The Scattering of Campus Social Life

It’s no secret that the destruction of the socials has had a big impact on the social scene at Amherst. If a group of students want to have a party, then they have to reserve a dorm’s public common room, or a venue like the Powerhouse, unless they live in one of the five suites in Jenkins. That has made it a lot harder to organize parties, according to Beau Santero ’18, a member of the football team. On the flip side, residents of the “Triangle” dorms of Mayo-Smith, Hitchcock and Seelye have qualms of their own, with one Mayo resident speaking for many of his neighbors when he complained of sticky floors and trashed bathrooms after parties organized by non-residents.

At the end of the day, some of these conflicts are inevitable when students have such different ideas of a good time. Some people look forward to Friday, because it means a board game night in a friend’s dorm room. For others, it means getting a good night’s rest before waking up early for a hiking trip with the Outing Club. Still others pine away, lighting candles to the memories of Pond, Stone, Coolidge and Crossett.

However, after talking to a few of our fellow students, we have come to the conclusion that a lot of the tensions, which arise when students with different interests compete for a limited number of viable social spaces, are due to the dynamics of party registration and dorm governance unique to Amherst. This is good news, because it means we can try and fix things.

The key problem of partying at Amherst after the socials’ demolition is that the interests of partygoers and dorm residents are less aligned than at any point in the college’s history. Before 1984, residential fraternities hosted most parties. After 1984, a mixed regime of parties within on-campus suites, parties in common areas of dorms and parties in off-campus houses prevailed. Under both systems, a large share of parties were held by residents in a suite or house. Obviously, this helped reduce the negative effects of noise and mess on students less interested in partying. Now, with all options other than parties in common rooms and public venues like the Powerhouse eliminated by architectural fiat, living and partying have become spatially scattered with negative effects for all. Moreover, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for people to form intentional communities with their peers that are grounded in a fusion of social and residential space — a formula that has been essential to the success of theme housing at Amherst.

In exploring these issues, we spoke to four students: a football player, a Mayo-Smith resident, a theme house residential counselor (RC) and a three-year RC who has supervised both first-year and returning-student dorms. We know our research is far from exhaustive. The sample size is tiny, and our respondents were drawn from our extended social circle. That’s why we intend for this to be a starting point. We hope others will raise new ideas and call us out where they think we are mistaken.

Our conversations with a resident and partygoers on the Triangle help illustrate why the current situation is a crummy deal for partiers and non-partiers alike. One Mayo-Smith resident said he wouldn’t choose to live in Mayo-Smith “or a similar dorm” again. Indeed, according to statistics provided by Director of Student Activities Paul Gallegos, 29 percent of all registered parties in the 2016-2017 academic year to date have occurred in the three Triangle dorms (Mayo-Smith, Seelye and Hitchcock).

That burden is perhaps a contributor to the divide between partiers and residents perceived by the same Mayo resident. “On weekends, the bathrooms are frequently trashed, with spilled alcohol, cups, and garbage on the ground,” he said. “Our first-floor common room is disgusting, smelly, sticky and unusable.”

This lack of accountability is a natural result of a system in which residents and partygoers have distinct interests. Conversely, Santero described a parallel group of problems faced by people trying to organize parties: demolishing the socials, he says, was “a shock to the system.” Now, “it’s a scramble to get a giant group of guys who are really excited to go out on a Saturday all together in a social space while also trying to be respectful to students who, quite simply, never wanted to live next to the football team in the first place.”

One RC, who asked to remain anonymous, painted a picture of exceptionally toxic relations between his residents and students using the dorm’s common space for registered parties. “I know that there have been dorm damage incidents in the past in all dorms, but this year damage has skyrocketed,” he said. “Damage has gone beyond just simple accidents to outright destruction of property and disrespect. The basement has had eight holes [made by students] … these are holes the size of a chair or a human body.”

The tenor of relations described by the people to whom we spoke belies the effectiveness of a technical or administration-driven solution. We are not at all anti-party. In fact, we’re the opposite. And new rules, or a new formal party registration system, seem like half-measures at best. What has happened is the complete dissection and rearrangement of student life in space. Strong communities are based on the richness of overlapping social, residential and academic experiences. When these different functions are scattered across campus, it’s a no-win situation.

Our interview with Bryan Doniger ’18 was a refreshing counterpoint to the horror stories we heard from our other respondents. Bryan is the RC of Marsh, the arts theme house. Marsh is an intentional community. Members have to apply and interview. They contribute to the life of the house with Marsh-sponsored art projects. The dorm has an e-board and a president alongside the RC.

Doniger says that when his residents have objected to a planned party, “we’ve been able to work out all objections without cancelling any parties … the goal is to host events while still keeping everyone relatively happy.” As a result, Doniger has had to do much less to resolve conflicts between residents and partygoers than RCs of other dorms, noting that even when he had to shut down parties, things went smoothly.

Doniger’s experience with Marsh may be idiosyncratic. However, we think there is a more compelling explanation. Marsh as a whole has more social resources than other dorms. By that, we mean it is a real entity in a way that Garman, Seelye and Lipton just aren’t. Because it functions as a hybrid of a student organization and a residence hall, residents know what they’re getting into. We believe this web of social ties creates a sense of collective belonging and responsibility that is missing in other dorms (aside from the other theme houses). It is weakly institutionalized where it does exist, making it hard to perpetuate. Thus, Marsh is able to host regular open parties and biweekly Coffee Haus events with little fuss, even as other dorms have seen a huge increase in party-related conflict.

The question is not what to take away from other dorms, but how to make Marsh-like systems a bigger part of residential life. Marsh works because it is built on organic ties between students, not the artifice of administration-proposed follies like last year’s “Neighborhoods” scheme. Designating distinct “loud” and “quiet” dorms is a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. Moving forward, we should explore ways to build Marsh-like institutional structures into the fabric of upperclassman dorm life at Amherst, learning from relevant models at other institutions, like the social houses at Bowdoin and Middlebury or the eating clubs at Princeton that have abandoned the selective “bicker” process.

This article is not a research note or a policy proposal, and it is not our place to make specific policy recommendations that our little bit of investigation doesn’t justify. But it is safe to say this: In 1986, the Beastie Boys called on their fans to “fight for the right to party.” Now more than ever, we need to make sure that this is a fight we have with the administration, not with each other.