Campus News

Bowdoin College Trustees Unanimously Endorse Plan to Replace Fraternities with House System as Part

Story posted March 15, 1997


BRUNSWICK, Maine -- The Board of Trustees of Bowdoin College has endorsed in principle a college commission's interim report calling for a phase out of fraternities by May 2000, the development of a "house system" aimed at creating a greater sense of a campus community, and an ambitious program of building and remodeling of residential and dining facilities at the 203-year old institution. The initial phase of this program is estimated to cost $12 million over the next three years.

The recommendations, which also call for the establishment of "A Philosophy of Residential Life" at Bowdoin that "sets forth the values of a learning community," are contained in a 30-page report submitted to trustees on Friday, February 28 by the 16-member Commission on Residential Life, a group chaired by Bowdoin Overseer Emeritus Donald R. Kurtz (Bowdoin Class of 1952) of Stamford, Conn. The commission comprises trustees, students, faculty, alumni/ae, and administrators. It was formed last May by the Bowdoin Board of Trustees and charged with "developing a philosophy for residential life which includes as principal objectives the enhancement of student learning and growth and fostering a sense of community," and assessing "all existing facilities and practices regarding residential life in light of this philosophy."

The interim report was endorsed in principle by a unanimous vote of the trustees on Saturday, March 1, and was then distributed to all students, faculty, and staff. A separate copy of the report has been mailed to all Bowdoin alumni/ae and parents.

"This is truly a landmark document that sets forth an exciting vision for strengthening Bowdoin as a residential college," said Frederick G.P. Thorne, chair of the Bowdoin Board of Trustees and a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1957. "The recommendations by the commission, now endorsed unanimously by the board, involve significant change, but Bowdoin must change if it is to remain one of America's finest colleges. This plan will enable Bowdoin to build upon the foundations of friendship, community, and learning which were at the heart of the fraternity system when it was founded over a century ago."

In developing its interim report, the Commission on Residential Life met with hundreds of Bowdoin students, alumni, faculty, and staff; inspected all of Bowdoin's residential facilities and fraternity houses; held open forums on campus and with alumni/ae and parents in Portland, Boston and New York; and visited campuses similar to Bowdoin's throughout New England. The commission also solicited comments from students and alumni/ae through surveys, publications, and the Internet.

According to Kurtz, the commission's recommendations have been guided by six central themes. These include building community at the College; inclusiveness; a need to revitalize the core campus; a desire to focus on the needs of the sophomore class; the importance of identification with a residence in all aspects of student life; and a return to a sense of tradition at Bowdoin.

In its report, the commission proposes a guiding philosophy of residential life embracing a set of values for "a learning community." These include engagement in active learning and inquiry, fostering an environment of challenge and growth, preserving freedom of expression and inquiry, encouraging mutual respect and civility of discourse and concern for others, shared responsibility for the community, friendship and fun, connection to the larger community, a commitment to serving the common good at Bowdoin and beyond, and an affirmation of Bowdoin's history and finest traditions.

The commission concludes that while other colleges have invested heavily in residential and dining facilities and programs, Bowdoin has allowed its own residential life program to develop "without a clear, guiding philosophy and without adequate resources." The commission has further concluded that Bowdoin has, for well over a century, "delegated much of its responsibility for residential and social life to fraternities" which are not owned by the college.

In recommending the closure of Bowdoin's fraternities by May 2000, the commission has noted that the positive ideals behind the fraternity system are outweighed by diminishing financial and human resources at the fraternities. This lack of resources has, according to the commission, led to a deterioration of the facilities and has made unrealistic and unsustainable the fraternities' burden of providing a large proportion of social space on campus. Additional concerns about the fraternities contained in the report include weak upper-class leadership, an uncertain legal relationship with the college, and evidence that the presence of fraternities at Bowdoin has hindered the recruitment of top high school seniors into the first-year class.

In place of fraternities, the commission has recommended the creation of a non- exclusive "house system" owned and maintained by the college. As envisioned by the commission, all entering first-year students would be randomly assigned to dormitories at the center of campus which would be associated with a college house. These "houses" would include a catering kitchen, capacity for occasional dining by as many as 80-90 students, recreational and social space, quiet study areas, and rooms for students to live in. Every student would be a member of the same house throughout the four years at Bowdoin.

Other recommendations included in the commission report are a stipulation that all sophomores be required to live in college-owned buildings beginning in the fall of 1998 and that the college embark on a comprehensive program of construction and renovation of residential, social, and dining facilities. This process was begun in 1995 with the $4 million renovation of dining facilities in the Moulton Union and the $5 million construction last year of Howard and Stowe halls, dormitories providing a total of 100 new beds and the first new college dormitories constructed since 1964.

According to Bowdoin officials, the next phase of a residential life building and renovation program will cost an estimated $12-million over three years, with the nature and costs of future phases to be determined in the coming months. The college's 1997-98 budget, also approved over the weekend by trustees, includes $500,000 for initial implementation of the commission's recommendations, with the money to be used largely for debt service on funds to be borrowed. All expenditures will be made within the context of a balanced budget and prudent utilization of Bowdoin's $300 million endowment. In addition, any new construction will take place on the central campus and in accordance with a soon-to-be- completed zoning ordinance for the town of Brunswick.

The Bowdoin Board of Trustees has instructed the Commission on Residential Life to work over the next two months with students, faculty, and staff to create a plan for implementing the recommendations contained in the interim report. The commission will deliver its final report, including details on implementation, to the Board of Trustees in early May.

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