New housing committee aims to transform residential life, is not against selective living, members say

<p>Few FF dorm in August 2020.</p>

Few FF dorm in August 2020.

Duke’s Next Generation Living and Learning 2.0 Committee will not diminish or eliminate Greek life and selective living groups, hoping rather to improve non-selective housing through a residential quad model, distinct quad traditions and greater faculty engagement on West Campus, committee members said Wednesday.

In a virtual town hall open to all undergraduate students, members of the committee, which was announced last month and is tasked with making recommendations on the future of housing at Duke, shared more information about the group’s work and answered audience questions, ranging from the quad model to the future of Greek life and selective living groups. 

The group is operating under guidelines that include moving rush to sophomore year and establishing a quad system on West Campus linking to East Campus residence halls. 

Dean of Students John Blackshear, a co-chair of the committee, emphasized the team is devoted to creating “fundamental changes” to the residential system that is “incredibly innovative” and “uniquely Duke,” ensuring students feel satisfied and transformed by their Duke experience.

“We know that right now, there’s a great deal of diversity in how students feel about their experiences here at Duke,” said Blackshear, also associate vice president of student affairs. “Some students feel incredibly left out; some students feel unseen. Some students feel like they found their magic hole; some people feel like they know they’re in the right place … And we want all of our students to walk away with that same sort of feeling about this place, with that same sort of understanding that Duke delivered on its promise to provide a transformative education.”

Asked about the future of Greek life and selective living groups at Duke, Mary Pat McMahon, vice president and vice provost for student affairs, emphasized that it would “be a mistake for us to say, ‘We’re going to start fresh without these groups altogether.’” 

She added that it is important for her to have conversations with leadership from these groups to determine their best future within the new residential framework.

“There is room for these groups. It’s an important part of the Duke identity and Duke experience,” she said. “We are trying to rebalance the framework so that it isn’t an all-or-nothing on the residential section side in particular.”

Blackshear said that he has witnessed the “great amount of anxiety” that first-years feel about where they’re going to live sophomore year, which runs “counter [to] the transformative and intellectual experience that we’re trying to promote here as a value at Duke” and “bumps up against [SLGs] and Greek SLGs.”

But he emphasized that the committee’s work is “not a sub-text against selective living groups and organizations.”

Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, added that the committee’s efforts are not intended to diminish selective groups. Rather, the group is interested in “making the default option as wonderful as it can be.”

“The hard work in environments like this is making sure that the core option—the default—is optimal,” he said. “The easier work is figuring out how to make distinct, hyper-selective, smaller kinds of experiences really exciting. But at Duke, it has to be that the core experience that everyone does, is great.”

The committee plans to improve this experience through a quad-based residential model, McMahon said.

“You can imagine the ways that we have the first-year experience right now—faculty in residence, affiliations with the Lilly Library, partnerships across different campus organizations—there’s a whole structure in place” for East Campus, she said. “If you can imagine a lot of that moving over to West and [having] real depth and dimension, that’s a quad model.”

She mapped out an example of a first-year living in Alspaugh dorm. Under the quad model, the student would know that, after choosing roommates from their first-year dorm and undergoing a housing lottery process, the dorm will go to Kilgo quad, for example, as a whole.

McMahon added the possibility of “alumni conversations” with people affiliated with Kilgo quad, where Kilgo-affiliated alumni would give a campus-wide talk in addition to holding an event specifically for first-years and upperclassmen affiliated with Kilgo. The committee also discussed having West Campus offices for academic guides, which would provide upperclassmen with built-in structures for academic support. 

Bennett added that each quad will have their own identities, traditions and paraphernalia. He said that he envisions 10 to 20 years from now, if you encounter another Duke graduate, “the second or third question will be, ‘What quad were you in?’”

“We want them to stand on their own. We want students to hear the quad names and immediately understand the kind of traditions that they’re about to become enmeshed in—in a way that’s really distinctly Duke,” he said.

The committee’s emphasis on traditions stem from the fact that the University doesn’t have enough and that many of its existing ones are associated with specific groups and activities, Bennett said. 

“We have relatively few traditions that really bind the entire Duke undergraduate community with one another,” he said. 

He added that another key change will involve increasing and strengthening faculty engagement with students on West Campus, pointing to Blackshear, who lives with his family as faculty-in-residence in Trinity dorm on East Campus, as evidence of the “power of really concerned, caring, wonderful faculty” on student experiences. 

“One thing that differentiates the West campus experience from other institutions where students feel really good about their residential experience is that we have far fewer faculty engaged in the West campus experience,” he said. “And that’s a really, really stark and clear differentiator.”

Asked about fall 2021 housing options for sophomores, McMahon said that they do not know for sure as of now. She emphasized that students will have “good housing options'' where they will be able to indicate who they want to live with and where they want to live. These available options, however, are largely dependent on the pandemic and remain unclear, she said.

McMahon, Bennett and Blackshear all underscored the importance of student and faculty feedback, with Blackshear adding that this includes the voices of transfer students. He acknowledged how “disorienting” it can be to enter Duke when it feels like “social life is stamped in stone by the time sophomore years begins.”

“This committee truly cares about the experience—the academic, the social—experiences of all students across the board,” Blackshear said. “We are highly committed to every single student looking back on this place and marvelling at how wonderful being here was for them.”

Mona Tong profile
Mona Tong

Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.


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