Thoughts on group housing

Consider for a moment what the layout of our campus would look like if the group houses were selected by our administrators and deans rather than the students. This is a theoretical exercise. Group living has been placed more firmly in the hands of the student body than ever, a decision that has its own merits and drawbacks. As a former member of the Formal Group Housing Selection committee, I witnessed and participated in the way the group living—and consequently the social layout of this campus—is determined incrementally each spring. After witnessing a housing selection system that was mostly determined by students, I have come to believe that there are some drawbacks that should be considered, and that counter-intuitively, an administration-selected system may actually be more fair and beneficial to the campus climate.

My own experiences on the housing selection committee were eye-opening. I was able to witness a process that is secretive and remarkably influential on our campus climate. I can personally attest that I was a biased voter. In fact, everybody on the housing selection committee was a biased voter. The small campus and student body make for fast-travelling information—rather that information is fact, fiction or speculation. Therefore, each of our decisions were made based on what we thought was best for the campus, but also based on the way we perceived campus.

Additionally, several controversial applications and issues weighed during discussion forced members of the housing selection committee into making difficult choices. On one application, Associate Dean of Students for Campus Life Amy Uecke and Vice President of Student Affairs Nancy Truesdell instructed us not to consider high-profile controversial incidents surrounding a particular formal group. But how, in such close proximity, could one not consider that information when examining that group’s application?

I suspect that there were not only structural biases that could not be removed, but there were members of the housing selection committee who indicated that they had come in with a specific set of agendas regarding the housing policy. These agendas went beyond just a general opinion of how housing should have proceeded. These were individuals who were on the committee to vote on specific houses that they had some personal connection to.

My suspicions are based on my own experiences. Admittedly as a member of the housing selection committee, I entered the two housing selection meetings last spring with opinions on three specific existing formal group houses and their claims to certain group houses. However, there were no swing votes that fell down to my individual decision. Many of the decisions made had margins of at least two or three votes, meaning that one person’s ulterior motives could have unlikely rivaled the strength of the entire committee.

However, it was evident that there was no safeguard against such a situation happening. The makeup of the council, which included residential life members, formal house residents and students at large, was a pitiful attempt to control for biases. Because of size and proximity, collusion is a real and dangerous threat to established formal groups that meet and exceed the expectations on the application process. I learned that I do not trust the Lawrence student body to look solely at a formal group’s application.

Nowhere was this more evident in conversations that took place regarding Swing House both on the selection committee last year, and in the recent staff editorial of The Lawrentian. In both discussions, Swing House has been accused of slithering through the application process with minimal effort and blatant dishonesty. We know in reality that Swing House does meet the criteria for a formal group house. The council voted away Swing House’s three-year contract not because their application was inadequate, but because their reputation was inadequate, and despite continually advertising their events and making attempts to reach out to campus, we have deemed their living experience a failure because we chose, as a committee and as a student body, to alienate ourselves from Swing House.

The selection committee has less to do with the application process so much as it has to do with reputability. It is wise to not worry about how other’s perceive you, but when it literally does matter how others perceive you, formal group houses suddenly have to focus on not the frequency, productivity, and success of their outreach and philanthropy, but whether everybody else thinks they are doing a good job or not. How are we supposed to build a community if we are constantly pitted against each other for survival? How can we have amicable relationships with other formal groups if, through perfectly rational self-interest, that they prefer their own survival to ours?

I believe that a student-run housing selection committee creates a system that is competitive in the wrong ways, especially when the idea of turnover is discussed as if it is a positive thing. Recalibrating the housing system to increase turnover encourages disingenuous philanthropic efforts as well as cheap and frivolous campus outreach events, and quantifies diversity in a way that, rather than building communities, atomizes them. Formal group houses that struggle with leadership and motivated residents scramble to game the system and skim by without real positive contributions to campus. In the end, it is surviving that becomes a formal group’s main priority, not thriving.

Over the last four years, I have seen a campus climate that has grown more hostile and atomized with time. Over the years, our campus has witnessed several controversial moments in Formal Group House history, including several well established houses losing their theme or formal group houses. In the end, there may be no other solution but to return much of the housing power back into the hands of our deans and administrators, perhaps through veto powers or a complete lack of student involvement altogether.

I truly believe, however, that our peers are less qualified than ever to make educated, fair decisions about each other’s future living arrangements, and that the cycle of atomization and competition has left us less satisfied with the housing arrangements than ever. I hope that in the future, temperatures will fall, and we will notice the poison that has seeped into the walls of our residence halls, classrooms and quad houses.