As a selection committee prepares to consider a record 213 candidates for residency in Bowdoin's six college houses, interviews with leaders of the College House System show that there is not a consensus on what the goals of the system should be.

According to Director of Residential Life Kimberly Pacelli, the applicant pool is significantly larger than normal.

"I've consistently seen the number of applicants at about 175, with some modest ups and downs," she said, "but this is the first year we've ever broken 200 applicants that I can recall."

"Students, on the whole, are much more positive about the houses this year than in past years," she said.

There are 150 spots for membership to the college houses. Residential Life will make its decisions public after Spring Break.

Amid the annual excitement and nerves that the college house application process causes, questions loom about the houses and their relationship with the College community.

An unclear role

Nine years after the College House System was instituted in 1997, there is considerable debate concerning what role college houses should serve in the campus community.

"The biggest problem is the lack of connection between 'vision' and reality," said Helmreich House President Dan Yingst '07. "I don't feel that the college house needs to be some transformative social force working to right the inequities of college life. The role of the college house for to provide a fun and safe place for people, mostly first years, to hang out, party, whatever."

The preamble to the College House System Constitution quotes the 1997 Commission on Residential Life Interim Report, which states that the College House System "was conceptualized as 'promot[ing] the intellectual and personal growth of individuals and encourag[ing] mutual understanding and respect in the context of diversity.'"

Beyond this passage, the constitution does not mention any specific social obligation the college houses have other than to "create a positive and welcoming environment with respect to the house," and "to participate in the orientation of the incoming first-year class." Regardless, the five house presidents that could be reached for comment all indicated that hosting parties comprises a large part of their houses' identity.

Parties have outnumbered other types of events by a four to one ratio at Ladd House, according to President Alex White '08.

"I think it should be weighted on the social end, but that doesn't exclude the importance of the intellectual," said White, who cited a poetry reading and swing dancing lessons as examples of non-party events that Ladd House has held this year.

"I feel like the function that is most commonly associated with the college houses are parties," said MacMillan House President Zach Roberts '08. "The mere fact that the term 'social house' has become the preferred term is demonstrative of the perceived role that the college houses play."

The college houses are not referred to as "social houses" anywhere in the College House System Constitution or on the Office of Residential Life's web site.

Assistant Head Tour Guide for Training DeRay McKesson '07 said that, in reference to the college houses, tour guides are encouraged to "talk about the social houses when we talk about how we build and define community in the social and programming aspects."

When asked the first word that came to his mind when he heard "college house," first-year Elliot Beck said, "Drinking. Parties."

College houses are encouraged to apply for grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a fund that provides money for houses to put on intellectually oriented events. Mellon grants have financed Baxter House's monthly "Loose Leaves" poetry readings, and Macmillan House's "Take a Professor to Dinner," among many other house events.

"There's a lot of opportunity for community service, but nobody does it," said Alex Bettigole '08, a resident of Quinby House.

"I would like to see a stronger focus on non-party events," said Quinby House President Joshua Miller '08, who acknowledged that parties have comprised the majority of Quinby House events so far this year. Miller is also an Orient section editor.

Miller said that, in his opinion, the ratio of parties to other types of events should be "at least about equal."

"With the resources available, a lot more could be done," Bettigole said.

Still, house leaders and residents are quick to point out the ways that college house parties benefit the campus community.

Sophomore Michael Glantz, a Quinby House resident, believes that the primary function of the College House System is to provide first years the opportunity to meet new people, a sentiment that Miller echoed.

"Parties serve an essential function, especially at the beginning of the year for students meeting each other," Miller said. "I think that they serve an essential function for sophomores to continue friendships, make new friendships, and meet the [first years] in ways they wouldn't otherwise [have been able to]."

"A party can really be a boon to the whole social fabric of the school," he said.

Roberts, who acknowledged that underage drinking often occurs at college house parties, remarked that such events create a safe environment that nurtures a responsible approach to alcohol use among first years.

"It demystifies underage drinking to the point that people are more responsible. If drinking is criminalized, then it creates a less safe atmosphere," he said, predicting that if the College took a harder line against underage beer consumption, it would result in more hard alcohol abuse and binge drinking among first years.

House dynamics

Questions concerning the college houses' role in the community dynamic are not the only source of debate; questions concerning intra-house dynamics also reveal differences in opinion.

"My main frustration with [the Office of Residential Life] is that they are not selling the social houses as a way to live with your friends," said Baxter House President Brandon Sparks '08.

Last year, Sparks and 23 of his friends requested special permission to apply to Baxter House as a single block, despite Residential Life's policy to limit applications to eight students per block. They were denied their request, but were encouraged to apply in three separate blocks. Residential Life accepted two of the blocks to Baxter House but rejected the third, which included Sparks.

According to Sparks, the eight members of the third block were told that they could email Residential Life requesting that each member be considered as individual candidates for house residency. Though none requested consideration for individual candidacy, three, including Sparks, were sent letters of acceptance.

Sparks disagrees with the eight-person limit on block applications.

"The community of the house will dictate how successful the house will be," he said. "It's great to get enthusiastic and work hard at something with your friends, then have everyone on campus be talking about it the next day."

"Had we not done this, the [College House] system wouldn't be anywhere," he said.

Pacelli pointed out that Residential Life's blocking policies were decided by student panels, not Residential Life staff.

"Obviously it's a balancing act, and we're always open to discussion about what size would be just right," she said.

First-year Sara Griffin said that the idea of a social mixture within residents of a college house is one of the factors that motivated her to apply to live in MacMillan House next year.

"I feel like the house and the community is better served when the social dynamic is diverse," she said. "It should be less like settling down and more like branching out."

To Miller, the president of Quinby House, the success of a college house is contingent not upon social affinity or diversity among house residents, but on character dynamics.

"It's more about the people, and whether they're actually committed to the house system," he said. "You need people with leadership skills, and you need people who aren't going to be at other people's throats for leadership skills, who can follow."

Pacelli agreed.

"The most successful house dynamics aren't necessarily driven by the composition of blocks," she said, "but rather the eagerness and willingness of any configuration of house residents to commit themselves to the tasks the house wants to accomplish," she said.

The Inter-House Council

Though its purpose is not defined in the College House System Constitution, the Inter-House Council (IHC) is an official entity whose responsibilities include "making sure that the houses are running efficiently" and "making sure that all the houses are on the same page," according to IHC President Mike LoBiondo '06.

The Council comprises LoBiondo, Vice President Tommy Long '06, Treasurer Megan MacLennan '07, and Secretary Alex Lamb '07. Each week, IHC meets with the presidents and the program chairs of each college house for approximately one hour, during which time the house representatives coordinate programming. They can also request money from IHC's budget to finance decorations and entertainment for house events.

Some college house representatives, however, feel that IHC does not serve an effectual role in the College House System.

"[IHC meetings] tend to be pointless in some respects," said Roberts, the president of MacMillan House.

Earlier this year, IHC passed a resolution that expanded the role of each house's vice president to include mandatory attendance at IHC meetings. In the same resolution, IHC adjusted the role of each house's elected historian to require that they compile a scrapbook or similar file to serve as an historical documentation of the year. Both resolutions will take effect next year.

For a committee that meets so often, house representatives indicated that discussion is often tedious and unfocused. House representatives often fail to show up to IHC meetings, and the secretary frequently neglects to circulate the minutes of each meeting after it concludes, according to Miller.

Though he allowed that IHC does "in some sense" facilitate communication between the Office of Residential Life and the college house heads, Miller said that "there are a lot of ways that the IHC could be an organization that is more effective and more helpful to the houses."

"It has its flaws, and that's an understatement," he said.

LoBiondo defended IHC, pointing out that, as long as money is being spent appropriately and houses are communicating, the council is as efficacious as it needs to be.

"As long as the houses are doing these things and working together as a system, the IHC does not need to be as involved," he said via email. "I believe the IHC has done its job in this respect."

"The IHC does not need to play an active role on campus because we have the houses to do that," he said.

Yingst, the Helmreich House president, believes that IHC tries to be too ambitious in its role.

"Oftentimes, the IHC sort of talks itself in circles around a high-minded goal that is, unfortunately, unobtainable," he said in reference to the notion that college houses should aim to be a "transformative social force."

Miller suggested that IHC and other arguably ineffectual elements of the College House System are left over from the College's Greek days.

"The College House System wasn't created from the bottom up?it came right out of the fraternity system," Miller said, "and with it came the dinosaur of the Inter-Fraternity Council, which they changed into the Inter-House Council."

"I don't think that the College House System is as streamlined as it could be," Miller added.

To varying degrees, house members indicated that re-evaluation and reform within the College House System is necessary, though none offered a specific strategy. Pacelli suggested that the burden of reform may not be on the Office of Residential Life.

"All Bowdoin students own a stake in the houses and, in my mind, the system is only as successful as the student body in aggregate is engaged in it," she said.