Social houses still seeking identities, three decades later

By CECELIA SCHEUER

BENJY RENTON
Tavern’s guiding theme has historically been community service, although some students seem to have a different perspective of the house.

“No one can disguise the fact that the history of fraternity life has been inseparable from the spirit of the exclusion.”

These were the words of seven faculty members who, in 1990, expressed their concerns about Greek life culture in a letter to the Board of Trustees in hopes of addressing the exclusive ethos that dictated Middlebury’s social scene.

The first social houses emerged from the dissolution of the fraternity system in 1991. Twenty-eight years later, the College boasts five co-ed social houses: Chromatic, The Mill, Tavern, Xenia, and the newest addition, PALANA.

While each of the houses has a physical space, students do not need to live there to be members. Instead, houses often serve as communal gathering places; each hosts a number of events throughout the year, both for members and the wider campus community. Unlike the Greek life system, social houses are open to anyone and students can be members of more than one. 

Since their formation, each house has been grounded in a unique theme. Yet, some students and staff question the extent to which they have served their intended purpose. 

“I think the social houses have always searched for an identity,” said Karl Lindholm ‘67, a former dean of students. “I do believe that on their worst day, though, the houses are better than the fraternities that separated the campus into those that deserved to be ‘somebody’ and those who did not.” 

Lindholm also served as the chair of the Committee to Restructure the House System, comprised of both students and faculty, which originally proposed the creation of co-ed social houses to the Residential Life Committee in 1991 as the ideal solution in fostering a more inclusive and less misogynistic partying environment. The committee, however, could not reach a consensus on whether the houses would produce this effect, deferring further action to the Community Council.

Community Council was initially opposed to the implementation of social houses out of fear that they would recreate the Greek life atmosphere the college wanted to put an end to. After much deliberation about concerns regarding exclusivity, Community Council conceded, voting to allow for the creation of social houses in the most neutral language possible. They voted 9–6,  “in a spirit neither for or against, on the creation of a limited number of co-ed social houses,” the 1991 Community Council Resolution on Coeducational Houses read. 

The neutral stance taken by much of the college regarding the creation of social houses is reflected today in the infrastructure of the social house system. While the Community Council developed baseline anti-hazing and gender-balance requirements for each house, the houses are completely self-governed by an Inter-House Council consisting of each house president and vice president. These positions are elected by all members of the house. 

All in all, this lack of explicit institutional backing has left a lot of leeway for members to define their houses’ desired purposes.

“They aren’t well defined, but I think that’s exactly what they’re supposed to be,” Lindholm said. 

According to the college website, these social houses “fulfill their mission through a diverse array of social events, parties, community service, and other events.” 

Tavern, for example, prides itself on building a community predicated on its mission statement values of trust, unity and respect. Community service has historically been its guiding theme, although some students seem to hold an alternate perception of the house. 

“All of my friends like to joke that I’m the president of the drinking club,” said house president Avery Lopez ’20. 

Lopez said that the house has done away with a lot of traditions that were “more reminiscent of the fraternity days,” and is looking to sponsor more house-wide community service events to preserve the spirit on which it was founded.

Historically, each member has been required to log a certain number of community service hours, but Lopez said this has proven virtually impossible to gauge accurately, and many students have taken advantage of this lack of accountability. This year, she hopes to shift the individual focus of the house’s community service component to a more collective effort. 

Some of the events planned for later in the year include writing birthday cards for children in hospitals through the Confetti Foundation, and sponsoring fundraising events in conjunction with non-profits around Addison County. As of now, Lopez said she does not have specific information about the organizations the house plans to work with.

Another one of Tavern’s service initiatives this year aims to capitalize on the house’s reputation for heavy recreational drinking. Throughout the semester, the house has been collecting tabs of beer cans to eventually donate to David’s House, an organization which takes the money generated from those beer tabs to provide housing for families whose members are getting treatment at Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital.  

According to Lopez, this effort represents a step toward the house’s intended mission.

“One thing I’ve really appreciated is that our executive staff is consistently conversing with the former executives about how we can change and evolve as a House,” Lopez said. 

Lopez said it is common for many Tavern members to also be affiliated with the other social houses such as Chromatic, the Mill and PALANA — excluding Xenia, the substance-free house. A student can join as many social houses as they wish without fear of being denied membership. In order to become a house member, interested students must attend a certain amount of rush events, which can range from a movie night to indoor field hockey. Once students become a part of the pledge class, they go through unique initiation rituals. 

Some social houses are more explicitly committed to certain initiatives than others. PALANA,  (Pan-African, Latino, Asian and Native American), for example, is Middlebury’s newest social house and a former academic interest house that has long fostered a close-knit community among students from marginalized groups at Middlebury. Previously located at 97 Adirondack View, PALANA found its new home as an official social house in Palmer this year. 

PALANA is predominantly a space for students of color, that “seeks to create a space or community which has diversity and highlights all backgrounds by acknowledging and celebrating people of all identity groups,” President Tre Stephens ’21 said. 

In the last two months, the house has hosted a series of events, including house Sunday brunches, an open-house disco night and multiple movie nights. PALANA also plans to do a community dinner over Thanksgiving, a poetry slam event and an alumni mixer later in the year. 

Chromatic and The Mill are the two social houses known to fill the art and music niche on campus, but Mill President Brenna Wilson ’20 is working to dilute the exclusionary allure that The Mill in particular can create. Wilson said that the house can sometimes appear intimidating for prospective members, although its technical mission is to “maintain a diverse membership irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation or creed,” according to the 2013 Social House Biennial Review.

“I used to think that you had to dress a certain way and you had to smoke American Spirits and you had to listen to the right artists,” she said. The Mill frequently has concerts in the house basement, and appoints a member to plan concerts throughout the year. 

Both Chromatic and The Mill are trying to host events that breach into different categories. Chromatic Co-President Scott Powell ’20 said that the house is working on trying to incorporate an observed interest in culinary arts into events with studio and performing arts. Chromatic hopes to have an official art showcase open to the rest of the campus by the end of this year. 

“The other thing I know all social houses are looking at is outreach,” Powell said, as not much is known about houses such as Xenia, which aims to foster a communal environment where members can socialize in a substance free space, according to the 2013 review. The co-presidents of Xenia, Dean Arredondo ’20 and Jillian Ohikuare ’20, could not be reached for comment. 

“My rough estimate is that only about a quarter of students are active members of social houses, and I think we should advertise a little more about what we are and why social houses are a valuable part of Middlebury’s community,” Powell said.

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