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Finding a majority in the housing debate



Last April, a petition to save Quenchers (the former smoothie shop in Wilson Gym) received over 2,000 signatures after Duke announced that it lost its vendor’s license to Red Mango. Yet after a nearly 10-month campaign, Duke Students for Housing Reform’s petition to decouple selectivity and housing has only 351 signatures, per the group’s website. In other words, nearly a third of Duke undergraduates signed their name to protest the removal of a beloved smoothie shop, while only 5 percent felt strongly enough to attach their name to a petition seeking to eliminate Greek life and SLG housing sections. Indeed, while DS4HR succeeded in creating discussion about our housing system, it seems that their actual platform appeals to only a small percentage of Duke students.

Up until now, many students have not had a voice in the housing debate. Prior discussion has overlooked the crucial majority of Duke’s undergraduate population: the group of students who enjoy the freedom that the current housing model provides and understand that the current housing setup creates a divide between selective and independent communities. Along the way, this discussion has idealized the first-year housing experience, ignored positive new developments for independent housing, and understated the vast improvements that Central Campus’ closure will bring. There is a Quenchers majority to be found in the housing reform debate, but we can only find it if we honestly evaluate the current housing experience and the improvements already in motion.

Idealizing the East Campus Experience

Looking back at the roster of my Bell Tower 2nd Floor GroupMe, it is impossible to not smile and feel nostalgic. I will always have fond memories of the diverse people I lived with during my first year at Duke, as we supported each other during a major life transition. A few of these people remain some of my closest friends.

But as any current first-year will tell you, the East Campus experience is far from perfect. While it seems that every member of Duke Students for Housing Reform found a home in their East Campus house, their experiences are not universal. In fact, many students initially struggle to fit in to their East Campus dorm, if they ever do at all. In the randomly assigned dorms on East, friend groups are locked down within the first few weeks, days, or even hours of orientation week, often due to arbitrary factors such as hometown or mutual friends from high school. Meanwhile, some students are left behind from the outset.

It is tempting for upperclassmen to idealize their first-semester friendships, but the hard truth is that while some students (especially those who are outgoing) immediately find a home at Duke in their East Campus dorms, many others do not. For these people, SLGs, LLCs, Greek life and (pending the outcome of Hyde House v. Duke Student Government) SSGs offer the chance to find a new housing community where they feel at home.

The Potential for Independent Housing Communities

In an editorial last spring, Duke Students for Housing Reform Chair Will Brodner described independent housing as “a series of communities largely composed of people that were cut from SLGs.” Brodner goes on to claim that, “after the stress of putting themselves out there once before and being rejected, some independents lose faith in their peers” and have little chance of building healthy housing communities.

This generalization of independent students could not be further from the truth. In fact, there is tremendous student engagement with this topic, especially amongst independent students. Many of these students not only believe that strong new communities can be formed, they are taking leadership in creating them (see Hyde House and Kilgo Rush, for instance). Despite the bleak picture Brodner paints, independent students are hopeful about the potential for strong independent housing communities, they just have had limited options under the housing system in recent years. 

This is why HRL’s introduction of a new independent housing model that allows East Campus dorm members to “link” to a West Campus dorm as a group is so exciting. Under this new system, students who enjoyed the East Campus experience will be empowered to maintain their larger, familiar communities from East without the added challenge of organizing blocks. This is a huge breakthrough for non-selective housing and will provide a great alternative for those who feel at home in their first-year dorm or those hesitant to partake in rush.

A Unified Campus

Likewise, the notion that SLG members are universally thrilled to retreat to their isolated, homogenous Central Campus sections each day is equally misguided. While I have formed great memories on Central, I am excited that the entire upperclassmen population will soon be unified on West Campus. Living on the same quads, eating at the same restaurants, and working in the same study areas will go a long way toward closing the divide many students rightly feel. This new proximity to the heart of Duke’s campus will pair perfectly with the selective housing model. With the move to West, we can have the best of both worlds: tight-knit selective living communities that are accessible to and engaged with the rest of Duke’s diverse campus.

Despite this positive outlook, Duke Students for Housing Reform insists that selective groups must lose their housing sections. One DS4R representative wrote that Greek organizations and SLGs without housing would remain as close-knit as ever, while another insinuated that if a selective group became less close if it were to lose its housing section, its members’ relationships were superficial in the first place. But as anyone who lost touch with their first-year hall mates after moving to different areas on campus can tell you, living together matters, even for the closest of friends. With regards to selective groups, the largely superficial friendships formed at off-campus social gatherings are not an adequate substitute for the deep friendships that housing sections foster. Given that nearly 40 percent of Duke undergraduates on campus live in selective sections, we should not downplay the harm that would be done to a substantial portion of the undergraduate population if we eliminated selective housing.

Looking Towards the Majority

Duke housing is no tale of two cities. While I do not have a petition of my own to gauge student opinion, I would posit that most Duke students enjoy many aspects of the current housing system and want to improve others. I would also like to think that the majority of Duke students are encouraged by recent housing developments. From the new linking option to the closing of Central to the numerous students working to build new and inclusive communities, we should welcome these changes and be cautiously optimistic as we wait to see their effects. Finally, I would suggest that a sizeable group of Duke students, perhaps even a majority, support housing reform but are not yet ready to stand behind a total housing overhaul, especially when our current model has so much unrealized potential.

If the Next Generation Living and Learning Task Force wants to understand what undergraduate students think of the current housing system, I suggest that it looks towards this majority. After all, if a third of the school came together to protest the closing of a smoothie shop, I am sure we can rise to the occasion for something this important.

Mitchell Murphy is a Trinity junior. 


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