A House System Brown?
SOCIAL separation between "fraternity" and "independent" students has been the major failure of housing systems in many American colleges. Nowhere is this problem more critical, or its "solutions" more unsuccessful, than at Brown.
Traditionally, fraternities at Brown have housed most of the college, and have played a major role in influencing student attitudes. Membership and interest in fraternities reached an all-time high at Brown shortly before World II. At that time more than 90 per cent of the on-campus students centered their lives around their fraternity houses, where the social ideals of cliquishness and club secrecy predominated over academic interests. As a result, the college slowly broke down into autonomous groups whose intellectual efforts centered on plans for Spring Weekend and next week's dance.
EMPHASIS on the social side of college life shifted sharply in 1945. Returning veterans and the many serious-minded students who clamored to get in New England colleges in the late forties had no use for the dashing life of the fraternities and found Brown's intellectual life was virtually smothered. Such academically oriented students, and their numbers were constantly increasing, demanded comfortable dormitory facilities close to the intellectual activity of the college and placed a high premium on privacy. The adequacy of the fraternities became so pronounced that the Brown Administration began to search for some way to bring them the college.
The most practical solution appeared to be abolition of the entire fraternity system in favor of a modified House System, modeled along the lines of those at Harvard and Yale. But under pressure from fraternity-oriented Henry M. Wriston, then president of Brown and himself no radical reformer, worked out a compromise. The resulting Plan," which is still in effect at Brown, envisaged a revitalization of academic and social life fraternity members and students by bringing them together in a residential quadrangle which would incorporate fraternities, independent houses, and a huge central dining hall.
Each building in Quadrangle was to contain two fraternities, with an independent dormitory in the middle to act as a "buffer" between the fraternity lated fraternity houses finished, and the living units of the fraternities separated from an independent dormitory movable fire doors.
WHEN the first in the new Wriston Quadrangle was built, a Brown professor declared jubilantly that "Fraternity life has been incorporated University life, and in the process of assimilation the two have inevitably come closer together by 1961, after ten years of "separation but not really" under the Wriston Plan, many students have come to realize that the new residential system has perhaps created more problems than it has solved.
The Wriston Plan has hardly even begun to fulfill goals hoped for by its early advocates. Barriers still exist between the fraternity man and independent--barriers made all the more glaring because posedly "separate but equalities for the fraternities independents now lie on either a thin fire wall.
Actually all the widely equality is a myth. Lounges and libraries in the Wriston rangle have been built only in the fraternity houses, and the arrangements of the dining hall flouts the favored position of the fraternities in the faces of the independents. In an effort to preserve identity (probably under pressure from alumni), the college has divided the new dining area into a number of small dining rooms
(one for each fraternity) surrounding a large, noisy, unattractive dining room (soon labeled "the Pit") for the independents.
But even in the midst of this glaring inequality, fraternity membership declined. The basic cause continues to be the ever increasing number of academically oriented students who have no use for the high-pressure social life or the expense of fraternity affiliation. Such students remain independent and are thus forced to live in dormitori where social contacts are impeded, where the physical plant is inadequate for intellectual and social needs, and where artificial social barriers prohibit an atmosphere conducive to scholar endeavor.
Facilities for the independents better than they had been before Wriston revolution, and the priciple of assimilated fraternities was admittedly a failure. Fraternities are still private clubs, and like most such organizations, their selective procedure tends to admit only those candidates whose attitudes most closely resemble those of the old members. "Membership determine according to group of acceptable ideas and backgrounds," a student committee report on Housing points out, "could hardly be expected to produce a community of all students." Closer contact between the fraternities and independents has only underlined the inequalities of the two groups.
The ultimate effect of the artificial housing system, a serious lack of communication between students and faculty, disturbed the committee greatly. Henry Kucera, a Brown professor deeply involved with the present housing controversy, told me that "because of the autonomous nature of the fraternities, a resident fellow system cannot work effectively at Brown." (Resident fellows are faculty members roughly equivalent to Harvard tutors.) A few resident fellows live in the independent dorms, but fewer still eat with the students, and the entire system hardly begins to approximate the Harvard student-tutor relationship.
The mechanics of the committee proposal for a modified House System involve converting each of the nine fraternity-independent buildings in the Wriston Quadrangle, as well as other buildings around the campus, into single housing units--each one of them to accommodate some 100 students. All residents of the college would thus be able to use the superior facilities now restricted for use by the fraternities.
The report asserts that "a house system, permitting social freedom, providing a house library for study, offering better living quarters, and encouraging student faculty associations could stimulate intellectual accomplishment and social development." Indeed faculty participation in the new residential housing system, (a resident professor and his family would be included in each house) is considered a vital part of the new plan. The division between students and faculty could be breached, it is hoped, by "personal, social, and intellectual direction" from the faculty to the members of the house.
THE Brown committee, like Harvard, considers mealtimes another major opportunity for intellectual and social contacts. And although it is thought impossible to add a dining room to each new house, the report recommends that the central fraternity-independent dining hall be extensively remodeled to include a private dining room for each house and a large, separate freshman dining area (very much like the Union). The committee also urges abolition of the Radcliffe-style dining system (a major annoyance to most Brown students), and suggests replacing it with complete cafeteria service. The new dining system would, the committee hopes, "encourage faculty members to eat with the students," and make meals more enjoyable by making the surroundings more comfortable.
The Brown administration has now officially received the student report and has even appointed a select faculty-corporation committee to study and act upon the entire Brown housing system. And all that Brown officials require to create a House system are courage and money; these, especially the first, may prove to be unusually formidable goals.
For despite the report, and despite the obvious inadequacy of the present housing system, the fraternities remain a major stumbling block to the House system. As Robert O. Schultz, assistant dean of the college and a member of the faculty committee, points out, "a practical House system would mean the end of the fraternities. But, he added that he "greatly doubted that the faculty-corporation committee would recommend abolition of the fraternities." Apparently many members of the administration hope that, "without intervention by the university, the fraternity system may die out--or at least wane significantly." Such an attitude, coupled with what is almost a fear on the part of Brown officials to abolish the fraternities outright, does not promise much hope for the effective House system envisaged by the student report.
Another problem is the tremendous cost involved in total conversion to a House plan. It has been estimated that it would take about $5 million to complete the proposed physical changes in dormitories and the dining rooms. But, as Schultz noted, it might take even more money to establish and maintain a complete tutorial system. No matter how great the initial outlay, however, Brown must consider the eventual benefits the House system will produce.
The proposed House system represents a major and important decision for Brown officials. Thinking only in terms of short range effects, they can attempt to placate the fraternities, the independents, and the budget balances with another compromise--which will undoubtedly prove as ineffective as the Wriston plan. Hopefully, though, they will give the student report careful consideration, and, thinking of Brown's long range future, will cast decisively and boldly to institute an effective House system.