Controversial Eating House Self-Selection Brings New Traditions

Caroline Roy ‘20

Features Editor

Picture courtesy of Rusk House

For a day characterized by tradition, this year’s self-selection introduced some big changes that affected the schedule, the toppings, and the algorithm itself. Some of these changes, like staggering mealtimes at Commons, were intended to make the day more efficient. Others, like the use of color powder instead of traditional toppings, left students with mixed feelings about the new way self selection is operated.

The morning began early as usual, with new members picked up by sophomores and escorted to their respective houses. In the past, the houses flocked to Vail Commons afterwards to eat breakfast, socialize, and bond as a house. This year, rather than letting all four houses come to Commons at the same time, Patterson Court Council (PCC) decided to stagger the arrival times to prevent overcrowding. 

Director of Dining Services Dee Phillips says that Commons during self selection is not like any regular morning—it requires some extra preparation.

“As long as we know to expect a large crowd at one time, we are able to increase staff and prepare more food,” Phillips said. 

Styrofoam trays and paper cups take the place of non-disposable dining ware, and according to Phillips, the event usually goes smoothly. Her only concern is maintaining a safe environment, especially for the students who arrive rowdy or intoxicated. An email sent out the week prior to self-selection day detailed rules about behavior at Commons, warning against standing on tables and chairs or bringing alcohol inside. 

“We are glad to serve, but cleaning up after someone that can’t hold a tray is not what we should be expected to do,” Phillips said. 

Another big change to this year’s self-selection was the use of colorful powder during toppings ceremonies in place of the usual paint, chocolate syrup, mustard, and BBQ sauce. 

“A lot of the toppings were seen as gross, contributing to food waste and to allergies,” said Rusk President Tatianna Travieso ‘20. “They wanted to standardize it.”

In years prior, each house had its distinct toppings ritual, but this year the experience looked much the same for all four houses. PCC provided white T-shirts for house members to wear for the new toppings. Turner President Siân Lewis ‘20 said that the changes exempt eating houses from potential cases of hazing. In past years toppings has been exclusively done to first-years; now it includes any in the house who wishes to participate.

“It makes every house do the same thing, which lets everyone have the same experience even if you don’t get into the house you want,” Lewis said. 

Warner President Rose Botaish ‘20 pointed out that while these may be big changes for upperclassmen, first-year students will not have any past experience to compare.

Courtesy of Sarah Woods ’21

“All the houses have their own colors, so there’s still a unique identity for each house. I don’t think changing the mode of toppings will change that,” Botaish said. 

While many students participating in self-selection are prepared to get their first choice, this year saw a large number of people getting their second, third and even fourth choices. According to Mathematics and Computer Science professor Dr. Laurie Heyer,  who helped design the algorithm alongside a team of students in a project known as PRONTO, 160 out of 199 women (80%) received their first choice house. 

“The algorithm is guaranteed to produce the best possible set of assignments, based on the input data (the women’s choices) and some very basic assumptions about the ‘penalties’ for getting lower choices,” Heyer said. 

She also said that for the first time ever, PCC Advisor Erica Urban could run the algorithm herself. Despite its intention to create the best possible outcome for every student, the algorithm left many disappointed, frustrated, and wondering what went wrong. 

Delilah Artus ‘22 said that she and her friends were hoping to join their sophomore friends in one house, but ended up getting their third choice. 

“I dropped the house about three hours after having been put in,” Artus said. “I think it is unfair to title the process ‘self-selection’ if people are getting their last two choices because one house needs more people than others.”

Outcry from those assigned to their third or fourth choices even prompted parents to contact the administration. 

One public tweet from a Davidson parent was directed to President Carol Quillen, Urban, and The Davidsonian: “2019 self-selection failed. 8+ girls got last choice. A day that was supposed to be joyous for some was a day filled with tears. Admin blames PCC and their algorithm. Admin ignores pleas to intervene.” The Davidsonian has not been able to corroborate that the statistic referenced is factual.

Urban said that even though some girls received their last choices, the algorithm’s 80% success rate has been consistent for the past five years. 

“Any changes to the algorithm or self selection process will be proposed and approved by the Eating House presidents,” she explained. 

Artus says that many other girls also ended up in their third or fourth choice house. Many students speculate that this could be a result of one house having fewer members than the others and therefore needed to take in a larger number of First-year women, though this has not been confirmed by PCC. Artus suggested that this might be a larger problem that even a good algorithm can’t fix.

She said, “If not all four houses are equal, [first-years] shouldn’t have to deal with getting a house they originally didn’t want. That is a problem within the house itself.”

Comments are closed.