By Christian von Hassell At an early February meeting, the Board of Trustees approved, predictably, a massive overhaul of W&L housing policy. Within a couple of years, the school will require juniors to live in University-owned housing. Since its October return, The Spectator has criticized the prospect of such a requirement as starkly removed from the concept of a liberal arts education. As prospect has turned to reality, such criticism holds. The decision will markedly erode W&L’s longstanding culture of student autonomy, a culture that has steadily fostered a longstanding and duly earned reputation of responsibility and integrity.
For most students, their college years mark the first time they have been on their own and have had to make real decisions with real consequences. Unfortunately, the administrations of many universities across the nation, including it seems W&L, have subscribed to the sad notion that adult students are incapable of confronting even minor real-world difficulties. They attempt to remedy invented problems through playing nanny, shielding students from any legitimate concept of self-responsibility that adapting to changing circumstances demands.
The Residential Life Task Force’s report shamelessly drools over the opportunity for administrative oversight of almost every aspect of students’ lives. Student Affairs plans on extending the ineffective, time-consuming, required “programming” sessions of freshman orientation through sophomore year. They want sophomores to sit in a circle with their RA and talk about their feelings. Perhaps they will explain “developmental independence” through a painful series of skits, after which we can all go eat ice cream in the commons to talk about it and hug each other.
Student safety likely dominated the Board’s final deliberations, and justly so. Nobody disputes the importance of student safety. Yet, the requirement will still not improve the safety of our system. Seniors will still live on their own, and students will continue to engage in their normal weekend revelry at off-campus houses. Bringing the social scene back to fraternity houses themselves is the only way to tangibly improve safety. With student well-being at the heart of the University’s final push for the requirement, it seems peculiar that the school’s statement lacks all mention of safety. Indeed at times it seems the PR campaign never stops.
The Board surely understood that the decision would not receive immediate approbation. But perhaps after a brief stretch of weakened alumni support and unimpressive giving, the inevitable groundbreaking ceremonies, fancy computer renderings, and the plethora of naming opportunities would mollify all significant dissent. The cavils of all those reactionary students and alumni would soon quiet.
I hope dissent remains, but we must change the focus. We ought to direct it towards the nature of the new housing program, and not, hopelessly, at reverting the February decision. This still inchoate plan need not be a total failure. Those who value the tradition, culture, and the style of this institution ought to work to ensure that our new suburb does not turn into some administrative playground. Student autonomy must serve as the new policy’s core, student autonomy sustained through honor, effected by self-reliance, and enabled by a healthy and systematically engrained separation from the bureaucrats, the nannies, the weenies and their wiles.
Yet for the voices of the still-loyal-but-scared to be heard, the administration must avoid their habit of selective listening. Paul Lagarde detailed the University’s skill at choosing kangaroo focus groups in his October article, and thus we should approach with caution any student opinions the University delivers. Any sort of student or alumni commission should be predominantly and transparently comprised of those who opposed the initial decision, but still want to work proactively to ensure that all is not lost. It would behoove Dean Evans to pay most mind to those who have opposed this requirement. Another round of cherry picked student opinion will permanently harm students’ trust in Student Affairs.
Our ranking related to peer universities has never really mattered that much. W&L was in a class of its own, and such has been the key to its tremendous success at forming moral, competent, and wholly appreciative graduates. But as we systematically rid ourselves of uniqueness, we rid ourselves of the strengths that have built and defined the school. Rather than ranking first in our own category, our ranking relative to Amherst and Williams might actually matter. We will just be some 14th place school. Focusing on student autonomy remains one chance to hew to our past, and define ourselves as an institution in this new phase of conformity. It will not only serve us well in forming strong graduates, but a commitment to genuine student responsibility has the chance to be a differentiating factor among a group of schools who strive each and every day to be just like one another.