Follow-up Answers to Questions About the

Charter Committee Report on Building Social Community at Trinity College

In the weeks since the introduction of the Charter Committee’s comprehensive plan, there have been many questions and comments—too numerous for just one email. So the Charter Committee would like to begin answering the most commonly posed questions through a weekly series, starting here. Future questions will be posted on the College’s Web site. The committee’s goal is to improve everyone’s understanding of the vision and intent of the plan for social community.

Posted November 12, 2012

Response by the Charter Committee to Professor Gregory Smith’s observations on their recommendations:

The Charter Committee received Professor Smith’s proposal after the board voted upon the Committee’s recommendations.  However, having now had the opportunity to review the Professor’s suggestions, we note that much of what he recommends is congruent with the plan authorized by the Board of Trustees.  There are some exceptions, which are noted below, but in the main we do not see the need to modify our plan for further review by the board.

Professor Smith’s plan seeks to solve our social imbalances by offering more social outlets.  Likewise, the Charter Committee plan prioritizes the development of more social outlets.  Having too few social outlets on campus has unfairly burdened fraternities and left them to shape student social life.  Through a dramatic increase in purchasing and outfitting social houses, along with making them residential, Professor Smith believes we can “keep students on campus.” Our goal is not to isolate Trinity students from Hartford but rather to offer meaningful opportunities to engage with our urban setting. Trinity’s urban setting is an asset that makes us unique among NESCAC schools. We view our home in Hartford positively and seek to strengthen the mutually beneficial relationship between our city and the College.  Increasing resources to further develop our interdependence with the City of Hartford is part of our proposal.  Confining students to very small residential settings only aggravates many students’ sense of a stratified student body that is lacking in a sense of community.

The first part of Professor Smith’s proposal is to keep cultural houses. Again, this is consistent with our plan. In particular, he suggests opening a Newman Center along with an Anglican House and an Evangelical Center. In addition to the historic Trinity College Chapel, which houses worship for several communities as well as programs for music and other performing arts, the department of Spiritual and Religious Life makes available to students the Zachs Hillel House and the Muslim Prayer Room. This office also provides staff support for the House of Peace, a theme house that promotes activities and awareness around Middle Eastern culture. Most recently, student leaders have come together to revitalize the interfaith house at 155 Allen Place. Already available and used regularly by our Newman Club, students seek to cultivate a diverse and open community in this theme house. Students wishing to establish additional faith-based theme houses will have the support of the Chaplain’s Office in collaborating with existing groups and/or developing proposals for additional houses now open on campus. We encourage additional theme houses as they are developed and supported by the student body. 

Second, Professor Smith suggests we “implement the newly announced theme houses.” We agree that this is a priority. A very thoughtful faculty committee chaired by Professor Mark Silk informed our deliberations, and students have already been invited to submit proposals for new theme houses.  This initiative is moving forward.  Additionally, Professor Smith urges the formation of nine academically based theme houses, each enumerated in his proposal, as well as three specific athletic houses, for a total of twelve new theme houses.

Third, and this is suggested as the core of the plan, Professor Smith argues we should expand the number of sororities from two to twelve and the number of fraternities from seven to twelve to allow for a separate but equal and balanced Greek system.  These new additions would add 15 more houses to our campus. It is his belief that funding for the 28 houses he specifies would come from students, parents, alumni and Greek national organizations. 

The faculty as a whole have been forceful in their desire to see the elimination of the Greek system at Trinity and most recently voted 76% for abolition.  The Charter Committee did not agree with this direction as we felt there are positives in continuing to promote Greek life, although one that is in accordance with our liberal arts mission.  We value and recognize the important history and traditions of fraternities and sororities on campus. And, our overall goal is to foster a sense of community at Trinity where all students are valued and recognized.

Currently, we have three facilities on campus available for conversion to social houses.  The purchase and refurbishment of 25 additional houses, as Professor Smith suggests, would require a major diversion of our budget resources.  We do hope our plans for increasing outlets on campus will inspire our generous supporters to make contributions to the social landscape. However, it is not our experience that Greek national organizations provide such funding; rather they receive student/family dues from the membership for certain services.  While we share his concern to develop theme houses, the College does not have the financial, administrative, or other resources to undertake the development of theme and Greek houses on the scale that Professor Smith outlines.  Additionally, fundraising for this project would significantly deter our ability to increase much-needed financial aid resources for students.

Professor Smith suggests further that we require pairing of fraternities and sororities.  As a result of the 1992 co-ed mandate, this is already in place.  “Strict monitoring of GPA” should be included.  This is part of the current plan.  There should be “penalties for misbehavior.” We agree. Our plan calls for both greater support and increased oversight of the Greek-lettered organizations on the part of the College.  We also hope to see a shift in a culture that appears to prohibit students from “turning in” a fellow brother concomitant with the notion that the fraternity must be protected above the interests of the College as a whole.  New supports and oversight should also lead to more cooperative relationships with those houses located on private property and allow the College to more readily gain entry and investigate activity within these houses.

Professor Smith suggests we bring in new co-ed fraternities.  Our plan also invites this development. He also suggests that “hazing and the extended pledging season” should be abolished.   Hazing is already prohibited by College policy, and we agree that pledging is deleterious to academic performance and can lead to psychological and physical abuse. Our plan calls for the abolishment of pledging. Professor Smith also recommends the appointment of faculty advisors to Greek lettered  houses.  We expect students to seek faculty advisers and partners in all the social houses—Greek, theme, and cultural houses—and many already do. Some Greek-lettered houses have faculty liaisons, but we believe more active involvement is to be encouraged.

Professor Smith suggests that his plan would free up beds for the College, presumably because all of the new houses would have a residential component.  This would greatly increase the costs referenced above, as we would have to bring up to building code standards all purchased houses.  We imagine this would only exacerbate the financial issues we face and might further fracture our student body and undermine our underlying goal to build community across campus.   Our plan includes a house system designed to foster student intellectual and social interaction in a residential setting and provides for a robust programming element. Our plan simultaneously allows for socialization through additional outlets such as Vernon Social, new theme houses and a strengthened collaborative community comprising all theme houses as well as Greek-lettered houses.

In many ways, the current plan and Professor Smith’s proposal correspond, especially in the evident desire to improve and increase social options for our students.  We agree that there is a need for more social options along with firmly rooting a culture that  strengthens social community on campus.  We continue to believe our comprehensive plan is a multilayered approach that will improve engagement among students and  increase faculty-student interactions.  Our thanks to Professor Smith for his suggestions. 

Why aren't you placing strict GPA standards on athletic teams?
Athletic teams are not social organizations, and membership selection is based on objective measures related to skill and talent rather than on subjective standards.
Additionally, our research reveals that varsity athletics at Trinity had a small, but in the end insignificant, effect on student GPAs controlling for gender, SATs, and so on. Monitoring it since then, the impact of involvement in athletic teams has been seen to be a wash:  it's a little harder for varsity athletes to achieve the top GPAs, but they are also less likely to have poor GPAs;  they are less likely to be on academic probation or to transfer; and they graduate at a better rate than non-athletes."

Posted November 7, 2012

Why did the Charter Committee recommend the co-educational mandate for fraternities and sororities?
The Charter Committee spent a great deal of time and effort to understand the nature of the social life on campus and what seemed to matter most to students.  We paid special attention to the feelings and words of those involved in fraternities and sororities. In all the letters we read, the meetings with student and alumni leaders, and the listening tours there was a palpable emotional commitment that we wanted to understand.

The most common thread was friendship—deep, loyal, and abiding friendships. "These guys have my back." Repeatedly we heard that the fraternity or sorority experience was the equal of (and in some cases superior to) what they had learned in the classroom. The leadership opportunities, the meals together, the responsibility of managing a facility and social events, the budget, ordering the food, planning menus, etc. were common threads. In addition, it was clear that many members devote a great deal of time to their fraternities, whether it is as an officer doing business or as a regular member just "hanging out" with friends.
Simultaneously we heard that many aspects of the party environment undermined respectful relationships between men and women, such as predatory behavior by males—and not necessarily by the fraternity men but also by other males who attend the events—or the objectification of women in the process of selecting who can come in to the party or implied dress codes.

Posted November 5, 2012

Why are you intent on changing the social life here?

Our social life and academic life are bound up together.  To put this in perspective, there is a great deal of data from our in-house research and outside research indicating that the social environment on campus is pulling down our academic efforts. Too many good students transfer to other schools, and far too many of them cite the social environment as a key reason; specifically, they find that too many of their classmates are unwilling to fully engage in the academic life of the College.

Surveys of first-year students at Trinity and at other peer liberal arts colleges show that Trinity students are more likely to have been high school drinkers and partiers, are almost twice as likely to exhibit hedonistic behavior here, and are less likely to aspire to accomplishment in intellectual, artistic, and social activist pursuits. Our research also shows that Greek students drink significantly more than other students.
Finally, College survey data comparing us with other NESCAC schools reveal that the number of Trinity students who consider their college a party school is many times higher than that at other NESCAC schools. Over time, this is having an impact on Trinity’s reputation.
Our goal is to broaden the social offerings at Trinity and to reduce the deeply disturbing increase in alcohol and drug use which, while not limited exclusively to Greek organizations, predominates in the social life focused in Greek houses.

How come there is nothing in the proposals specifically related to academics?

Our retention surveys show that it is the student culture that has the most dampening effect on academics. And it is the good students who, when they leave, cite the lack of intellectual curiosity among their peers.  Our own research reveals that “the better a transferring student’s GPA, the more they liked our academics and disliked our social life.”  Our new proposals aim to create an environment where intellectual curiosity prevails.

Additionally, there are several academic components in the Charter Committee plans. There’s an expanded first-year experience program, a new sophomore symposium, and a house system with an embedded faculty and academic component.

The College’s U.S. News ranking has fallen in the last ten years.  Isn’t that the responsibility of this administration?

Trinity's drop in the U.S. News rankings was driven by three principal factors: (1) the drop in the reputation survey scores given to Trinity by college presidents and deans, (2) the decline in faculty salary competitiveness as a result of our decade of budget crises, forcing faculty salary restrictions and freezes, and (3) the decline in student selectivity relative to our peers. The reputation survey drop was driven by the perception that Trinity was in an administrative tail-spin between the Dobelle and Jones administrations when Trinity had multiple presidents in a short period, and by our growing reputation as a party school, which is also the principal reason for our declining selectivity.  The faculty (and staff) salary restrictions resulted from the severe budget situation President Jones faced when he first joined Trinity, and the trustees are committed to returning faculty salaries to equity with our peers.

I don’t understand a lot about the House System. Is it residential for four years? Where will it be, and will there be new buildings built? Does your House affiliation conflict with any other interests or groups a student may want to be part of on campus? When does it start?

The House System is intended to be additive and complementary to all aspects of life at Trinity. It will give incoming students an immediate affiliation with a smaller group and provide another layer of advising, faculty interaction and upper-class mentoring.  House programming and spaces will allow for more student-sponsored social options, while bi-monthly common meals and meetings will facilitate regular community involvement and faculty/student interaction. No new buildings will be built. All first-year students will room together by House in the cluster of residence halls closest to Mather, and specific sophomore housing will be determined during the planning process. The new Crescent Street Housing is planned to come online in 2013 and is expected to be a part of this System, too. The House System will begin with the first-years arriving in the fall of 2014 (Class of 2018). The House System does not conflict with a student’s involvement in any other organizations of their choosing. We expect some students will get very involved in their Houses, while others may focus the bulk of their energies on other campus activities. We will ask, however, that students remain engaged with their Houses at some level throughout their years at Trinity, as participation is an important foundation and building block of a common community experience for all students.


Posted October 24, 2012

What is the Board really saying about Greek life with their unanimous vote? Do they really want to eliminate Greeks?
The Board does not want to eliminate Greeks, but rather enable and encourage them to thrive in an environment that is aligned with Trinity’s Mission to "foster critical thinking, free the mind of parochialism and prejudice, and prepare students to lead examined lives that are personally satisfying, civically responsible, and socially useful.”
It is interesting to note that of the 34 voting Trustees, nearly 65% are affiliated with Greek organizations. They value and recognize the important history and traditions of fraternities and sororities on campus. The Board’s goal is to foster a sense of community at Trinity where all students are valued and recognized.
Today’s world is a co-ed world, where men and women work together in all sectors of society.  On a college campus, where it is our responsibility to create a level playing field and prepare students for the world they will enter, the Board is affirming its commitment to co-education.  While planning for the transition starts now, the timetable calls for incremental changes over a four-year time horizon. The intent of the Charter Committee and Board is to see fraternities and sororities succeed within the new guidelines, and through the work of the soon-to-be announced Implementation Committee, the College will provide resources and support for all social organizations.