Of all the amenities that the College became directly or indirectly responsible for when it elected to dismantle the fraternity system in 1997, the most precarious has to be the distribution of alcohol.
According to Charles Calhoun's Bowdoin history "A Small College in Maine", from 1890s through the 1970s, the administration basically left non-academic student life to the frats, stating in effect "we provide the classroom education...and you provide most of the dining, housing, entertainment, and socialization of new students."
For better or worse, that entertainment included drinking; students in the '90s might have accepted a College House System without exclusivity, but they would never accept one without alcohol. As a result of the College Houses, supervising drinking fell to the College in a way it never had before.
Of course, being able to better monitor student drinking was part of what inspired the elimination of fraternities in the first place. The semi-independent status of the frats prevented the College from ensuring the safety of its students to the extent they do now.
A full decade before they were disbanded, then-Dean of Students Kenneth Lewallan complained to The New York Times about sexual harassment, drunkenness, noise, and fighting at the fraternities. Professor of Government Richard Morgan recalled that they had become "pathological" by the end of their tenure at Bowdoin. But the need to police drinking also coincided with the precarious position the College was entering with the College Houses. By purchasing the old fraternity buildings, the College itself now provided the space where the largest parties on campus took place. If something tragic were to happen, it could face the same scrutiny that once fell on the frats.
The system of party registration is the College's most visible attempt to navigate the morass that is a party with alcohol. College Houses are required to register campus-wide parties with the Office of Residential Life. These parties can serve only beer, wine and champagne, and house members are expected to check IDs, provide food, and check their kegs with Security. Most importantly, one person, the alcohol host (A-host), must take legal responsibility if the house is caught serving alcohol to minors or overserving legal drinkers.
But a regulation is nothing without sanctions to back it up, and this is where the event registration protocol gets interesting. If the members of a College House choose to forego this process and throw an unregistered party, the typical punishment is social probation, which means that the house is not allowed to register any parties for a certain period of time. At first glance, this seems to be an odd punishment, considering that such a house had already elected to forego the registration process. Because it cannot make unregistered parties more illegal than they already are, the College takes away the ability to have registered parties. Unlike when an individual student is put on social probation, there is no obvious punishment that can be enacted on the whole house for violating house probation, besides an extension of that same strange probationary period or taking away house funds that couldn't have gone to unregistered events anyway. It almost seems like the only thing standing in the way of a house continuing to throw unregistered parties is their desire to throw registered campus-wides.
And yet, Mary Pat McMahon could think of only one example in her four years as the director of residential life in which a house was caught throwing an unregistered party while on house probation. Why has there never been a house whose reputation was for unregistered parties, in the same way that houses are currently known as being the athlete house or the weed house (the asocial house, if you will)?
For one, while the house-wide punitive measures at ResLife's disposal are limited, the consequences for individual students are real and varied. Unregistered parties obviously have no designated A-Host, but McMahon explained that ResLife works with Security to determine who furnished the alcohol, and "possible repercussions include individual disciplinary action for the hosts of that event." These repercussions include being removed from the house, as three members of Quinby House discovered last fall after an unregistered party was held there.
Outside of any school-related penalties are the legal risks of distributing alcohol on the scale of a College House party. Despite what many students believe, McMahon said "there's not a deal worked out where if it's a College House event, there's some sort of special regard from the town's end." House members hazard arrest whenever they provide alcohol to minors, but while the Brunswick Police Department knows "that Security goes through registered events and checks to make sure things are running safely," unregistered parties do not share the same expectation.
Ultimately, though, the culture surrounding the College Houses—not fear of punishment—is what prevents the possibility of a rogue house disengaging from the campus and its systems. Tanu Kumar '12, the former president of MacMillan House, said that "a certain type of person lives in a social house...you have to have a certain amount of enthusiasm" for being involved in the community.
Although she said that it was common knowledge that houses sometimes throw unregistered parties, Kumar said that a house choosing to throw them exclusively was unthinkable. "One of the big things of living in a social house is throwing campus-wides," she explained, and this cannot happen without registration with ResLife.
Whether it inspired their creation or was fostered by their structure, the community-oriented culture of the College Houses has taken on a life of its own.
The College Houses are not a student creation, but they endure because the students want them and the campus-wides they throw. The spirit of the fraternities, the original unregistered party houses, may live on in memory and certain off-campus apartments, but it is bereft of the spaces it once occupied.