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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 ridgelineYet 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? 

16 Responses to “Whither the social houses?”

  1. Sonja Pedersen-Green '07 says:

    I believe the social house system is absolutely crucial to social life at Middlebury. Complaints about social life only truly surfaced after ZOO and the Delta were no longer active, because two of five (non-substance free) houses were unable to provide important social activities for the community. This dramatically reduced the number of registered parties that could cater to a large number of the community at once, which created dull weekends without much to do. Although the new liquor inspector and the guest list policies did somewhat contribute to the decline in social life, most social houses make a valiant effort to make sure those who do want to attend their parties are able to.
    If the college were to allow groups of students to block draw into the ridgeline houses, it might lead to more parties, but chances are, those parties would cater to a specific group of students, while, often times, students from all social groups are at social house parties.
    Finally, the elimination of the social houses would further the problem of binge drinking at Middlebury. Except for one party a semester, social houses serve beer and only beer at their parties. It’s very difficult to get alcohol poisoning from beer, as typically one’s stomach cannot accommodate the amount of beer necessary to become that sick. It’s when students take shots or drink mixed drinks in their dorms or at off campus parties that drinking becomes an issue.
    Please strengthen the social houses at Middlebury, rather than eliminating them. They are crucial to the social vivacity of the College.

  2. Natalie Sammarco '08.5 says:

    The fate of the social house system seems to be at stake here. There are many, many benefits to having the social houses at Middlebury:

    –Middlebury without the Social Houses
    I firmly believe, in agreement with Sonja, that without social houses, there would be more drinking in private rooms rather than at parties. This is much more dangerous than having and open party with kegs. The drinking in private can get out of hand more quickly and, quite frankly, there may not be someone there who is trained in taking care of intoxicated people (as there is at EVERY social house party). The members of social houses are, as dictated by school policy, trained in the art of recognizing and helping any person who is drunk. Party hosts are also required to be trained and anyone serving alcohol at the bar at a social house must be party host trained as well. The point is that social houses provide a safe environment for those who wish to party and have a good time, which is better than leaving Joe Middkid who had 9 shots in his room face down in his bed to “sleep it off”.

    Social houses also provide a large place for people to gather to have a good time. They are places not just for “interest groups” like the sports teams or language clubs to hold exclusive gatherings. Social houses provide a place where you can go if you are just with one friend and chill out at a party and dance without feeling like a fish out of water (Let’s just be honest, who would go to the hypothetical “Crew party in Palmer” if you were not on the crew team? It would be awkward. Social houses are not.)

    MCAB, although I have nothing against it, seems to be an overwhelming part of Middlebury at this point. Without the social houses, MCAB would be the only organization to coordinate social events. What about those people who prefer the low-key social setting rather than McCullough Dance Parties or Pub Nights? Where do those people get represented in all of this? MCAB does a lot of good for the campus, yes, but I think the real point is that Middlebury needs to focus on allowing students various outlets to explore. If MCAB is the one bludgeoning force on campus, where does everyone else go?

    On a final note for this: the alcohol regulations have become stricter on both Middlebury Campus and for the state of Vermont. The social houses comply with these new regulations.

    Granted, when one thinks of social houses, the mind almost instinctively thinks of partying. Although many parties are thrown by social houses at Middlebury, that is not the only result of their presence:

    –Social Houses benefit the common good
    Some social houses enjoy a community service requirement and that means members must serve the town of Middlebury. With respect to this, there have been many activities aimed at enriching the Middlebury community, including but not limited to dog walking, writing holiday cards to nursing home residents, and building gingerbread houses for decorations. Thus, no one can say that social houses do not help the community.

    In conclusion, if the argument is that social houses are not needed and that they have no benefit, then what about those people who are already involved in social houses (the members, the alumni, the memories, the history)?? Would it not be ignoring these people who have given their time and energy to belong to what they believe is really *something*?

    Does Middlebury College not take pride in its history, too?

    Social houses have been preserved for this long because they have respect for history and want to uphold pillars of trust, unity, and respect within. These people have drifted toward the social house scene for a reason and, quite frankly, it is not a certain type of person at all. There are jocks, nerds, hippies, geeks, IM hockey commissioners, etc. all involved in these houses. These are impenetrable friendships and bonds being threatened here.

    I believe that the social house system needs not only to continue on campus, but it needs to be ALLOWED to flourish. The Middlebury College I applied to as a senior in high school was open to allowing the college community to explore all manner of outlets. “Middlebury is centrally committed to the value of a diverse and respectful community.”

    Or at least that’s what the college’s mission statement says.

  3. Brooke Siem, '08 says:

    I completely agree with both Natalie and Sonja, but one aspect of the social houses that most people tend to overlook goes beyond the service they provide to the social life of the campus. Social houses are perhaps one of the only establishments on campus, with the exception of athletics, that truly allow students to form a bond with one another. As a member of a social house, a whole new world of Middlebury opens up. You suddenly have upwards of 40 new friends, an area on campus where you are always welcome, and an array of networking possibilities through alums. The people who join social houses are looking for a way to enhance their Middlebury experience, and it provides a perfect opportunity. I know countless people, myself included, who found that the social house system “saved” their college experience. Middlebury can be a harsh and uninviting place. The constant pressure to be perfect, thin, and brilliant can take its toll, especially on those who may not have a good support group of friends. But as a member of Omega Alpha, KDR, Delta, Xenia, or the Mill the pressures are lifted. Bad days seem fewer. But even on those bad days, you always have the comfort that upon returning home, there will always be a good friend waiting. If anything, the social houses should remain for just that reason–because everyone deserves something to belong to.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s interesting that some of the greatest complaints against the social house system were just those that “brought back memories of your own time in college”. That is, the dance parties in the basement, filled with a wide variety of students, loud music, etc… And with the decline of the number of social houses on campus, as well as the stricter regulations regarding open parties, alcohol consumption, and repercussions for the houses should anything go wrong, there is no surprise that the number of parties thrown by houses has been on the decline in recent years.

    That being said, I do not believe the social house system is a lost cause. While the percentage of membership may be down, this is surely due, in part, to the fewer number of options available to students. In addition, the number of students who attend open parties does not reflect this falling percentage, as there are consistently long lines to enter the houses during these events. These parties represent the only outlet many students (especially those who are underage) have to dance and meet students outside of their normal social circles, oustide of small room parties or off-campus ones.

    Most importantly, however, open parties, alcohol consumption, and membership numbers in no way reflect the true meaning of a social house. A social house brings together students that one would often otherwise not have met. It creates a family-like community, an intense loyalty and friendship that is incredibly hard to find. It is a place where members can get together for community service projects, organize large dinners, watch a football game together in the lounge, and support each other through all circumstances. The alumni networks formed through house membership not only reflect this loyalty and friendship (50 alumni do not return to the house each year because of open parties, I assure you), but also present incredible networking opportunities and sources of information to current students.

    While my opinion is undoubtedly biased due to my social house membership as a student, to understand what the social houses are, it is necessary to ask those who belong. The 5% of students who belong to the social houses are grateful for the presence of this system on campus, and a stronger social house system would mean that an even larger number of students would have the opportunity to experience this type of community. I can’t imagine my Middlebury experience without the social houses, and I hope future generations of Midd students won’t have to.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree that social houses could and should play a major role in social life on campus. With very tough state alcohol laws in Vermont, which seem to be more rigorously enforced on campus, how might social houses be strengthened knowing that easy alcohol can’t be the sole draw? Are there things students could be doing to strengthen the system? Things the College administration could do? Do we know where the average Middlebury student stands on this issue? The administration? Seems it would be in everyone’s best interest to find ways to strengthen the system. Where is this discussion taking place? Who “owns” this important topic?

  6. anonymous says:

    I agree with what a lot of what the other commentors have written, but I also must add on:

    What kind of “incentive” could you provide to Mill or KDR members to leave their houses for the out of sight out of mind ridgeline area when the physical building they inhabit is part of their very house’s identity and provides immediate and strong links to years and years of alumni as well?

    I also think that it’s pretty funny that faculty/staff/administrators have a hard time with the “undemocratic” process by which most of the social houses select their members (in the case of the Mill however, all interested individuals were allowed to join, I don’t know if that’s true for other houses), when Middlebury College itself accepts only a small percentage of applicants. Is not Middlebury itself a larger-scale, exclusive club? Where’s the democracy in the selection of students chosen to attend? And what about the sports teams? Should anyone who wants to be able to step on the lacrosse pitch be given a stick and told to go play or strap on some skis and race the slaloms? Smaller sub-groups in any given society (like the commons systems, say) are a fact of societies themselves.

    I really don’t understand why this school wants to homogenize and/or eliminate the few social scenes that exist on campus. Different strokes for different folks, my friend.

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