Building the Student Body Politic

By Susan Jarosi

Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory by Carla Yanni. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Dorms, residence halls, campus housing, fraternities, and sororities— what are these buildings in our midst? For students, they comprise a central, if temporary, locus of identity and daily existence. For faculty, they are likely peripheral structures on the edges of consciousness and on the way to more important destinations on campus. Their facticity as architecture endures, yet I suspect that most of us who have spent any length of time on campuses have not contemplated the intricacies of their material presence. Happily, there’s now a book for that.

In Living on Campus, architectural historian Carla Yanni offers a social and architectural history of the American dormitory as a “manifestation of three hundred years of American educational ideology that placed a high priority on social interaction among students.” As in scholarly studies of material display, gallery spaces, and museums—which tell us a lot about cultural assumptions regarding what art is—Yanni argues that dormitories as an architectural type tell us a lot about the assumptions regarding what they contain: the students themselves. Additionally, in the same way that we now take for granted that the production of art is socially regulated by mediating institutions, Yanni argues that we can understand the production of the American undergraduate to be socially regulated by beliefs around gender, race, religion, and class hierarchy—beliefs that have changed over time and that are embodied in architectural designs for dormitories.

Yanni organizes her research chronologically in a series of case studies ranging from the founding of American colleges in the late seventeenth century to “postmodern” developments in dorm architecture in the late twentieth. Each chapter is “keyed to important changes in the management of student life.” The first chapter focuses on elite residential colleges for men (Harvard University, William and Mary, Williams College, Dickinson College) and convincingly demonstrates that their architectural form was borrowed directly from reforming institutions such as asylums, workhouses, and prisons—spaces of social control that could serve, in this case, to replicate and secure elite social status. Following this thread of the gender, class, and religious selfselection that was inherent in dorm life from its very beginnings, Yanni moves to a discussion of residential fraternity houses, which are closely intertwined with the history of dormitories. For example, fraternity houses stepped in to fulfill the role of social exclusivity on campuses where there were no existing dorms for men, such as at the University of Michigan, which founded the first fraternity in 1846. In this respect, fraternities competed directly with dormitories as the instrument of social regulation: on many campuses, their elite membership, residing in independently owned houses, “set the tone” for a culture of rebellion, revolt, and indignation directed against the administration. Yanni’s historical analysis offers insight into contemporary conflicts between colleges and fraternities, which I think of as stemming in part from this contest between who gets to control the narrative about the function of “living on campus.”

Chapter 2 takes up gendered discourses surrounding the building of dormitories for women at coeducational colleges in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yanni focuses on Oberlin College (the first coed institution in the United States), the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan—examples that allow her to demonstrate how, at coeducational colleges, newly established “deans of women” effectively advocated for the needs of female students by securing commitments to building women’s dormitories, in some cases preceding dorms for men. Architecturally, the physical spaces of women’s dormitories, unlike men’s, emphasized the importance of safety and surveillance, as well as “feminine” social spaces in the form of richly appointed reception rooms and parlors designed for institutionally sanctioned, “socially engineered” interactions—such as dances, teas, formal dinner parties, concerts, and theater productions—between men and women that might domesticate unruly male students.

Chapters 4 and 5 attend to developments in campus housing after World War II: respectively, the “skyscraper residence halls” that state universities erected in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s in order to accommodate the flood of new students entering college through the impetus of the GI Bill, and the reimagined low-rise quadrangles and “hill towns” of the mid- and late 1960s that explicitly rejected the ordered modernism embodied in skyscraper residence halls. These competing visions of dormitory design reflected competing responses to institutional identity. The former represented the birth of the large research university or “multiversity”— knowledge production machines powered by big-name scholars in STEM fields, competitive federal funding, and prestigious graduate programs; the latter represented a reinvestment in the “character development” of undergraduates and a desire to “make the big university seem small.”

The book’s epilogue reasserts the rhetoric that underscores an idealist belief in the social benefits of living on campus. Student housing, whether in the form of dormitories or fraternity or sorority houses, continues to supply a set of distinct advantages for all parties involved: for students, it provides opportunities to build social and professional networks that for some can become a significant mechanism for class mobility, even while the residence hall tends to magnify social and class differences; for colleges, it buttresses the budget and builds loyalty to the institution as measured by increased donations; for parents, it offers peace of mind and soft surveillance. Moreover, Yanni asserts that living in a residence hall builds “social trust among diverse students” and “remain[s] essential for faceto- face networking, for both friendship and future careers, and [that] the potential for making social connections will continue to serve as a major incentive for students to attend college at all.”

Yanni takes brief note of the increasing “Ritzification” of campus housing—a trend from which public universities are not exempt, as the example of the lazy river on the University of North Florida campus illustrates. At the same time, she misses the opportunity to discuss a class-based counterpoint to public universities’ pursuit of the luxury campus: the resurgence in the last decade of the “commons” model of student residences at elite private institutions—complete with live-in faculty and staff—which doubles down on the narrative that distinct rewards derive from a seamless integration of academic, residential, and social experiences (Southern Methodist, Vanderbilt, and Middlebury are just three examples). If such architectural investments reflect the urgent problem of sustaining enrollments that all types of colleges and universities face, one wonders whether the elite private institutions have history on their side. Yanni’s study suggests that the revival of the living-learning model of campus housing at elite institutions may be an effort to shore up or secure their status against the threat of declining enrollment.

Yet there also may be signs that the ideological power of the dormitory and its ability to regulate social connection and social trust may be waning entirely, as evidenced by Gallup’s highly publicized 2018 poll that found that confidence in higher education has dropped nine percentage points (from 57 percent to 48 percent) in just three years. If, as Yanni argues, living on campus builds social trust among diverse students, could more dorms help mitigate the polarization of our population? Or might the decline in social trust be evidence that we need to recalibrate our confidence in the power of architecture?

Susa Jarosi is associate professor of art history at Hamilton College. She is a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and a past president of the AAUP chapter at the University of Louisville.

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