The housing committee got it wrong. Here’s what you need to know

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It is quite the time for controversy on campus. With all the attention on the APLS club recognition decision, (Editor’s note: please vote in the referendum!) the controversy surrounding group housing selection has been somewhat overlooked. Because I served on the committee last year as well as this year, I hope to illuminate some of the details of a process most people on campus probably don’t even realize happens, and tell you what you can do about it because this year, in my opinion, the committee got it wrong.  

The group housing application process is fairly straightforward. Organizations submit their rosters and a short written application, then present a three minute elevator pitch and spend 12 minutes fielding two predetermined questions and one question which is catered to each particular group from the housing committee, who spends one of their reading period days listening to presentations, asking questions and filling out the rubrics which act as the final guide for who gets assigned which house. The scores given by all the committee members, of whom there are usually around six, are averaged, and to gloss over some of the more complicated rules, groups with the best scores are assigned houses first.  

It seems to me like most years, the number of applicants is equal to the number of spaces available, so the work of the committee has more to do with figuring out who goes where than deciding who gets a space or doesn’t. This year was different: nine groups applied for eight houses, so one house inevitably was not assigned a space. This is where the controversy begins. A long standing group on campus was ousted by a new group, who was involved in some controversy of their own relating to safety and sexual assault, which is obviously a pretty central issue in the group housing process. The selection process happened early on as all this was unfolding, so I certainly didn’t know about any allegations and assume it was the same case for the others members of the committee. That said, if anyone in the group knew anything about the situation, shame on them for not bringing it up. The question we asked them was sort of a softball, and it was hard for it not to be given their application.  

This group’s written application was clearly the strongest of the bunch. It was clear, specific, and gave thoughtful answers to each of the four questions on the application, which ask about the group’s purpose, need for space, plan for programming and leadership structure. Their strong presentation was just the icing on the cake for the committee. This meant that the choice between them and the group who occupied that house this year was obvious: the previous group’s application was scored as the worst of the nine we received. This is where I was shocked and disappointed by the committee. Their application was pretty average. They suffered more from the circumstances they were in, being fairly similar to a few other groups, and broadening their purpose in a year where groups with a more specific focus tended to do better, than they did from any real lack of quality in their application. Their presentation was somewhat casual and unprepared compared to the others, but wasn’t a trainwreck in my mind.  

This was in stark comparison to the group ranked second to last by the committee, whose application was, to me, objectively the worst by far. The group’s application was pandering, defensive, largely unspecific and most egregiously to me, incomplete. Their responses were often completely irrelevant to the question asked. Their presentation was a bit better, but their response to our final question, “what are you doing to address and combat rape culture on campus?”, asked because of their less than glittering reputation, failed to go beyond what they are required to do by the school.  

You will be able to visit them next year and ask all about it, because they will have a house on campus! Don’t tell them I sent you because I would rather spend my Saturday night in the Fox River than in their house.  

This brings me to my advice for what you can do about it. First, if your organization is applying for housing, you need to spend some serious time on the application. Your responses should be clear, specific and detailed. I’m not saying the longer the better, but last year one fraternal organization was awarded a two year compact on the back of their 36 page application which was pretty obviously sent in by their central organization. That’s what you’re up against. The writing should be polished, though if this past year was any indication, actually finishing the thing doesn’t seem to be that important. Second, plan your pitch carefully- consider writing a script. In my opinion, you will be judged far more on your presentation than your actual content, so if it’s on Zoom make sure your lighting and microphone are professional and tested beforehand, and have more than one person there. Plan it as though the committee hasn’t read your application, because with so little training or information about serving on the committee shared beforehand, there’s a good chance they haven’t.  

The third and by far most important piece of advice is to apply for all of the houses you have any interest at all in living in. I cannot stress this enough. The group who wasn’t awarded a house this year can feel rightfully aggrieved by the misjudgment of their application, but their decision to only apply for their current house was a major blunder. It meant that even if they were better than the second worst group (which only outscored them by 0.6/30), because of the way the system only gives houses to people who actually applied for them, the end result wouldn’t have changed. To get the house they applied for, they would have needed to hugely improve their application and jump more than three places in the standings. If they had applied for more houses, they could have gotten one by only being a little bit better.  

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “hey, that seems a bit unfair. Seems like the houses weren’t assigned in a way that represents what the overall campus would have wanted,” you need to be on the committee. It completely sucks that you lose a day of your reading period, but it’s an easy chance to make a real difference on campus, it looks good on your resume and the housing office will reimburse you for a meal – or cater the event if it’s in person – so you sort of get paid. If you’re selected to the committee, here’s my advice: read the applications carefully well in advance of the day, and fill out the scoring rubric initially based on that alone. Then, adjust accordingly during the presentation. Be merciless. The big problem with the scoring this year was that it was difficult to separate groups from each other when in the scoring range of one to five, most people seemed to only use three through five. If you aren’t convinced a group really needs space to meet their goals, give them a one for that category. The more you emphasize the difference between the bad, average, good and great groups, the easier and more decisive the final decision will be.  

As for what I’m doing, first I’m writing this article. My other suggestion, which may or may not be useful, is more of an offer. As someone who has served on this committee twice now, has been a writing tutor for close to seven years and cares a lot about this issue, I’d like to offer any non-Greek life group unlimited, free support in any element of the application process. I will help you write your application, knowing what the committee has in mind when they read it; I will help you edit it to make sure the grammar and language usage can contend with applications sent in by adult professionals; I’m willing to help with the presentation aspect of it and making sure you know exactly what questions to anticipate; and overall, I can’t guarantee you will get a spot, but I can guarantee you’ll represent yourself in a way you can be pleased with. With safety on campus on the line, this clearly matters a lot, and I hope you’ll take my advice and take me up on my offer if you think it would help.