing so is up to you.
Jacob Zionce is a Trinity junior and the DSG vice president of residential life. His column is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by members of Duke Student Government. Send Jacob a message on Twitter @NotRocketZionce or @DukeStudentGov.