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Do SLGs really need housing?

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the cracks have been showing for a while now.

Scrolling through the pages of this newspaper, it’s clear that the calls for housing reform have reached a fevered pitch. It seems like everyone has a story to tell about housing at Duke. In reading their stories, one thing is clear: it’s broken and we need to fix it. In order to do that, it’s important that we take a look at some of the arguments from the “other side of the aisle” on housing reform. What do selectives say about housing and how can supporters of housing reform respond? I spoke to friends of mine who are in SLG’s and had some of those conversations. This is what I heard:

When I argued that we should decouple housing and selectivity, my friends who are selective usually gave one of two responses. First, they claimed that independent houses were clearly the problem—why don’t we just improve them? And second, they pitched that selectives rely on housing to keep their communities together, so why take that away and destroy those social groups? 

To the first question, it’s pretty obvious that independent houses are overlooked because they are often treated like overflow housing. In many cases, unaffiliated students are forced to enter independent housing because of circumstances completely unrelated to housing: either they disliked the rush process or the rush process disliked them. Stories of people choosing to enter independent housing of their own volition are rare for a reason.

It’s no surprise that independent houses are having problems; they’re a series of communities largely composed of people that were cut from SLG’s. That’s not exactly a strong foundation for building a healthy community. After the stress of putting themselves out there once before and being rejected, some independents lose faith in their peers. Hearing some of the stories from this year’s rush process, I can’t say I blame them.

Answering the second question is actually pretty easy. Do selectives require housing sections in order to keep their communities together? No. Between renovations on West Campus and university crackdowns on misconduct, selective groups move around or lose their housing all the time and they don’t just disappear. While there are some exceptions, many groups continue to function exactly as they would have had they been living in section all along.

Selectives in 300 Swift

This year, the two SLG’s that lived in 300 Swift were Wayne Manor and Cooper House, two sizable organizations that serve as great case studies for how selective groups survive without section. The answer? They adapt. 

Cooper House attracted more than 400 first years during this year’s rush process. They rented university venues for their open houses, held interviews in Swift apartments, and hosted events off-campus. At the end of the day, they accepted around 20 students and rejected hundreds more. Business as usual for the most selective SLG on campus.

Wayne Manor rented out the Loop for their open house event, which wasn’t nearly enough space to fit the hundreds of rushees who came to visit them. I don’t know much about the rest of Wayne’s rush process because I didn’t go through it, but I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews from my friends who are now “Men of the Manor.” Another successful year for a strong SLG. 

Obviously resources and rush statistics alone cannot tell the full story of these groups. When I rushed Cooper this year, a few members told me that they didn’t like living in Swift because the apartment-style setup made them feel distant and decentralized as an organization. I understand these concerns and I acknowledge them. However, change will always be disruptive. When East Campus was first designated an all-freshman campus, students were upset at first, but today students and administrators alike regard the decision as one of Duke’s best. Sometimes short-term discomfort is the price for long-term success. 

The fact of the matter is this: Cooper and Wayne lived in 300 Swift this year and they did not fall apart. They did not crumble under their new housing situation. In fact, they barely even broke stride. They adapted to changing circumstances this year, and if we decouple housing and selectivity in the fall they will adapt to that as well. 

Greek communities

Before I begin talking about Greek organizations, let me offer a disclaimer. I’m going to talk about fraternities and sororities that have been punished for misconduct, but their bad behavior should not be taken as a characterization of the Greek community as a whole. No two Greek organizations are the same, and to say that the whole barrel is spoiled because of a few bad apples would be inappropriate and inaccurate. However, sometimes looking at a few individual cases can yield some insights into the community at large. 

It’s no secret that Kappa Sigma was kicked off campus, leaving its members to enter the independent housing system like their unaffiliated peers. And yet, there are still people in the freshman class who rushed K Sig and were accepted. A fraternity surviving without a section? Intriguing. But it doesn’t stop there. Pi Kappa Alpha lost their housing privileges to university sanctions, so their members will also be blocking and living together in the regular system next year. But if their recent “Shave for Schreiber, Buzz for Bobby” fundraiser is any indication, they remain a popular and cohesive brotherhood despite their loss of section. 

Sororities have their place in the housing conversation too. After all, sorority housing is a relatively new development at Duke, introduced in the fall of 2012. Despite a lack of housing, sororities survived at Duke for decades. Why? While I have no personal experience to point to, I have a theory. I think it’s because sororities in the pre-housing era knew something that we’ve since forgotten: a community is a group of people, not a building. 

The social connections we form with people are like invisible strings that keep us connected to each other, no matter how far away we are. Anyone who’s ever had a friend move away, or been in a long-distance relationship, or written to a pen-pal knows that you don’t just stop caring about people once they leave your immediate vicinity. Looking at these sororities and fraternities, it’s clear that the social bonds formed between brothers and sisters is the true backbone of Greek life, not housing. 

East and West Campus are profoundly different and it has nothing to do with the buildings we live in. It has to do with their atmospheres. On East we’re not afraid to reach out and meet new people, try new things, and explore. On West, the housing system labels us, sorts and categorizes us until there’s nothing new to discover because we look around and find that we are surrounded by people just like us. A perfectly homogeneous bubble of our own design. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I had wanted to surround myself with more of the same, I would’ve stayed in my hometown.

Why does any of this matter?

This past weekend, I attended a Duke Students for Housing Reform general body meeting. At the meeting, rising senior Jackson Prince said something that stuck with me. Housing at Duke is a contradiction, he pointed out, because while there are amazing and brilliant Duke students from all backgrounds, our housing system divides us such that you may never get to meet them. 

By coupling housing and selectivity, SLG’s are given total control over who gets to live with them and why. They can accept or reject whoever they please, so it’s inevitable that these communities start to become more and more homogenous over time. As a result, incredible Duke students become enmeshed in selective housing communities, surrounded more and more by people who look, think, and act like they do. Although they don’t realize it, there are so many people on this campus that they’ll never meet because of it. 

There’s no single person to blame. There’s no shadowy rush council behind the scenes plotting the homogenization of West. This is a product of the system we’ve built. But that doesn’t mean we need to accept it. 

To my classmates that are selective, I ask that you take a minute to think about those that don’t live in situations like yours. For the sake of Duke as a whole, I ask that you step outside the bubble of your selective group and take a look at the people living and working all around you. All these amazing, talented students are Blue Devils just like you. They study at Perkins and eat at West Union. They spend more food points than they have and stay up later than they should. They worry about fitting in, but they shouldn’t have to. None of us should. We all deserve to live on a campus where people feel like they matter, like we’re all connected.

So talk to that person on the bus you’ve never met before. Ask them about their Duke experience and tell them your story. Maybe you’ll hear something you’ve never thought of before. I know I have.

We are all one Duke family. It’s time we start acting like one.

Sign the Housing Reform Petition: bit.ly/DukePetition

Will Brodner is a Trinity first-year.

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