An Open Letter On Why the House System Should Not Be Scrapped

This open letter was penned by Peh Chu Ming, on behalf of all 6 Houses of the 3rd House Committee, was the first to be published in response to the new residential life proposal released on Wednesday. The open letter was originally posted on USP Life! yesterday evening in a Facebook post, which can be found here.

The Cinnamon Roll is a platform for all USP students to air their opinions and thoughts on all kinds of things. If you have an opinion about this particular issue or anything else under the sun and want to be heard, feel free to send your piece to the Submissions Desk at submissions.tcr@gmail.com. 

Dear Varun,

I am writing this letter as the House Captain of Nocturna and a concerned member of the USC. I speak on behalf of the USC 3rd House Committee, as well as all other members of the USC who share the same sentiments as me towards the new proposal put forth by the MC.

I think, from the title, you already know what this letter is getting at. I know that the MC will be presenting the new proposal to the USP admin in 3 days’ time, which means it is highly unlikely that there will be any major revamp to the proposed concept from now till then. Nevertheless, in the spirit of transformation (which is so highly sought after by the MC, no?), I am still going to voice my opinion because I strongly disagree with the scrapping of the House System as a formal structure and I do not see how the new system is going to enhance the residential living experience in a way that is radically different from the current Neighbourhood System.

As some people have rightly pointed out, it is not explicitly stated throughout the document whether or not the concept of Houses still exists in the new system. In response to that, you clarified that “houses/OGs can continue to exist as social groups that emerge from FOP”. My biggest qualm with the response is that you are avoiding the crux of the question altogether, and I feel that it does not do anyone justice at all. To put everyone on the same page:

Yes, houses will cease to exist as a formal structure under the new system. To further clarify, it means that there will no longer be 6 official houses – no more Ursaia (green house), Nocturna (black house), Ianthe (purple house), Triton (blue house), Ankaa (red house) and Saren (orange house). All these will be scrapped. Houses will cease to exist in the form that we currently know. End of story.

My biggest concern with the new proposal is precisely that houses will no longer be formally administered the way they are now. Before all the backlashes come in (“what’s so good about houses!? It breeds insularity!”), please let me try to express why I feel that the new system is unable to completely replace houses as a key social structure in USP.

On this note, may I also ask that a referendum be put up on the abolishment of Houses as formal structures and the passing of the proposal.

Lack of a sense of continuity

Firstly, the new system lacks the sense of continuity that Houses have. Yes, the Houses can and might continue to exist as informal social groups even beyond FOP, as I believe is the case with the OGs in batches prior to the founding of the Houses. However, by ‘de-formalising’ the Houses under the proposed new system, that sense of a shared House identity, culture and continuity will be lost. That sense of belonging to a core group of people that you can identify yourself with will not be adequately provided by the new Floors which are much more transient and “loose” structures. “Loose” and temporary may be the intention and it admittedly does have its benefits, but “loose” also means that people will likely feel less invested in the community. And what is to say that “loose” will not be much different from the current state of Neighbourhoods, which I think almost all of us agree is largely unsatisfactory?

Under the new system, the ‘baseline pastoral safety net’ becomes the Floor. All social and bonding activities will be held at the Floor level. Therein lies the problem – occupants of each floor would change after each academic year, or even semester, for that matter. Everyone will be dispersed and scattered around thereafter.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but personally I see RC as a home away from home. And for me ‘home’ is a place where I feel a sense of belonging towards, which by definition means that it should be a constant as much as possible – somewhere I know I can always come back to for comfort and support. This is an ideal that we should strive towards. However, the new system does not favour the continuation of bonds forged at the Floor level.

Very simply put, it is too temporary.

To be honest, one academic year (which equates to around 7-8 months?) is too short a time to forge long-lasting bonds, and one semester’s even worse. Imagine being thrown into an environment where you don’t really know the main bulk of the people, and then after finally getting to know them better on a personal level, the year ends. When school re-opens, you find yourself in a new environment altogether, having to know a totally new group of people.

Here’s another example. Imagine you are going on exchange. You bid farewell to the people on your floor whom you are supposedly close to. When you finally come back after a semester, you find all your floor mates dispersed around all levels of the RC and you are now sorted into a new Floor social collective. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind, but isn’t it nice to know that after spending close to half a year in a foreign land, you still have a core group of people in the RC whom you can come back to at the end of the day? I’m not saying that you can’t do that, or that your friends are gone just because you took a hiatus from school. What I’m trying to say is that the new system is not conducive for the development of a sense of belonging in RC – at least not on the floor level, because of its temporary nature. You may argue that “hey, but people have IGs and what-not where they can find their sense of belonging to.” Following that line of logic, what then is the purpose of the floor system? Surely there are more compelling arguments for it, since it is now going to take over as THE key social support structure?  (other than the fact that there’s ‘mutual visibility’ which you assume will necessarily facilitate bonding. But even then, I believe many would challenge the idea of ‘visibility’ based on status quo)

This, I think, is also part of the reason why Houses (or some other equivalent) are prevalent systems in educational institutions that have residential programmes all over the world. When people who live together are supposed to feel rooted to the community, a great way is to start them off with certain formalised smaller entities that are able to tie them into the wider community.

The reason why House members continue to invest their time and effort in participating socially in their respective Houses is also because they feel like they can identify with and belong to the House, and that has to do with the permanence of the Houses as formalised institutions. (This is also the reason why House Captains and Committees so happily invest their time, effort and dedication as well: because we want to serve this group of people that we feel strongly for.) This, in turn, anchors USP students to the USP community in general. 

The opportunity cost of doing away with Houses

Secondly, what is the basis for scrapping away the current House System? Is there something inherently wrong with the system that warrants the need to eradicate it? In fact, contrary to that, I can list down many benefits that Houses have brought and continue to bring to the residential living experience. I’m not saying that it is totally flawless, but I believe in its value as a system. I am saying this objectively, and not just because I am a House Captain myself.

Before passing me off as close-minded, please do allow me to clarify that I am not against change – but not change for change’s sake. Rather, change that actually has a positive value to it, change that improves.

I feel strongly that houses is not just a system that can be changed so simply. To quote a senior from my house, “it’s also a community of existing relationships and history which will have to co-exist with the new system for at least another three years.” To be honest, I find it quite ridiculous that the House System is being torn down in favour of the new Floor system. Yes, the new system MIGHT be a good change (this in itself is arguable, which I have explained previously), but why should that mean that houses no longer have a place in USP? Also, as someone has mentioned in the thread on USPlife, how can you be so sure that the benefits of the new Floor system will outweigh whatever we have currently, without negatively impacting what has so carefully been built up over the past few years?

As you yourself have pointed out, houses offer “students a significantly stronger system of mutual support than the Neighbourhoods” – in other words, it would be difficult to denounce the role of Houses as a key social support structure. Thus, wouldn’t it make more sense if the new proposal builds on this established network of bonds and ties, rather than dismantling it in favour of a new system whose results no one can be sure of? We are not working with a blank slate here, where there is nothing to lose. There are real costs at stake, and I do not think that the reasons you have proffered justifies the kind of risk we are taking.

The sense of continuity, shared culture and identity that formal Houses provide and that gives people a sense of home and rootedness in USP is what I think we will be sacrificing under the proposed system.

‘De-formalizing’ Houses essentially undermines bonds and relationships

This brings me to my third point, which is in response to your claim that “houses/OGs can continue to exist as social groups that emerge from FOP” and that it “will remain alive because of the bonding that comes from FOP.” Let me first address what I feel is the key issue here, which is the way the answer is being framed. If you think about it, technically what can you do to stop houses from continuing to exist informally? I feel that what you are doing here is essentially sugarcoating the situation. And there is simply no point to, unless you are attempting to downplay the ‘sacrifices’ that we are making to lend weight to the proposal? Perhaps it would be fairer to everyone if you explicitly state that the House System is being abolished, instead of masking the lack of reason for its eradication with a response that says nothing really.

My house committee also feels that houses are places where these bonds from orientation can be further fostered and nurtured. It is a place for these relationships to grow. If we were to dismantle these OGs after orientation, our USP FOP would be akin to any other faculty orientation, and if we did that, the relationships formed would be akin to those formed in faculty orientation camps. As a residential programme, we should structure our FOP in a way that expounds on our capacity as a residential programme, in a way that uses that capacity as a strength, and not leave us (and freshmen) with a fragmented sense of identity and belonging.

I think anyone would know that the supposed ‘de-formalizing’ of Houses would only serve to undermine the bonds and ties that have been so painstakingly forged through FOP. You may argue that if these bonds were so strong in the first place, then there wouldn’t be the need for a formal structure. But this is not the crux of the issue. The issue is, why aren’t we doing more to build upon this network of bonds and ties? I feel that in light of this new system, and its very temporary nature, it becomes all the more crucial for us to put in place additional structures to ensure continuity so that people can even begin to develop a deeper sense of belonging in the RC.  

I cannot help but wonder if there will be official USP-wide events for floors to participate in, and how the turn-out at these events will be. Will the sense of community still be the same? In my humble imagination, I see floor heads organising pizza parties perhaps in a suite or in the floor lounge, but I can’t help but wonder about the turn out. These Floor meet-ups will definitely mostly be voluntary (I hope) and held during the semester, and we all know how turn outs are like for events that take place during semesters. Furthermore, without the common shared experience of FOP and the bonds forged through FOP and being in a house, will these Floor events have enough power to attract adequate attendance and participation? Do note that attendance and participation are quite different things.

Also, my house committee feels that there will be major issues in finding floor heads, and especially floor heads who might be as motivated as current house committees. I’m not extolling how dedicated the current (and past) house committees are, but one thing I’m sure about is that they are all dedicated. If not, why would they even sign up in the first place? House committee members sign up to serve; to serve people we care about and a system we believe in. We want to serve a collective we identify ourselves with and gives us our sense of belonging. Will the floor heads be motivated enough to organise events, jio floor mates, etc., for a group of people he/she might not have shared experiences with or even know in the first place? The resulting relationship between a floor head and his/her floor mates might be a mutually detached one. Furthermore, there is an even greater distance between seniors and juniors, seeing how there is almost no senior/junior interaction which a house is currently able to provide. From my knowledge, all the houses don’t have an overwhelming sign-up for house committee positions, and I just wonder if there might be enough sign-ups for floor heads.

I am writing this letter on behalf of myself and the 3rd House Committee, as well as those whom I have spoken to who share the same sentiments as me. But I believe there are many more others out there who share the same view as me, but are not voicing their opinions for various reasons.

Lastly, may I request that the decision of whether to abolish the House System be put to a vote, so that the views of the entire USC community (rather than a vocal few) can be represented. I think that this is only fair to us.

Thank you.

Regards,

Chu Ming

on behalf of the House Commitees of Ursaia, Nocturna, Ianthe, Triton, Ankaa and Saren