A Look At Theme Houses

It’s a widely held opinion on campus that theme houses work. Out of the various articles and focus groups recently devoted to loneliness, students have worried about their place in the overarching community, the lack of tradition, and the athlete/non-athlete divide. Almost universally, however, it seems that students find their place in the smaller communities of theme houses. Especially for sophomores who want singles with a good community, these houses are a godsend. Within the wave of great change that residential life is initiating with their neighborhoods program, students want theme houses to stay.

Yet, by definition, not all students can be included in theme houses. For starters, these spaces are created explicitly for students with specific interests. For example, the fact that only students who speak Spanish or French can be a part of Newport is self-evidently clear and accepted. The unfortunate downside of the common ground that these communities rest on is the fact that there are students who just don’t fit into any theme house community. Yet, despite the repeated proof that these programs work, residential life hasn’t been actively promoting the program. A proposal for an LGBTQ theme house has been floating in the ether for about a year, recently having been pushed back until next room draw. Wesleyan, our sister school in the Little Three has a Jewish house, an environmental sustainability house and a writing house. If theme houses work as well as their residents claim they do, Amherst should be expanding the program.

It’s also a problem that there’s no administrative or student-based oversight system that looks at theme house admission processes or determines whether the houses are completing their missions. Right now, there is no transparency in the admissions process. Applicants go into interviews and are judged on the impression they convey to their peers after 30 minutes. House presidents, current residents and Resident Counselors are inevitably friends with some applicants and have heard vague rumors about others. While all houses have faculty advisers from departments they supposedly represent, the advisers don’t have a role in the process for non-language houses. In other words, it’s hard for students to know how admission to theme houses is determined. Furthermore, there is no way of holding theme houses accountable to make sure they are pursuing their intended mission. This is a perfect opportunity for theme houses to reassess and ask whether they are truly diverse groups of people who have bonded over similar interests, or whether they are just groups of friends who all decided to apply for the same housing.

It’s clear that Residential Life and the student body need to take a hard look at theme houses both for their many successes and their occasional failures. We should have a conversation to create more transparent processes for applying to theme houses and be frank about the need to explore more interests.