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Redesigning Duke: why QuadEx is good, actually

If you’ve so much as glanced at The Chronicle’s website over the past few weeks, you are guaranteed to have seen a headline about the new residential community model announced this September. Most of them bring up a good point or two about what we still don’t know about QuadEx, or the way other schools like Duke have been doing the residential model for decades. There has been a lot of pushback, especially from first-years who voiced that they felt left out of the process of student input. All of this criticism is fair and warranted, and can only contribute to making QuadEx better for everyone if it’s listened to. Keep it coming. 

Another perspective, however, has been absent from the stream of discussion, one which I’d like to make a gentle but thorough case for; that QuadEx is a seriously good idea that will unequivocally improve the student experience of living at Duke. If this is a hot take for you and you need some substantial convincing, please keep reading. 

Some Broad Context

It would be difficult to understand why such a significant alteration to the housing system is warranted in the first place without some relevant context that establishes why Duke in particular needed these specific changes. The following paragraphs outline the institutional history and the cultural history you need to know to make QuadEx make a little more sense. 

Starting broadly, it’s necessary to understand the origins of any university to comprehend why we end up with the problem of living, dining, learning, and teaching together in the first place [1]. While the functional  separation of a university into departments of different subjects is an innovation of the Enlightenment (think Jefferson in America and Humboldt in Germany), the structural features of most American universities intentionally resemble the medieval English institutions of Oxford and Cambridge because of the early Anglo predominance in American higher education. The ubiquitous architectural style of collegiate gothic is the clearest visual signal of this association, and everything from our graduation robes to our school mace to our faculty governance structures are derived ultimately from medieval England and onward. 

Why is this important to know? Because the structure of a place like Oxford University is the result of quite a few centuries of cobbling together originally distinct institutions into one conglomerate, not totally unlike Duke’s gradual accumulation of graduate and professional schools (although ours are smaller, more specialized, and came about more quickly). Oxford has 39 colleges today, like how Duke has Trinity College and the Pratt School for undergrads (plus 37 more), but with notable differences. The primary difference is that each college at Oxford is a self-contained physical unit with its own dining hall, chapel, bar, lecture halls, commons, and personal rooms for students to live in. Physically, most of the colleges are similarly shaped (if a bit larger) than the size of a quadrangle at Duke (here’s a great picture of Oxford to aid visualization), but it would be like Few having a dining hall, bar, chapel, and (hopefully) another laundry room inside it rather than all these things being separated. Lowell House at Harvard is a good American equivalent to consider, with all the fixings of an Oxford college, but built with brick instead of stone.

 Considering the evolution of the English college and university system and its American descendants, you might see why so many other schools (like Rice, Tulane, Harvard, Yale, etc.) have a residential college model. It’s not for no reason -- the oldest and most culturally legitimate institutions (for Americans at least) used the residential college model (RCM), so if you wanted your university to be legit, you needed the RCM. 

Some Specific Context

Okay, got it, back in cheery old Chaucer’s England a gaggle of wealthy, bookish monks cobbled together the structural forms we still use today, but then why hasn’t Duke always had a RCM? Why are we just now moving toward it? So glad you asked! Duke, unlike the Ivies, is a school built in the American south, however much it fails to feel like that sometimes. The RCM was a very Yankee thing to do at the beginning of the last century, and the prevailing model for a university in the south when Duke was endowed was not the RCM, but its backwoods cousin that structured university life around a central Union building surrounded by dispersed housing in the form of quadrangles. 

West Campus’s Union Building (hence West Union) at Duke originally held not only the dining facilities, but also the mail room, barber shop, snack store, guest rooms for speakers (MLK Jr. probably stayed at WU when he spoke at Duke in the 1960’s), staff rooms, and much more. Several of these things were relocated to the Bryan University Center in the 1980’s, but the original idea was that you could get everything done here and then when you needed to sleep or shower or study privately,  you used your dormitory. Social life wasn’t structured into colleges, due in no small part to the fact that Duke was a very small school for a very long time. There were hardly enough people attending this small, regionally known institution to justify a RCM until the 1980’s, and by then the old system of Greek sections and independent houses was well established. But by that time, with East and West Campus now gender integrated (since 1973) and no longer functionally self-sufficient and autonomous  as they’d been before, the problems began to arise that created Duke’s specific social climate and have persisted until today. 

Duke somewhat uniquely has two campuses that aren’t very close to each other, and once it became clear that class cohorts had no communal living experience (which created a deeply fractured social fabric), President Nan Keohane in 1997 made the brilliant move to establish East Campus as the first-year campus. This didn’t solve every problem, but it made such a significantly positive impact that it will remain a key feature of the QuadEx implementation. One problem solved didn’t satisfy Duke students, however, and subsequent years were still riddled with perennial calls for changes to housing from the 1970’s onward (Duke Students for Housing Reform being the most recent iteration). 

The dorms on East Campus were solely for first years with no tiers of community within them besides the eventual preorientation programs, FOCUS clusters, and athletic teams. West Campus dorms had smaller tiers of Greek life and Selective Living Groups (SLGs) within them, along with independent houses. Sometimes independent houses formed an identity and became SLGs (like Mirecourt, which was listed as an independent house in the 1969 Chanticleer), and other times they were lost to time (like House G, whose logo you can still see painted on some columns in the archway underneath Clocktower). In the early 2010’s, West Campus independent halls were allowed to create new houses (like Sherwood in Craven, Stark Tower in Wannamaker, and Pride Rock in Few), but these lost any coherent identity  capable of forming community in the years leading up to the move to QuadEx.

Some More Specific Context

So you get why many American schools have a RCM, why Duke hasn’t had one yet, but why change to it now? Shouldn’t Duke keep its unique housing model in place in homage to the near century of its existence? The answer is a flat no, and for the following very good reasons. The primary one is that the old model simply never worked to build community or a sense of belonging, not in the whole time it persisted. Most Juniors and Seniors at Duke have gone through the housing process enough times to understand its consistent failures, and  I think much of the distaste the first-year class is having in reaction to the introduction of QuadEx is due to the absence of their experience of Duke Housing’s key shortcomings. 

The most egregious of these shortcomings is a housing mandate without a community guarantee, i.e., you must live on campus for six semesters, but you’ll be thrown around different quads your entire time here with no security nor clear path through it all. Friend groups, already tenuous and strained by the rush process of first-year spring, are battered by a flurry of options to block or link with little explanation or guidance and a very limited amount of time and information to determine where to live together. Someone can easily end up out of options, selecting to be assigned to a random room and a random roommate if they didn’t have the advantage of a close group of friends their first year. In what amounts to abandonment by the system, someone like this is left entirely without a community. While there are certainly plenty of stories that describe much more successful paths of living at Duke, this school is capable of doing much better by its students than a model that leaves so many behind, and it’s a remarkable defect that such a well-resourced institution did not improve its living conditions sooner. The faceless and culturally blank independent houses that have existed at Duke from the early 2010’s up until now did nothing to build community, and even the thousands of dollars funneled through RAs each year to plan one-off, perfunctory activities have never been able to accomplish the bonding  that exists at other schools because they are divorced from a real, substantial community foundation. Not even a bare minimum of intergenerational contact with prior residents through alumni events has been programmed (a common and rich source of community at other institutions), so that residents must pass through their historic dorms without any relational connection to the past or future. There are no communal responsibilities like caring for parts of the dorms, another substrate for building relationships, and no dramatic and fun traditions like secret-keeping specific to the residences (cp. UVA) have been handed down because there has been no structure to accomplish it. Duke can do much better than this, and QuadEx is the first step to rectifying the crooked lines that have separated Duke students from forming vibrant communities in the past. It is long overdue for us to rise to the level of our peers in building a robust campus living community, and any hope to retain the culturally bankrupt prior model is regressive and guaranteed to fail like it has before. 

You’ve got the context, broad and narrow, and now you’ve got why we can’t just keep what we had. Before I conclude, here are a few answers to the most common critiques that have been offered so far: (1) Yes,it looks like  LLCs will continue to have a place in the QuadEx RCM. Duke has a very clear responsibility to uphold its promises to groups like the Mitchell-White House when it comes to supporting Black students and others in their efforts to form community; (2) Yes, it looks like there will be some flexibility to your membership in a house if there is a good justification. No one should have to live with someone who sexually assaulted them, and Duke is capable of creating ways to make it standard that everyone is and feels safe in their dorms; (3) Yes, students have been involved in the planning of QuadEx from the beginning. Dozens of focus groups, lots of DSG involvement, multiple student representatives on committees, and in plenty of other ways have current students been engaged in creating the new RCM. The project has been ongoing since 2018, so while the students in the class of 2025 were not involved because they were not yet admitted, this has been a student-centered process from its inception; (4) Yes, students will be highly involved in creating and maintaining traditions, rituals, and culture for their houses. What will that look like? No idea yet, so stay tuned to find out; and (5) Yes, this will take a few years to fully blossom. There will be wrinkles and rough surfaces that need to be smoothed out, but it will be unequivocally worth it. 

While there will be debates  and questions concerning QuadEx for many more Chronicle volumes  to come, I hope that by reading this you’ve gained the context and prerequisite foundation to quandary about it in a more informed way. Whether or not I’ve convinced you that the project is genuinely a good idea is for you to think and read and write about, but in any case now you’ll have more to work with when doing those things. Keep questioning and holding Duke to account for the new model! As a practically geriatric senior who has watched the old system fail students for years, I have so much hope for QuadEx. 

Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column “duke by design” runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

[1] ”The claim of epistemology to adjudicate the validity of knowledge as a formal and abstract inquiry has always been opposed by the claim of history to treat knowledge as a problem of genesis, not merely of knowing in a formal and abstract sense.” Murray Bookchin in The Ecology of Freedom (1982), p. 38. Didn’t want to inject this academic argument into an article I wanted to be more accessibly readable, but for anyone curious I take a strongly historical epistemic posture. You come to know something by comprehending it from its point of origin in space and time, not from mere formal abstraction. 

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