When a House Becomes a Home

This fall, our brand new House Communities were brought to life, thanks to the truly extraordinary efforts of Rebecca Biron, Mike Wooten and their Student Affairs colleagues, as well as our Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Provost’s Office, Campus Services, and countless other individuals and departments across campus who helped make them a reality for our students.

It’s been great to see students congregating in their new House Centers, to hear of our outstanding House Professors hosting intimate dinners to discuss the great issues of the day, and to watch inter-House competitions unfold on the playing fields this fall, with School House claiming the first-ever IM House soccer championship, edging out West House in a hard-fought final.

As we were preparing to launch the House Communities – the centerpiece of Moving Dartmouth Forward – I was consistently asked, by students, alumni and staff, why we were introducing a “new” residential model. To answer that question, let me start with a little history.

When I was a Dartmouth student, back in the mid 1970s, residential life was quite different than it was when I became Dartmouth president in 2013. We formed strong bonds through student organizations – including the Greek system – much like we do today. But in addition, our dorm-mates and residence halls functioned as a family and home base. (For me that was Ripley Hall.)  Dorms competed against one another in intramural sports, we debated issues great and small with our fellow residents, made lasting friendships, socialized together and developed a strong a sense of identity with where we lived throughout our four years in Hanover.

Yet when I began speaking with students, either individually or in small groups, during the first three years of my presidency, it became clear that much of this had been lost. In so many of those conversations, students praised the strong bonds built in their dorms during their first year on campus, but mourned the lack of continuity in housing after their first year as a weakness in their overall residential experience.

Indeed, as more and more students took advantage of the D-Plan over time, pursuing valuable study abroad, internships and off-campus experiential learning opportunities, we witnessed a slow and steady erosion of that dorm-based community, with a large portion of our student body having to change residences every term to account for the constant influx and outflow of students from campus.

With the new House system, we’re not only recapturing that much-needed continuity and stability in our residential experience, we’re bringing that experience to entirely new heights. Through the addition of faculty and graduate student connections and an infusion of academic, artistic, intellectual and social programming determined, in large part, by the students themselves, our House Communities are making learning a 24/7/365 proposition and becoming a key part of our entire community’s social and intellectual growth.

So, when Jane Hill, our House Professor at Allen House, tells me that an informal conversation she had with a ’20 from Allen the week before fall classes began enabled her to direct the student to a Professor at Thayer, where the two are now working together on their shared passion for biofuels….or when Dean Biron tells me about the lively and pointed discussion that took place between students, faculty and staff at a North Park House post-election analysis dinner with Professors Joe Bafumi of the Government department and Don Pease from English and American Studies, each of whom provided an interpretation of the election results from the point of view of his own discipline….I am reminded of the magic that can happen when the lines between living and learning are not only blurred, but obliterated.

It’s exciting, to say the least, and we’re not even half way through year one.  And while these early days of our House Communities will be characterized by a lot of experimentation and learning, it will only make the system better every year.