The independent news organization of Duke University

The case for housing reform

If we could start from scratch and design a housing model for Duke, would anyone propose the system we have now?

First-year students arrive on East Campus to a housing model that fosters tight-knit communities. East Campus dorms reflect the diversity of campus. First-years meet, befriend, and engage with people of different backgrounds and perspectives.

But by January, our idyllic image of East Campus life begins to fracture. We determine our living arrangements for the next year by sorting ourselves into new communities. Many are happy with the outcome and live with their new selective group. However, the majority of students—approximately 60 percent—scramble to find a block of friends and enter the lottery for independent houses. These houses, with a few notable exceptions, lack a broader sense of community.

Data supports our concerns about Duke’s housing model. Last year, in an exit survey, only 56 percent of graduating seniors agreed with the statement that their on-campus housing provided a “sense of community and sense of belonging.” Our divided, sometimes lonely campus life falls short of Duke’s incredible potential. We can do so much better.

Fortunately, with the closing of Central Campus slated for Summer 2019, and the opening of new housing on West Campus the following fall, we have an opportunity to start from scratch. It is time to reimagine our housing model.

Here are the principles that should govern campus housing:

  1. Housing should be home. All students deserve a home at Duke, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, disability status, sexual orientation, national origin, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation.
  2. Houses should foster thriving social and intellectual communities. Housing should support friendships and set the stage for a genuine exchange of ideas and perspectives.
  3. Housing reform should not reinvent the wheel. In areas where our housing model is optimal, let’s not change it. For example, students seem to be broadly satisfied with the East Campus experience.
  4. Housing should reflect the diversity of campus. West Campus houses should look more like East Campus dorms.
  5. Houses should support peer mentorship through age diversity. On West Campus, houses should include sophomores, juniors, and at least a few seniors who elect to remain on campus. Having students of different years live together will foster peer mentorship.
  6. Houses should extend right of return to students returning from abroad. In the last housing reform, Duke ensured that students could remain in the same housing from sophomore to senior year. This same right should apply to students who choose to study away in the fall semester—they too should be able to return to a bed in their house.

We have concluded that the best way to achieve these goals is to adapt the concept of a residential college system to work with Duke’s housing infrastructure. Duke currently has houses of 30 to 120 residents, centered around common rooms. We could easily adapt this infrastructure to create distinctive, diverse, student-run housing communities. We call our model the “West Campus House Model.”

We foresee three main methods for students to join West Campus houses:

1. The Linking Model. East Campus dorms would be linked to West Campus houses. From their first days on campus, Duke students would know where they would live for the rest of their Duke experience. They would also benefit from mentorship and social activities in their West Campus houses. HRL is already experimenting with a variant of this model.

2. The Match Model. In the spring semester, West Campus houses would hold recruitment events to share their unique cultures and attract potential members. First-years would rank their preferences, and an algorithm would determine housing assignments.

3. The Random Assignment Model. Roommate pairs or blocks of students would be randomly assigned to West Campus houses.

At this point, we believe it is critical to consider all three models. Each of them offers strengths and weaknesses. But any of them, we contend, would represent an improvement to our current system.

To make Duke’s new West Campus houses work, the university should consider an additional change. We propose that houses be granted the ability to throw parties with alcohol—a privilege currently enjoyed by fraternities and non-Greek SLGs. Currently,

House Councils may host parties with alcohol, provided they hire a bartender and follow through on a highly-regulated, onerous procedure. To our knowledge, no Independent House has ever thrown such a gathering. We propose that parties be registered via Residence Coordinators, as with selective groups, and that house members receive party monitor training.

"The Linking Model"

Here are the benefits we anticipate from housing reform: 

Houses will foster a stronger, more durable sense of community than what our current housing model provides. We look to peer institutions like Yale University, Harvard University, Rice University and Northwestern University for examples of residential colleges that work. Isn’t it a shame that Duke alumni often introduce themselves with the name of their freshman dorm instead of their West or Central Campus house?

  1. Students will make the most of Duke’s diversity, living and learning with each other. This goal is especially important at a time of increasing K-12 school segregation and intense political polarization. The university is one of only a few cross-cutting institutions where people of different backgrounds can come together to exchange stories and ideas.
  2. Students will take ownership of the residential experience. Current sophomores and first-years, as well as the incoming Class of 2022, would play a decisive role in founding new houses. Assuming that these houses would debut on Duke’s campus in Fall 2019, teams of students could use the 2018-2019 academic year to plan the houses they wish to found. Over time, entirely new traditions and cultures would spring up. Fall and spring trips, house competitions, and house parties are a few of the ways enterprising students could build new residential communities.
  3. Housing will align with Duke’s mission statement. Duke is supposed to contribute to undergraduates’ “development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” We are also supposed to gain “a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.” The West Campus House Model would serve these goals better than our existing system. 
"The Match Model"

In addition to these major benefits, we anticipate other gains from reform. We could end class distribution requirements, housing quotas, and the friend-of-house policy. Juniors and seniors would no longer be pressured by their organizations to live in “section.” Groups would no longer struggle to fill sections after formal recruitment processes have ended. House leaders would no longer have to scramble to find students to live as friends-of-house.

What would become of fraternities, sororities, and non-Greek SLGs under our proposed housing reform?

They would remain selective, or they would remain residential. But they would no longer be both. Existing groups would decide how to adapt to the new housing model.

We affirm that selective organizations can be very good for students. Our aim is not to abolish or dismantle the Greek system and SLGs, and we reject knee-jerk criticism of these groups. For many of us, selective groups have provided a powerful sense of community. We remain grateful for the friends and mentors we have encountered through them. But we strongly believe that the time has come for housing and selectivity to be decoupled.

Greek organizations are by definition selective, and we do not expect many of them to give up the right to choose their members. They would become social clubs, maintained through national chapters and through houses where seniors live together off campus—where most parties are held these days anyway. Non-Greek SLGs could also choose to become social clubs, maintaining their distinctive character through the ability to select and reject potential new members. 

We suspect, however, that if Duke were to embrace housing reform, at least some SLGs would opt to drop selectivity and become West Campus houses. Those of us in SLGs report that the rush process makes some of our members uneasy; there are too few beds and too many amazing Duke students. We are hopeful that some SLGs will choose residential living over selectivity.

"The Random Model"

All students stand to gain from a housing model that promotes vibrant and diverse communities, while still giving students the freedom to join selective social, academic, and pre-professional organizations. 

Independent students would gain a sense of community through West Campus houses, founded and managed by their peers. In the new model, students would find purpose and belonging—precisely what they report they lack in the current system.

SLGs that choose to embrace housing reform would likely become some of the most desirable places to live on West Campus. (After all, West Campus houses would be just LGs—living groups without selectivity.) Their traditions, parties, and retreats would set the example for new houses, inspiring healthy competition and innovation in new houses.

Students in Greek organizations would also enjoy substantial benefits from our proposed housing reform. If selectivity and housing were decoupled, students deciding to remain in selective groups would gain a decisive benefit: They would enjoy two social groups instead of one. They would live in a thriving, diverse, tight-knit residential community while also maintaining all of the major benefits that come with membership in a selective organization. What’s more, if Greek organizations no longer had to deal with the burdensome administrative demands of on-campus living, they could more fully prioritize their core values and purposes—brotherhood and sisterhood.  

The Duke Office of Undergraduate Admissions works tirelessly to bring students from all over the world to this campus, presumably because we have so much to learn from each other. But many alumni have told us that the single biggest regret from their time at Duke is that they did not make many friends from outside a narrow social circle. Let’s spare future alumni from this regret.

In short, we would all benefit from housing reform. 

But not all of us will be here to see it. Even if reform takes effect as soon as possible—Fall 2019—it would only directly affect half of our current student body.

Juniors and seniors: You will have graduated by then. Housing reform will not directly affect you. Consider what would be best for the Duke you love. First-years and sophomores, we recognize that housing reform could be disruptive, but it also offers you the chance to leave a lasting legacy at Duke. You could be founders. The success of housing reform depends on your leadership and ingenuity.

We recognize that not everyone on campus will share our views, but we suspect that support for housing reform is more widespread than administrators imagine. We crave community—and we should make a decision about the future of Duke’s housing model as a community.

We hope that this document will spark a conversation. We are excited to see how it will play out in the coming months on the pages of this paper and in the hallways of the dorms we know and love. Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, administrators, and the Board of Trustees should all join in the conversation.

We also want to acknowledge the questions we have left unaddressed. How would housing reform treat Living Learning Communities (LLCs) like the Baldwin Scholars, Ethics, and Visions of Freedom? How would athletes fare under housing reform? What is the appropriate blocking size for each housing model? We do not pretend to have all the answers—but we think that we will discover them together over the course of our conversation.

To those who believe that our current housing model is too ingrained, too deeply rooted in campus culture to permit substantial reform, we ask you to hear us out. Duke is a young university. The gothic buildings of Julian Abele’s West Campus did not open until 1930. Students of all class years lived on East Campus as late as 1994, when, in a controversial decision, President Nannerl Keohane designated East Campus an all-first-year campus. Our current housing model only dates back to 2012. The construction culminating in 2019 will bring major changes to how we live at Duke. We should take advantage of this change to build a campus where all of us can thrive. This is our window of opportunity.

Former Duke President Terry Sanford called Duke a place of “outrageous ambition.” Ambition is missing from our current housing model—the ambition to establish communities of meaning where every student feels at home, where no one is rejected from a place to live, where everyone can forge lasting friendships. It is time to harness our outrageous ambition as Duke students to press for housing reform. We wish to live deliberately.


Leah Abrams ‘20 (Kappa Kappa Gamma, Mirecourt)

Kelsey Graywill ‘18 (Sherwood Independent House)

Spencer Kaplan ‘21 (Randolph Dormitory, Cooper House)

Joel Kelly ‘18 (Craven Resident Assistant)

Matthew T. King ‘18 (Cooper House)

Sabriyya Pate ‘19 (Kilgo Resident Assistant)

Jackson Prince ’19 (Alpha Epsilon Pi)

Jen Semler ‘19 (Brownstone)

Lizzie Speed ‘18 (Delta Delta Delta)

Kayla Thompson ‘19 (Gamma Phi Beta)

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