In March of 1997, the Board of Trustees approved the recommendations of the Trustee Commission on Residential Life (CRL). Fraternities at Bowdoin were phased out and a new system of inclusive "College Houses" was implemented. After more than a century and a half of fraternities at Bowdoin, their abolition was a historic shift for the College.
"I think it was the most profound change to happen at the College since coeducation," Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration Bill Torrey, a member of the CRL, said.
Ten years after Bowdoin significantly revamped its program of residential life, the College House system is still in a state of change and growth.
"The residential life system is still new and still evolving," President Barry Mills said.
Sense of Community
Given the considerable changes the College was undergoing in the months after the Trustees' vote, no one expected the new College House system to function smoothly at first.
In its interim report, the CRL wrote that "The transition to a College House System will not be an easy one, but we believe that it must be made for the good of the College."
Thinking back to the early progress of the College House System, Craig Bradley, who served as the dean of student affairs from July 1996 through June 2006, said he does not recall any specific point when the new system suddenly clicked into gear, but rather a gradual shift as student interest in the college houses grew.
"Candidly, I don't remember feeling at any particular moment that the [system] was now humming along, in the way that we expected or knew it would be, but it was heartening to see...people interested in living there and people interested in being leaders as part of this new system," Bradley said in a telephone interview.
The number of students taking part in the College House System increased annually and "people were getting behind it," he said.
But for Bradley, the results of the annual Senior Survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research (OIR), were most telling. "There was a set of questions that got at the sense of community that students were experiencing on campus and this was quite low in 1996, which was troubling to people," he said.
The data, made available to the Orient by the OIR, shows that only 28.9 percent of seniors graduating in 1996 were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the "sense of community on campus."
"But that number increased every year I was at Bowdoin," Bradley said.
"Personally, it was really important for me and my colleagues to see that [growing sense of community] because that's where people's energy was going," he said.
A decade later, the numbers had changed significantly. 69.7 percent of the Class of 2006 and 74.2 percent of
the Class of 2007 reported satisfaction with the sense of community on campus.
"I would say, when you go back to the title of the CRL report, 'Building Community at Bowdoin College,' that has certainly happened in the time since the Report was endorsed by the Trustees," Bradley said.
One of the CRL's biggest concerns was the sense of fragmentation felt by many students on campus. Ten years on, a substantial and noteworthy success of the College House System has been the significant increase in students' subjective sense of community.
Certainly the creation of the system of College Houses has played a profound role in increasing students' sense of community on campus, but other factors have also been in play.
One of "the big decisions that was made, if you think about life at Bowdoin, was Thorne Dining Hall," President Barry Mills said. "In my view, that size place and the social interactions that go around that size place, set a tone for what Bowdoin is about."
The CRL, citing a "critical" lack of dining facilities, recommended "the expansion of...dining space at Wentworth Hall." In 1999, Wentworth was renovated into Thorne Dining Hall which can now accommodate more than 600 people.
For many students, Thorne has become a nexus of social interaction on campus.
"I think the special thing about Thorne is that it really fosters a sense of community," Courtney Camps '08 said. "The fact that people will sit there and chat for two hours over dinner and desert is really telling."
"Thorne, because it so big inside and can accommodate so many people, is a hub for social activity," Greg Wyka '08 said. "Sports teams, for example, usually eat there together."
In the last decade, Mary Lou Kennedy, the director of dining and bookstore services, has seen a noticeable shift in how long people spend eating. Students tend to rush through lunch?or grab a bag lunch on the go?and savor dinner slowly.
"At dinner time, people do tend to linger at Thorne," Kennedy said. She explained that students appeared to be busier in their daily lives than they were a decade ago and dinner is often first time in the day "when people have an opportunity to sit down and chat."
While food can play a large role in creating and maintaining community, the power of drink is also a potent force in shaping the successes or failures of any collegiate system of residential life.
The abolition of fraternities did not abolish the perennial issues of alcohol on campus.
"I think Bowdoin students, at the College, know how to have a good time," President Mills said. "I think they've always known how to have a good time. I think they continue to know how to have a good time."
"I'm not sure that one can say that post-fraternities or pre-fraternities the issue of alcohol is any better or worse," Mills said. "It is an issue that we all need to focus on."
Bowdoin exercises considerably more control over how and when students imbibe than it did before the College House System was implemented. To many, who have been at Bowdoin long enough to see the sweep of history, the school's increased involvement in regulating alcohol on campus has been a change for good.
One of the more severe regulations enacted following the decision to phase out fraternities was the prohibition of hard alcohol on campus.
"I do think that this policy we have against hard alcohol on campus?which is, for the most part, honored in important ways?has to be one of the reasons why the incidence of alcohol poisoning on this campus is a fraction of what it is on other college campuses," Mills said.
The 2007-2008 Student Handbook states that drinks with an "alcohol content of more than 10 percent alcohol by volume that [are] found in campus residences by Security will be confiscated."
Director of Residential Life Kim Pacelli noted myriad challenges in managing alcohol on campus. "It's really a delicate balancing act of three things: health and safety, enforcement, and individual responsibility," Pacelli said. "I think of it as kind of a balancing board?if you push down too hard on any of them, the rest go out of whack."
A Dynamic Learning Community
The CRL asserted that "a residential college adds significantly to the education of students when it provides the opportunity for a distinctive and dynamic learning community to develop." A decade after the Trustees endorsed its findings, college houses have had varying levels of success at creating the learning community that the CRL envisioned.
One of the hurdles to creating that environment is reputation.
"As long as there is a demand for large, campus-wide parties, college houses are the obvious candidate to host those events," Pacelli explained. "But, for whatever reason, that's all they get credit for doing," she added.
Quinby House President Sean Morris '10 expressed his frustration with the way some students see college houses.
"To me, it's a shame that people don't consider the houses to their potential," Morris said.
"More than anything, I'd like for more people in the Bowdoin community to see the houses as a resource. People have so many good ideas and there is so much money available" for those kind of events, he said.
"I see the houses doing so much more [than campus-wide parties] in terms of chem-free events, in terms of non campus-wide party events, and I think they're starting to get the credit they deserve for doing that kind of stuff," Pacelli said.
"And yet everyone still calls them social houses," she added.
"Based on the character of each of the houses this year and characters of each of the presidents, the House system is on a really good trajectory this year," Morris said. "People don't just want to booze, they want to be intellectually curious."