Dorm vs. Residence Hall: A Silly Debate Nearly 100 Years Old

In most professions, there are certain words or phrases that are used to mark oneself as a member, someone who is “in.”  Many student affairs professionals doggedly avoid referring to on-campus housing units as “dorms,” even going so far as to take offense at the term and trying to correct those who use the hated word.  The preferred term is “residence hall,” a phrase that is used because dorm is perceived by some as being too cold and distant to describe someone’s home.  This is an issue on which a significant amount of energy is spent – just google “dorm vs residence hall” and you’ll immediately be thrown into the battlefield.

Personally, I think the debate – one which sometimes becomes inexplicably heated and emotional – is very silly and is usually a waste of time and energy better spent on substantive issues.  But my point here isn’t to convince you that I’m right.  I only want to share a surprising finding from the historical documents I’m current reviewing: This debate has been raging for nearly 100 years!

The conference proceedings for the 1941 meeting of the National Association of Advisers and Deans of Men (NADAM), the organization that later changed its name to NASPA, includes a talk given by Mr. R. B. Stewart, Controller of Purdue University (no, I don’t know what that title means, either), on the topic of “Institutional Housing Policies.”  In describing the student housing at Purdue, he noted:

Our approach to the student housing program began in 1927, when we received funds and borrowed money for the erection of our first Residence Hall for men.  At that time, our Trustees eliminated from Purdue terminology the use of the word “dormitory”, and since that date we refer to our housing units as “residence halls,” intending to convey the fact that our units are something more that places to sleep and for one’s being.

Whoa!  I knew that this battle against the word dorm had begun before my time in higher education but I had no idea that it was this old!







3 responses to “Dorm vs. Residence Hall: A Silly Debate Nearly 100 Years Old”

  1. Coco Lossil Avatar

    Same issues here in Australia. Dorms always had a seedy, down market connotations. Sweat shops and indentured labourers with beds or mattresses packed in, in large rooms fitting in many dozens. Disease was seen as rife in “dorms” – bed bugs, TB, influenza. Polio in the pre-vaccination era. Dorms were also associated with work then viewed as non-professional such as nursing. All female “dorms” also had a racy reputation, with flashers, and other habitual public nuisance offenders often loitering in the area. So the class and professional distinction of halls of residence versus dorms most evident. Ironically, in the early days, there may not objectively be much difference in the standard of both. 

  2. Kristen Abell Avatar

    I long ago gave up on this debate – just not worth my time and energy. At this point, I think most people get that we provide more than a place to sleep – certainly our parents and students expect it from the meetings and calls I take on a regular basis. Frankly, I’d rather spend my time on the facilities and programming themselves, rather than the terminology. Interesting to see the historical perspective of this, though. And someday, I hope to be a University Controller, ’cause that sounds awesome.

  3. del2124 Avatar

    Dormitory is a perfectly good word. “Residence hall” makes the user of the term sound pretentious and boring. Also dorms aren’t really more than a place to sleep.

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