Before the Commons, there were social houses, and before social houses, there were fraternities. In fact, one could argue that the small communities that distinguished the fraternities helped to shape the Commons system.
During the early and mid 1990s, the social houses were a hot topic on campus. My first year at Middlebury—1990—was the last year of the frats. That year, some of my students invited me to a Chi Si fraternity party, held in what is now Munford House. I went, and the party scene—loud band, crowded dance floor, beer-clutching students lined along dimly lit corridors—brought back memories of my own times in college.
Up through the 1990s, this scene moved over to the social houses, and the houses were a dominant force on campus. During those days, membership in the social houses totaled about 15% of the student body, and the faculty debated whether the houses should be able to “select” their members, a process that most found anti-democratic. When the ridgeline houses were being built in 1996-97, faculty concern about the houses touched a different chord. I remember walking back to the construction site with a colleague and watching as one of the tradesmen sliced through stonework with a special chainsaw. My colleague remarked that he had explored the possibility of using the same kind of stone for his fireplace at home, but that it was too expensive. Many were appalled by the extravagance of the ski chalets that soon appeared on the ridgeline.
Fast forward to 2007, and the social house scene looks much different. Membership last year was down to 5% of the student body (though the current pledge process and the reemergence of Delta may significantly boost membership totals), and the houses are no longer the major players they once were. Why? Students socialize differently, the policies around alcohol use have tightened, certain houses have run aground, and housing in some of the Commons is even more attractive than what’s available on the ridgeline. Yet at the same time, social life on campus is not what it should be. How can we use the resources of the social house system to improve the situation?
This is a key question, and one that Community Council will likely engage this year. Radical thinking may be in order. Here are some ideas.
Why not ask—”incentivize”—KDR and the Mill to move up to the ridgeline and work to consolidate and reenergize social life in that neighborhood? KDR and the Mill’s peripheral locations may offer some advantages to their members, but their out-of-the-way status also serves to fragment social life across the campus. At a time when the center of campus social life is hard to find, we should be looking at ways to build on existing strengths.
Another idea, which came out of last spring’s Task Force on Student Social Life, would be to permit large blocks of students to draw into the ridgeline houses—the ones that are not social houses—along with other College houses on Adirondack View, and give them the freedom to organize parties on their own terms.
Finally, the most radical question of all should be asked and debated by students: Do we still need a social house system? Should we invest the resources, time, and energy to strengthen the current system? Or should we step outside the box and build something different?