Duke rethinking dorms that divide

Eric Ferreri

McClatchy Newspapers

DURHAM, N.C. (MCT) – In the Wayne Manor section of Duke’s Wannamakerdorm, garbage cans are stuffed with empty cases of Busch Light beer. Rooms with lofted beds, couches and flat-screen TVs burst with people when the residents throw a bash.

Just a short walk away in a quiet section of Edens dorm, each resident’s name and hometown is posted on the door, summer-camp style. The strains of one of the three pianos often waft about, and a commons room is festooned with multi-colored streamers, balloons and Christmas lights.

The 42 residents of Wayne Manor – an all-male social group similar to a fraternity – appear to have little in common with the nine students in Eden’s Arts Theme House, which is smaller, co-ed and less likely to host an all-campus party. But these groups – and 22 others recognized by Duke – have a common cause: Their ways of life are targeted for extinction.

The “selective living groups” are students with similar interests who, with the university’s help, establish communities by living together in blocks of dorm rooms. These groups have certain perks. They can rent a grill from the university for a cookout, for example, or get a couple hundred dollars for a group activity.

Most important, according to the recently released Campus Culture Initiative report, they dictate the campus social scene by virtue of the turf they inhabit.

“Access to real estate means setting the rules of social engagement, and the university must face the fact that residential space, and control of it, continues to be experienced as gendered and alternative unfriendly because of the ways it favors certain groups,” the report states.

Other universities have special-interest housing – North Carolina State’s Arts Village is one example – but Duke’s system is unusual for its scope and the number of organizations involved. It has been spurred by Duke’s lack of on- or off-campus housing for fraternities or sororities.

Work on the culture report began soon after three Duke lacrosse players were charged in March 2006 with sexually assaulting a woman hired to dance at a team party. Those accusations led to a broader look at drinking and other behavioral excess.

The report recommends that these groups no longer receive preferential housing treatment. On Duke’s West Campus – where more than half of Duke’s undergraduates live – about 30 percent of beds are assigned to selective living groups. These students are overwhelmingly male – 77 percent – and many are in fraternities. The result is inequitable room assignment that fosters exclusivity and cliques, the report concludes.

Such conclusions have many members on edge.

Tom Adelman, a junior with Wayne Manor, acknowledges that selective living groups can breed a form of exclusivity. But, he argues, isn’t that the point? Wayne Manor – a reference to the home of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego – hosts parties, collects dues and sends members to tutor at an elementary school. It doesn’t put the same emphasis on pledging that Greek fraternities do. While most members are white, they bring a range of ideologies, and the group keeps its dues low to foster socio-economic diversity, Adelman said.

To Adelman and many other members of these groups, there is value in living among friends.

“I can walk down the hallway and my friends are going to be there and we can go to the gym and play basketball,” Adelman said. “There’s always somebody willing to do something with you.”

At the Arts Theme House, Katherine Almquist agrees. A senior from Atlanta, Almquist is the president of the group of students who chose this dorm to be with like-minded lovers of music, art and self-expression.

“This is not the party house,” Almquist said. “But this is a group of people you can find to recite crazy poems in the middle of the night or listen to sonatas or go fingerpainting with.”

To become a member, students must demonstrate an arts-related talent or interest. Almquist, for example, is a juggler. One year, a student insisted her art was, simply the color red. She was admitted and proved a valuable member.

Almquist argues that hers and other selective living groups accomplish just what Duke should strive for – diversity of backgrounds and experiences.

But what if you’re not in one of these groups?

Last year, Trisha Bailey lived just a few feet from a stretch of dormitory inhabited solely by fraternity brothers.

“The idea of having to walk through this space of 30 guys, it’s awkward,” Bailey recalled. “You’re very aware it’s their space. It’s not common space.”

Bailey, a senior from Arizona, was one of five students on the committee that produced the culture report. While she acknowledges the value of selective living groups, she calls the housing preferences awarded to them “a relic from the past.”

The challenge, she says, is to change the residential life structure without damaging the campus experience for members of selective groups. And she insists the strongly worded culture report doesn’t heap blame on fraternities, as some have suggested.

“It’s not an attack on the social lives of students,” said Bailey, who belongs to a sorority that has no on-campus living space. “And I think it’s perceived to be an attack on the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality.”

While at Duke, Armando Huaringa, 23, was a member of Round Table, a living group of about 50 members that invites a faculty member for dinner each week. Huaringa describes his group as one that takes the quirky, timid or even “uncool” and gives them a chance to blossom. Huaringa objects to any change that would lump selective groups together. While some groups might hold sway over the social habits of the student body, Round Table certainly doesn’t, he said.

“Grouping us together and saying the sins of one or few are shared by all is unfair,” said Huaringa, now a high school teacher in Houston.

Duke Provost Peter Lange, who is leading a campus examination of the report’s recommendations, acknowledges that selective living groups – ranging from social fraternities to a group of foreign language speakers – are a diverse bunch.

Already, alums of some selective living groups oppose any change, and some student leaders say they expect enough opposition to prevent changes to the current system.

That would suit Ross Katz, a senior in Wayne Manor, just fine.

“It makes college a lot easier,” Katz said of the selective living structure. “I wouldn’t trade coming to Wayne Manor for anything.”