The Arrival of Third Year Housing: An Ode to the Past, Expectations for the Future
By Tim Lindsay
In an email distributed in the recent past to the University at large, President Ruscio introduced a series of proposals intended to prevent a tragedy similar to the one two and a half years ago, an event which this campus still feels keenly. Citing his own letter from three year prior, Ruscio encouraged students to act with unwavering responsibility:
“[In the end, however], despite laws that prohibit drinking by minors; despite laws against drunk driving; despite University policies that forbid parties such as the one held that night; despite a host of other increasingly proscriptive laws, policies and practices, there will always remain a zone of personal decision-making by individuals, who must use their judgment to protect themselves and those around them.”
President Ruscio continued, however, to insinuate that circumstance has often yielded reckless practices. The University, then, needs to combat such circumstances by hearing “well-intentioned proposals for how we can ensure that this never happens again.” Among the listed proposals included more on-campus housing as a possible measure of action.
This apparent genesis of third-year housing is now a palpable reality. That reality will impel sweeping change, not only in physical architecture but in revered traditions like student autonomy. At this point, opposition would be futile, but to consider the future and to gauge the merit of Ruscio’s justification two and a half years later might prove a worthwhile exercise.
One notable occurrence in Washington and Lee’s History, the Fraternity Renaissance, similarly refashioned the school’s landscape and can offer valuable, historical insights into next year. In 1990, the University purchased all 16 fraternities strewn throughout Lexington at that time and mandated that they adopt a uniform standard of behavior in compliance with University standards, to perpetually act in a gentlemanly manner.
One provision of these sanctions required that a house mom populate each house to ensure practices of manners and civility. For another, the fraternity houses all received significant make-overs in heating, plumbing, and electrical systems as well as significant landscaping. Students found formerly sovereign privileges now subject to the helpful but occasionally overbearing instincts of public safety. The IFC, responsible for Greek student discipline, was established in part to preserve student autonomy. When the administration overruled the IFC’s decision on Phi Psi’s suspension, the Greek community learned that much of this self-regulatory authority only exists in label.
And now in 2016, the student body finds certain liberties infringed by another development, but the University maintains that the benefits should outweigh the costs. To that argument, this piece dissents. To name a few unintended but very possible changes to expect as a result of Third Year Housing:
The Spectator has already outlined its view that third-year housing will do little if not exacerbate cases of drunk driving, a view maintained with an empty heart and hopeful openness to the possibility of being incorrect. Back during the Fraternity Renaissance, the University’s actions incited an exodus from parties at Greek houses to off-campus ones, a means of escaping public safety’s increasingly constraining grip and unwanted oversight. This is not a normative claim, but a practical one – students typically prefer to hold events with less oversight, and past University policy towards the effect of restraining on-campus activity has been shown to drive it off campus rather than eliminating it altogether. Since administrative regulation of juniors shall only increase next year, in all likelihood off-campus events will not dwindle but correspondingly increase. The University should not rest content with Third Year Housing as a solution for student mistakes, but continue its efforts in other areas to address drunk driving. Programs like the yellow flag program and Traveller will have a more beneficial impact than forcibly keeping students within the campus confines.
Additionally, next year’s classes - Third-Years specifically - will struggle not to wade in Third-Year Housing’s amalgamation of benefits, the freshly paved walks, abundance of recreational facilities, proximity to the new natatorium and sports fields, and generally luxurious quarters. The development will be one to marvel at. Yet, behind this new utopia, a person will still be able to saunter only hundreds of yards downhill to discover the timeless Woods Creek apartment complex, saturated with dispelled hopes of a better housing situation. This is next year’s Tale of Two Cities – the fortunate 350 or so, a group whose luck will precede them, and those forlorn students cast into the sunken grounds, the housing lottery rejects. Here will lie another disparity between students. Among those in Woods Creek will include, likely, the adventurous students who elect to study abroad, a common and encouraged practice in W&L’s liberal arts curriculum. Their foreign memorabilia will sit quietly unattended, overlooking a languid Woods Creek. Hopefully, third year housing will not dissuade W&L students’ noteworthy attempts to understand and experience other, diverse cultures through global learning. The University needs to manufacture a more equitable lottery system that doesn’t discriminate against those who elect to study abroad.
Third Year Housing’s effects extend beyond campus and into the City of Lexington. Beyond the new third-year housing complex will lay troughs of vacant houses, shell-shocked landlords dismayed at their empty investments, and shopkeepers at their lost business and perhaps, at the latest fortification of what many have referred to as the “W&L Bubble.” This image completely contradicts what W&L has stood for in years past. Former Director of Communications Brian Shaw once cogently argued, “Lee made a conscious decision not to build more dormitories. He felt students should live in the community, not clustered together on campus.” The natural interaction of students and Rockbridge natives will, to Lee’s disliking, decay. However, the damages should be hindered as much as possible rather than abetted by the sudden seclusion. An expansion of community service initiatives, already tremendous in number, might do an appropriate job countering this. Whatever the case, students should remember the community and their position in it, always, as a beneficial centerpiece of their experiences here. Third Year Housing risks undermining this value, and both the student body and the Administration should take this increasing isolation into account when considering the relationship between W&L and the surrounding community.
This near-finished project offers a pleasant yet hyperbolic vision for Washington and Lee’s upcoming years. It imagines a University besotted in what it expects to become, losing its traditions along the way. Such concessions are often the price paid for embracing the times, for moving with a culture that other institutions have set and blindly followed. It has come to the point that lavatories outside Coop, obviously single person, evidently need clarification, now labeled gender-neutral. This be as it may, larger issues portend similar potentially harmful effects for our respect towards former President Lee’s value of student-community unity.
Currently, W&L stands venerated among liberal arts colleges, as it should - but this strength derives from our institutional values, like student-community coexistence. If we avert from these values, the unique strength of W&L is diminished – an outcome none of us desire for this place that we cherish. As Third Year Housing steadily approaches its completion date, let us remember these remaining commitments with greater care.