Questions about whether
Smith should offer theme-based living have been posed for many years. Often
requests have arisen from students of color who suggest “identity-based” housing
would offset the sense of isolation they feel. Others, often administrators
or faculty, advocate first-year housing. The college has offered theme
living in Dawes House, where students speak French. Chase house, where seniors
might also be considered theme living, and sometimes Tenney House is cited
because of the co-op style living and the requirement that cooking be vegetarian.
Hopkins House in recent years has become a residence where students do
their own cooking. Loosely defined, the Friedman apartments might also be
theme-based living. About 5.5 % of Smith students live in non-traditional
Issues of theme-based living came to
the fore again as a result of student activism in the spring of 2002. One item
in the May 14, 2002 "Repairing
the Community" document agreed to by the Grassroots Organizing Group
and the administration stated: "That the President-Elect pursue…a
broad exploration of the residential system, including more apartments and
and such options as a residence house for students concentrating in ethnic
and area studies and a Spanish-speaking residence."
Early in the task
force’s deliberations, we established a “theme-based
living options” subcommittee to explore these ideas and opportunities.
It included Tom Riddell, associate dean of the college, chair; Nicole Bowers
'03; Will Gipson, trustee; and Michelle Joffroy, assistant professor, Spanish & Portuguese.
The subcommittee focused on student interest
in theme living options and the extent to which theme living might support
college's residential system. We examined the results of the Housing
and Dining Preferences Survey with regard to theme living. There was moderate
interest in a number of different options. When requested by the survey
to choose an option, the most popular choices were language-based,
academic/intellectual, and specialized diet. More than 60% of those surveyed
said they would not choose theme living. Our analysis of these findings
that a significant minority of Smith students have some interest in theme-based
The subcommittee gathered information
about theme-based living at similar residential, selective, liberal arts institutions.
with the model
of theme housing at Amherst College shared with the task force by Dean
of Students Ben Lieber (1/31/03).
We met (2/13/03) with Randy Shannon,
housing coordinator, to discuss current “theme” living—Dawes
House, Tenney and Hopkins Houses, Chase House, and Friedman—and
its place in the housing lottery and room draw timetable. We also educated
about the room draw process as a whole. (Refer to Appendix 8 about
We met (2/18/03) with Mentha Hynes, associate
dean for multicultural affairs, to discuss the interest in theme-based living
ranging from the Grassroots Organizing Group1 to students associated
with Unity groups2
to the broader group of all students of color. Dean Hynes reported
that there is some interest and support for theme-based living among
around cultural and academic themes; she also noted that among these
students there is also disinterest as well as some concerns.
(2/21/03 and 2/28/03) with two groups of first year students to discuss their
thoughts about “first year housing.” These students were
all generally opposed to first year housing, defined as housing
where there are only first years. They described their present housing—living
in a mixed house, but in proximity to a concentration of first years—as
a good experience. One first year student sent an email, which
captures their thinking: "I did want to express my opinion about the
idea of first year housing. I'm assuming that you mean housing especially
for first year
I really like living in a house with all four classes, I found
it to be really helpful. There are people in the house who can recommend
guide you through the first year. It's also nice to have an immediate
group of people of different ages and experiences to be friends with, particularly
if most of the people in your classes are also first years."
met (3/4/03) with a group of students of color to explore their
ideas concerning theme-based living. This was a wide-ranging
we shared some
of the ideas that we have developed out of our discussions, meetings
with staff and students, and research. There was some enthusiasm
cultural-based, and interdisciplinary/intellectually-based living,
have faculty and staff involvement. There was also some opposition
to theme-based living on the grounds that it might produce segregation
in the current housing system. An email received from a sophomore
supported the option of theme-based living (quoting in part,
but at length):
… In my opinion Smith housing is a bit
outdated and is falling behind other schools. Just from my own observation
I notice that many students
of color tend to switch
houses numerous times during their four years, and many
of us lack a sense of house pride, etc. I think often we are isolated in
and we move
around to avoid feeling alienated from the house or being
labeled negatively for not participating or lacking enthusiasm. Personally,
I think it
nice to live in a house where I could cook foods that I
enjoy and share it with others who enjoy it, but I have never wanted to live
they are strictly vegetarian or vegan and therefore attract
a certain constituency. Plus, they are impossible to get into.
I admire schools
like Amherst that have options such as an Asian
cultures house, or Hampshire which has a few similar houses
for students of
color, and I don't
think it would be so bad for Smith to go that route. I
wouldn't necessarily like to live in an "Asian"-themed house
but I would like to live in a diverse house with other
students of color. Perhaps the theme would take
the form of anti-racism or global cultures/liberation or
something, and could be open to all students who demonstrate a vested
interest in the cause. I think
it could be run like an organization wherein students of
the house make the decisions. I also think there should be more
than one house like this with
variations of the theme, and that perhaps they should only
be an option after a student's first year.
has been dedicated to creating a sense
of unity on campus, and I think having options like this
students who feel marginalized to consistently have a base
support in our lives on campus, so that we can build our
network and the strength
we need to effectively contribute to the general life on
As it is, students of color are often resorting
to sitting with one another in the dining rooms, and joining Unity organizations
very formal or business-like, and sometimes exclusive. The
are also very fragmented and racially separated, and therefore
we don't have too many chances to interact with one another.
us who are
bi-racial, we're basically all over the place. I believe
that meaningful connections could be made across cultures
if there were
living options like this.
… Furthermore, I think the current
housing system discourages us from learning to be independent. We never have
clean up after ourselves, or be responsible
for others if we don't choose to. This may be a nice
luxury for some, but I feel that it is depriving me of an opportunity to
of myself. Getting
a Friedman apartment is an option that comes too late,
and it is also very difficult to get. I don't think we should have to struggle
this much to be
able to control what we eat and live among peers we have
something in common with.
We tried to meet (3/5/03) with a group of departmental/program
student liaisons to hear their opinions, but nobody attended
One student emailed
with concerns about the cliquishness of one of the language-based
houses at Amherst vis a vis other (prospective) speakers
of that language.
In all, we
invited over 100 students to our "focus groups" on
theme living options.
Our recommendations were
informed by our own efforts to think about the relationship between theme
living options and
the task force’s mission statement,
as well as identifying some of the pros and cons of theme-based
living. In one of the task force’s earlier exercises (10/25/02),
the most “popular” goal/educational
mission of residence life was: “Students should
be changed by their residential experience – outlook
broadened, exposed to difference, ideas/beliefs challenged.” We
wondered whether theme-based living was in contradiction
to this goal. Our conclusion was that it was not; rather,
theme-based living options could contribute to educational
and intellectual engagement in the
Smith community, complement classroom knowledge, and
support the educational objectives of some students.
would have to be taken to ensure
that theme-based living groups did not isolate themselves
from the broader educational purposes of the college
and the residential life system. We are
also convinced that theme-based living options would
contribute to enhancing opportunities for students to
mobility within the housing system
task force agrees that theme-based living could provide new models for integrating
the academic life of the
A structure should be established
to oversee and evaluate the exploration of theme living opportunities for
students at Smith.
Theme-based options should always involve students
and faculty and/or staff and require some obligation for community
service and/or education.
Theme-based living options would provide new models
for integrating academic and community life.
Proposals should be evaluated
according to their consistency with the various components of the Residential
Task Force mission statement.
Flexibility must be built into the implementation;
theme living opportunities must be re-evaluated every year to ensure
engagement with the community and responsiveness to changing student interest.
living need not occupy an entire house. Rather, floors and sections of some
houses might be devoted to theme
Theme-based proposals must ensure the recruitment
of a variety of students (not just groups of friends).
An Ad Hoc implementation committee
should be appointed in fall, 2003 to make recommendations
about the implementation
of this option.
recommends a gradual process, starting
with small pilot programs and their assessment.
A theme living committee, comprising
4 students, 3 faculty and 3 staff members (method of
implementation committee) would
receive, evaluate and approve proposals.
would define the interest of the group. Themes might include intellectual/academic
in a foreign
a cultural heritage,
substance-free living/wellness, or
a hobby/avocation, etc.
Proposals normally will be initiated
by students and must include endorsement by
with at least
members of faculty/staff.
application to be determined by implementation
The relationship between the theme
group and residential life staff should be considered
The application, evaluation and
approval process would occur each year, and no group
on-going approval or
to continue in the program.
Each theme group
approved must perform community service at Smith or
in the Northampton
or offer educational
regarding their theme.
Current theme houses,
including Dawes, Tenney and Hopkins, will be incorporated
theme-based living committee's
Consultant services on possible
use/adaptations of existing or new spaces on campus
would be important in
Possibilities for acquiring buildings
in the area surrounding the campus
should be explored
options (Amherst's theme options
were enhanced with the college's acquisition
the fraternity houses in the early 1990s).
we are not recommending first year housing, further clustering
of first year
be explored—especially along with
programming focused on their residential
experience and transition to college.