An Old Tradition Failed
By Joseph Asch, Guest Columnist
Published on Monday, September 27, 2004
During my four years at the College, I lived in North Fayerweather. Though I spent plenty of time out of Hanover on the Mainz LSA, on an exchange program with UCSD, working and traveling, I was always able to return to Hanover and move back into North Fayer.
The dorm was a fun place: in the fall residents played touch football on the Green in the intramural league; we participated in the Fayerweather Row hockey team in the winter; and in the spring we played soccer and intramural softball. We never won much of anything, but most of the dorm would turn out to play or just watch, and we'd often celebrate after games by calling Moe's on Allen Street and having them deliver a keg to the dorm.
North Fayer had a reputation as an alternative place ("crunchy" in the modern parlance). It was a way station to countercultural Foley House for some folks, and others went on to frats (the future best place-kicker in NFL history, Nick Lowery, lived across the hall from me for a year before moving to the football fraternity), but most residents stayed true to North Fayer even as we came and went from Hanover under the Dartmouth Plan.
This continuity was possible because of what was called the Dorm Priority system. Each student had a priority dorm, the one you lived in as a freshman. From then on, when you returned to campus, if there was an open room in your dorm, and you had seniority, it was yours for the taking. As a result, a core group of people in each dormitory came to see their dorm as a central interest of their College life. Intramural sports flourished, dorms had identities, and they were social places where you made good friends.
A few years after my graduation in 1979, the administration decided to abolish Dorm Priorities. It seems that some people objected to the apparent unfairness of certain freshmen being assigned less-favored dorms (the River Cluster or the Choates) while others lucked out and got the Gold Coast or other more central housing.
I remember thinking how the anti-frat administration was shooting itself in the foot with this decision: joining fraternities would become more attractive as students sought social continuity in their living arrangements -- a continuity soon to be unavailable in the dorms.
Predictably, today's anonymous dorm life came to pass, with students landing randomly all over campus when they return to Hanover. Intramural sports withered, dorm identities faded, and as one student lamented to me recently, at the end of the term you often don't know the name of the kids in the room next to yours.
Dartmouth is a lesser place as a result. Even the Student Life Initiative recalled wistfully the Dorm Priority system and the erstwhile vibrant life of the College's dorms. It commented critically on the "stunning lack of continuity" in College housing, where "it is not unusual for sophomores and juniors to live in a different room or even a different residence hall each term."
With the upcoming construction of the new Maynard Street and Tuck Mall dormitories, I had hoped to see the end of the College's decades-long housing crisis. Extra dorm space would permit the return of the Dorm Priorities system and allow for real continuity in dorm living, as the SLI recommended. But this is not to be. The Wright administration is proposing to make these large new dorms into housing primarily for freshmen and sophomores (or "first-year and second-year students", as it primly insists on saying).
At first glance, this appears to be only another terrible idea from an out-of-touch administration, an unthinking copying of universities where freshman residence halls merit names like "the Zoo" or "the Pit." But on reflection, such a step has more to it than blind emulation. By quarantining most newly arrived freshmen and sophomores, the Wright Administration is limiting their interaction with upperclass students.
I learned more about the College during my freshman year from the men and women who were North Fayer sophomores, juniors and seniors than from any other source. On a practical level, these folks told me how things really worked at Dartmouth; more importantly, they taught me about the College, its meaning and traditions, as they had in their turn learned about them from upperclassmen when they were freshmen.
The Wright administration wants to break this line of oral history, this vital direct means of learning about the College via the memory of past generations of students. By physically separating new students from old, the College's most vital link to its past will be severed and Dartmouth's downhill slide will continue.
The Maynard Street and Tuck Mall dorms should hold a balanced mix of all undergraduate classes, and the Dorm Priority system should return. The whole College will be better for it.