Building Community

New House System offers students stronger community ties
by Rhea Hirshman

the quadThe 590 first-year students who arrive at Trinity in the late summer of 2014 will find the campus and its fall-term rhythms much the same as have generations before them. They will be surrounded by a classic New England college quadrangle, the College’s visible center that has welcomed incoming classes since the 1870s. They will sign the matriculation declaration in a ceremony familiar to classes from the College’s earliest days in the 1820s. They will meet roommates and classmates, figure out the campus map, plunge into coursework, and learn to use the College’s resources. At the same time, they will be experiencing the Trinity of the 21st century, as it has expanded, changed, and diversified continually over nearly 200 years.

The Class of 2018 will find a Trinity that has embraced a new organizational structure for residential and student life: the Trinity House System. Proposed by the Charter Committee for Building Social Community at Trinity College (a Board of Trustees committee that included faculty, students, and administrators), and approved by the full board in October, the House System is designed to enhance the integration of social and intellectual life throughout the College community.

Nuts and bolts

Each of the six houses is a living/learning community that will include about 375 students (about 95 from each of the four classes), and each will have its own dean and an associated faculty member. According to the Charter Committee’s report: “(Association) with a house would begin with first-year housing and carry through four years as one of the primary centers of a student’s experience…. These groups, designed for manageable size… would give every student an automatic affiliation with a representative group of fellow students, help organize the way the College provides services and support…and increase the opportunities and expectations for students to be engaged in and contribute to the vibrancy of campus life.” The plan calls for students to live in a residence hall associated with a particular house for their first two years at Trinity. They will then be free to live in whatever housing they choose for the junior and senior years, while maintaining affiliation with the original house.

In keeping with the idea that the houses will be centers of intellectual as well as social life, entering students will choose first-year seminars as they do now and will be assigned to houses based on the seminars they choose. Each house will have a mix of seminars from different disciplines — one way of ensuring diversity within house populations. Frederick Alford, dean of students, notes two interconnected ways to think about the implementation of the House System. The first involves the physical placement of students into living spaces. Trustee and committee member Cornelia Parsons Thornburgh ’80 says that, while decisions are still being made about how best to use and adjust the physical plant, “Ultimately, once the House System is fully in place, campus planning will revolve around the houses.”

The other aspect of implementing the House System, Alford says, “is understanding it as a new approach to organizing the College and its existing resources.” House deans and faculty affiliations Among the organizational changes will be the creation of a dean’s office for each house. Students will maintain relationships with the same dean for their entire time at Trinity. Deans will track academic progress, handle routine disciplinary matters, act as primary contacts with families, and serve as advocates and mentors for the students in their houses. Working closely with each house dean will be a senior faculty member, who will serve for a three-year term and continue to teach. According to the report, “The senior faculty member would be responsible for setting the tone of community life, leading bi-weekly house meetings, attending house dinners, and creating frequent and varied forms of interaction (among) students and faculty.” Thornburgh notes that “faculty will be full partners in the House System, expanding opportunities for intellectual stimulation beyond the classroom.” Faculty teaching first-year seminars will also be affiliated with the houses in which the students they teach and advise are living. “But beyond that,” Alford says, “we expect that both the senior faculty members and those teaching the first-year seminars will draw upon faculty and staff colleagues to create and participate in house activities.”

 Systemic shifts

According to Alford, the House System will both take over certain existing systems, and function as a support mechanism for some larger College systems. “For instance,” he says, “course registration will always be a College-wide system. But we could have house-based sessions on how the registration process works, how to plan programs of study, or how to select majors.” Areas where the House System is likely to become the locus of student life include program funding, academic support, and governance. Houses could become the basis for electing Student Government Association (SGA) representation, with funds through the SGA helping to support programming developed and run by the houses. In addition, each house will have its own leadership structure, providing opportunities for students to serve in executive capacities, manage budgets, and organize service, social, and intramural programs. Houses might have programming committees, involving faculty, students, and staff in developing activities that fuse social and intellectual life.

Houses could become the mechanism for teaching and upholding the College Integrity Contract and electing representatives to the Honor Council. Alford says, “Imagine if a house hosted a discussion on the importance of honor within a community and then had nominees for the building community Honor Council present their views at the house meeting preceding the election process. These sorts of activities can transform an abstract concept like honor to something immediate and fundamental to the life of the individual and the house and College communities.”

Effective communities don’t interact solely on Facebook or e-mail; the House System will enable house members to meet in person. At weekly meals and biweekly meetings, houses would conduct business, address problems, and celebrate members’ accomplishments. Houses could sponsor game nights, lecture series, arts events, and parties. Houses will field teams, and inter-house competitions will become a staple of the intramural and recreational programs. Each house could develop its own traditions and could build up the means to support their chosen activities by how they spend their discretionary money. The report also suggests that houses might march together to Convocation and Commencement, and be the sites of receptions at Homecoming, Family Weekend, or Reunion. Underneath these specific changes, Alford says, is an overall shift in perspective. “Whether we are talking about organizing parking, getting out messages to students about health concerns, deciding what kinds of athletic facilities to invest in, or making hiring decisions, every committee and every office will be thinking about how possible courses of action can reinforce the House System.” Alford notes also that mechanism for integrating upperclass students into the House System in 2014 is within the purview of the implementation committee. “Given that the system’s purpose is to unite the community,” he says, “I would anticipate that our approach will be to invite everyone to join.”

What stays the same

While the House System will have an impact on most areas of College life, Thornburgh emphasizes that it is not meant to replace other longstanding and cherished structures, such as the fraternities and sororities or the cultural and theme houses. “Rather,” she says, “establishing this system is part of a comprehensive plan to build community at Trinity. We want to take the positive experiences that so many of our students have, and build a system that will increase the likelihood that all of our students will be able to get the most out of their time here.” Alford adds, “We’re throwing the implementation process wide open to students, faculty, and staff. While the underlying concept is in place, there is still plenty of opportunity for discussion of what the House System can be.”

Building Community continues with more about the Implementation Committee, Vernon Social Center, and the Career Development Center.