As QuadEx approaches the end of its inaugural year, the new residential system has been met with mixed reviews from both first-years and upperclassmen. While some believe QuadEx is a step in the right direction, others are frustrated at being caught in the transition.
But mostly, students have speculated whether QuadEx will be the resounding success that administrators hope it will be.
“I wouldn't be surprised if we came back in 50 years and QuadEx was this whole big success,” first-year Harrison Kane said. “We’re the unlucky people who have to deal with the growing pains, you know?”
The new living and learning initiative aims to move from a previous “culture of selectivity,” brought forth by Greek life and SLGs, to a “culture of belonging,” according to several administrators. Each dorm on East Campus, which incoming first-years are randomly assigned to, is now linked to a corresponding Quad on West Campus. The goal is to have each Quad build its “own identity, traditions and social events.”
Students have noticed similarities between QuadEx to housing systems at other schools, and for good reason — as Duke looked to create QuadEx, it turned to schools like Harvard, Yale and Northwestern for inspiration, according to administrators.
Each of the three schools’ housing systems has undergone similar changes as QuadEx in the last few decades, placing students in a single residence hall, college, or area for their undergraduate years with an emphasis on creating distinct communities. Yale adopted their current model in 1962, Harvard in 1996, and Northwestern in 2019. Each school’s challenges, traditions and student reception — from the fanfare of Harvard’s Housing Day to dorm t-shirts made by a Yale student — provide a glimpse into what QuadEx could look like at Duke in four, 30 and 60 years down the line.
History of QuadEx and creating identity
QuadEx was several years in the making. The Next Generation Living and Learning Task Force, which was active between 2018 and 2019, reviewed living and learning structures and spoke with leaders from 14 schools, according to Dean of Trinity College Gary Bennett, who co-chaired the task force, and Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs, in an email to The Chronicle. These schools included Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Rice and Brown.
McMahon tracked these schools' efforts in renovations that foster community, incentives to enhance faculty-student interaction and student-led house councils. In November 2020, Duke announced it would move to a “residential community” system. The newly created Next Generation Living and Learning 2.0 Committee would aim to “build a joyful and intentional four-year residential experience that promotes growth, meaningful inclusion, and health, and that is distinctly Duke,” administrators announced. It also stated it would not diminish or eliminate Greek life and selective living groups.
According to McMahon, the committee was asked to make sure any new living and learning design intentionally preserved the core elements of Duke's own student culture, which meant a “broader concept that encompasses all the ways that students talk about, perceive, and experience campus life.”
So far, QuadEx has implemented several new initiatives that seek to do this. The Quad Identity Project was created and spearheaded the Quad Arches program, which are visual icons designed to incorporate particular characteristics of West Campus Quads. The Faculty Fellows program intends to bridge the gap between the classroom and the Quad community. And the Bricks to Stone event last week served as a symbolic transition to mark first-years’ move from the brick dorms on East Campus to the stone Quads on West Campus.
Part of creating a culture is experimenting with and engineering traditions and symbols for each quad that don’t yet exist, said Lee Baker, professor of cultural anthropology, sociology and African and African American Studies.
Baker, a QuadEx faculty fellow for Keohane Quad, has been at Duke for over 25 years and studies how cultures are “appropriated and fabricated.” He also teaches the class Anthropology of Design and User Experience, which he adapted for the Quad Identity Project.
“[Duke administrators are] using authentic elements of each of the quads — the symbolism, they're thinking through [that] very carefully. And then the traditions may or may not come from those symbols,” Baker said. Creating the elements for each quad, however, are still mainly student-driven.
McMahon said that each Quad’s identity didn’t come out of “thin air.” Student leaders from each Quad dove into documents and artifacts from Duke’s history to learn what sets each Quad apart. According to McMahon, each Quad’s cultural identity is inextricably tied to its physical presence.
She noted that Keohane’s fauna was a shorthair cat, in reference to Peaches and Mamabean, and Edens’ motto was “Descending and Ascending,” a nod to its staircases.
“Students in Edens have been bonding over that walk for decades, just as many students in Keohane have been bonding over their Quad’s penchant for taking care of some beloved stray cats,” she wrote.
Student reactions to the quad arches have largely been mixed.
“It’s vanity just to have a design,” first-year Kaylee Ruth said. “I think what the [Quad] Councils themselves do to create community will create community itself. I don’t think these designs will inherently create a community, but more so the policies and the events that they plan that really will build one.”
Bennett has previously said that through these quad identities, traditions and paraphernalia, he envisions a future 10 to 20 years from now where, 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.
How other universities’ identity-building compare
Like Duke, Harvard students are placed into one of its 12 houses randomly. The school boasts that its house system is one of its “best known traditions.”
But it wasn’t always this way — between the 1930s and 1980s, House assignments were based on an “interview system,” according to Zach Nowak, an environmental and spatial historian and a lecturer at Harvard University. This allowed each House to develop its own personality; for example, Adams was a safe space for queer students and was known for being the artsy house, Kirkland for being athletic and Lowell for being studious.
But in 1996, housing became completely randomized in an effort to expose students to peers with interests and backgrounds than theirs — similar to how QuadEx aims to build University-wide communities, distinct from those of Greek life and SLGs.
Since that change, the randomized system has killed off any House’s personality, according to Nowak.
“I think that some of those traditions are just either vestigial or being rethought at this point. But I, as an external observer, don't see a huge difference between the houses in personalities, because the whole randomization system mitigates against that,” Nowak said.
Nevertheless, even without defined house identities, he said students remain passionate about their assignments on Housing Day, a university-wide celebration where first-years find out what House they’ve been placed in.
Greek life does not play a large role on Harvard’s campus, but there are final clubs, which are exclusive social organizations independent from Harvard. These clubs have houses for gatherings, but members do not reside in them, according to Nowak.
When Paul McKinley, Yale’s senior associate dean of strategic initiatives and communications, was Saybrook College’s dean, one of his students printed out shirts that read, “Our randomly assigned students are much better than your randomly assigned students.”
“They would recognize that it was a random game, but that they nevertheless loved Saybrook more fiercely than they loved any other college,” McKinley said.
Each residential college has a head, who is in charge of defining the “character” of the college, according to McKinley.
For example, Jonathan Edwards College has had a long tradition of supporting the arts, and the college has hosted photography exhibits and sculpture shows, McKinley said.
“That didn't mean that if you didn't do the arts that you were outside of that culture, but the head of the college took it upon himself and said, ‘Well, this is a feature of college life that I really want to promote,’” McKinley said.
He also said that students and alumni within the college have a very strong bond. The first question they ask each other is, “What college were you in?”
Like most of Duke’s fraternities and sororities, Yale’s Greek life is independent from the university. Participation is about 10% but is estimated to actually be larger, according to a 2016 Yale College Council survey.
“Because students need to live on campus for their first two years, it's not really until their junior or senior year that they would live in one of the Greek houses,” McKinley said. People also have other communities they’re a part of, such as various performing arts groups, as well as secret societies.
Northwestern has varied housing models — the two prominent ones being traditional residential halls, which have their own “character, spirit, and unique advantages,” and residential colleges, some of which are academically themed, multi-thematic or non-thematic.
The residence halls have existed since the start of on-campus living at Northwestern, according to Amanda Mueller, director of residential and academic engagement at Northwestern, whereas residential colleges are about 50 years old.
“We also know not every student wants to build that strong affinity. We want them to have connections, we want them to have resources,” Mueller said. “But we also recognize that sometimes students are finding that thing that is going to be their connection to the institution may be in a student organization… [or with] Multicultural Student Affairs, [or] maybe it's with our Religious & Spiritual Life team.”
In 2019, as part of creating a shared “Northwestern experience,” the university rolled out its new Residential Areas. Lines were drawn across campus, resulting in four clusters of “buildings with common features, services, and staffing,” “character, leadership and amenities,” a Faculty-in-Residence, and a student-voted mascot.
“It really kind of was focused on proximity to a dining hall [for each Area] met with a little bit of the identity of campus,” Mueller said. South Campus may have more of a “humanities vibe” because the journalism and communications schools are located there, so students studying in those areas may opt to live nearby, and North Area may have a more “STEM vibe” because of the same reasons.
Unlike Duke, Harvard and Yale, students are assigned to an Area based on preferences they share for which building they’d like to live in.
According to Mueller, it takes about a four-year cycle for institutional changes to become the “norm.” However, she believes that COVID-19 expedited Residential Areas’ acceptance by students.
“By the time students came in fall of 2020, they felt that Areas had been around for years,” Mueller said. “I actually talked to a student at the beginning of this year and [she] was surprised to hear that it was only a year old when she started [at Northwestern].”
Through the Faculty Fellows program, Duke hoped to promote academic engagement by strengthening relationships between students and faculty through residential life. Students would be able to connect with professors through social programming at the Quads, including meals and special events.
But students have had mixed reactions on how much Faculty Fellows are making a difference in their Duke experience, with some feeling indifferent towards the program and others saying that it’s a resource they should take advantage of.
At Yale, each residential college has a dean, who lives in the college with their families and is in charge of academic advising. For McKinley, who was previously Saybrook College’s dean, it was a much more “pastoral” role that went beyond academics. He got to know his students very well — by first, middle and last name.
“Since I lived there, and I saw students all the time, I got to know them through all four years,” he said. “If you were a first-year student, we might start a conversation about anything. Over those four years, I would come to know you.”
Similarly, each Harvard House is led by Faculty Deans who live in the House, who “help set the tone and culture of the House community.”
Sue Wasiolek, adjunct associate professor of education who previously spent 40 years serving as the University's dean of students, said that it would make “such a big difference” if faculty could live in the quads, like East Campus’s Faculty-in-Residence Program.
She mentioned that Duke attempted a quad system in 2003, where there were faculty associates that were the “same thing” as QuadEx’s faculty fellows. But the program “fizzled” out quickly because the faculty felt there was no natural way for them to interact with students.
“The reason why faculty in residence works is because, as their name suggests, they live in the dorms, so they feel like part of the community,” Wasiolek said. “But I think they also contribute on a daily basis to creating that community, to creating an identity for the dorm.”
Baker said that finding the right method and amount of student and faculty interaction within Duke’s quads is like “alchemy.”
“We're not going to show up for the drinking parties or whatever,” Baker said. “But so how can we show up? You know, what would be appropriate? How can we get high-level engagement? We're still working on that,” Baker said.
While Harvard and Yale’s Houses and residential colleges each have their own amenities, including a dining hall, library and fitness center, Duke’s Quads do not.
Baker acknowledged that Duke’s built environment leads to design constraints for QuadEx.
“The fact that [Duke has] two campuses that are used a lot is really going to dictate a lot of this. So I think it was pretty clever to assign first-year residences with second-year Quads,” Baker said.
While Northwestern has amenities in each of its Areas, Mueller acknowledged that there were difficulties in drawing lines across campus.
“Students still feel that pressure of [walking] all the way down Sheridan Road and crossing the street to get to Allison Dining Hall. I think sometimes you can have the best intention, and you can draw the lines in the best possible way, and there’s certain points when the geography of campus is going to work against you, ” she said.
In Wasiolek’s mind, QuadEx is not a residential college system, but she thinks Duke has done its best given its facilities.
“We don’t have faculty living in all the Quads, we don’t have dining halls associated with a Quad. But we’ve done the best that we can do with what we’ve got,” she said.
What’s next for QuadEx?
Some current students have complained about unideal and discontinuous housing assignments under QuadEx. Upperclassmen have said that they believe Quads are simply just a place to live, noting that they feel no identity towards their Quad.
However, the Class of 2026, the first class to fully experience QuadEx, may feel differently — 80% of first-years reported feeling at least some sense of community within their East Campus dorm, according to The Chronicle’s annual first-year survey. In addition, the percentage of those who found QuadEx either somewhat or strongly favorable jumped from 22% for the Class of 2025 to 41% for the Class of 2026.
Both Wasiolek and Baker understand that new ideas are often met with strong opposition. They were at Duke when East Campus became housing for first-years in 1995. This idea, which originally received much backlash, became a cornerstone of the Duke undergraduate experience, according to them.
“I was not convinced that President Keohane, who ultimately made that decision, would survive, not because of her, but because of the negative pushback,” Wasiolek said. “The faculty felt by making East all freshmen, we were … infantilizing East Campus.”
But a survey completed by the first class who lived on East Campus as first-years, the Class of 1999, showed extremely positive feedback, according to Wasiolek.
“I vividly remember much of the feedback from students being, ‘Administration, you finally did something right,’” she said. “They spoke so positively about their experience that it sort of drowned the concerns from other students who hadn't lived on East.”
Baker believes QuadEx will be “baked” into Duke’s culture within the next four years.
“Hopefully these traditions stick, and they'll last for the next 100 years,” Baker said.
Wasiolek preached patience.
“We need to give this model several years to try to grow some roots," she said. "So that we can see if there are some trees and branches down the road."
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Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and digital strategy director of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 118.