Supervised Playtime: The Failure of Third-Year Housing as a Social Venue
By Ben Whedon '18
From my second-floor balcony in the Village Apartments, I stand and watch as a small cadre of technicians, musicians, and public safety officers scramble to get the stage operational and the sound system running. It’s early evening on Tear Night and the University staff struggles to get things ready for the mass of students they expect to arrive at any minute. Everything has been carefully planned. The General Activities Board has provided everything from funds, to the pop-punk band, to a dance tent. Come 10 pm, I return to the porch and observe the paltry excuse for a crowd. Of students, I see few signs; there can’t be more than seven. Rather surprised at the turnout, I look around and note that apart from the students and the band, the only other discernable form of life is a public safety garrison roughly equal in number to the other parties combined.
The band’s unenthusiastic start is my cue to exit. I head downstairs and take my place in the Traveller line. Twenty minutes later, I arrive at Windfall Hill to what initially appears as a similar sight. A hired band plays inside a haphazardly erected tent, just next to student housing. However, this scene was remarkably different. The tent was overflowing with people, public safety was nowhere to be seen, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Why the extreme contrast between these two venues? The answer is obvious: supervision, or rather the lack thereof. After years of speculation, the administrators in Washington Hall at last succeeded in their plans to erect a mandatory third-year residential village. The decision received mixed responses, particularly from the class of 2018 which would serve as the guinea pigs for this new social experiment. What has followed in the project’s first few months of operation can adequately be described as a misstep on the part of the University.
Since its inception, the Third-Year Housing project has been plagued by a myriad of issues. First and foremost, the village is simply not large enough to house the entire junior class. Even though many juniors travel abroad at some point, many have been exiled from their peers and relegated either to Woods Creek Central or the Theme Houses. When President Ruscio initially announced the construction of the village, it was, he asserted, ostensibly to help bring the classes back together after being split apart by a year of living in Greek housing. This oversight runs counter to the purported purpose of the development.
The larger issue at hand, however, isn’t why some juniors aren’t living in the Village, but rather why those that do aren’t using it in the way it was envisioned – namely, as an alternative venue for off-campus parties. The majority of this problem lies in the very nature of the village itself. Students simply do not want to engage in extra-curricular relaxation activities (I euphemize from necessity), subject to the authority of University officials. The third-year housing apartments and townhouses, as official non-Greek residence halls, require some sort of supervising employee. Historically, these have been RAs.
The creation of so many new residence halls forced the hiring of a corresponding amount of new staff in the form of Community Assistants or CAs. While some of these new employees are seniors, the vast majority of the CAs are juniors residing with their friends. These university-sanctioned regulators immediately find problems in their age and proximity to their nominal subordinates. Most of these hires are first-time CAs with no prior experience. Enforcing University policy may prove difficult under such circumstances. Should a CA tow a hard line against their friends, potentially causing tension or de-legitimizing their authority? Should they instead let everything pass and let the village collapse into anarchy? It's a tough job and a testament to their performance that things have gone on this well thus far.
These are tough questions, and not ones that ought best be resolved by 20-21 college students. At the beginning of the academic year, I recall that everyone seemed genuinely excited to move into this new development. During the first few days before classes began, the townhouses hosted several pre-games that spilled into the streets. Enthusiasm ran high, as did the general spirit. It seemed that the class of 2018 would seamlessly transition into its new accommodations. That was a long time ago, before the crackdown and resulting withdrawal of recreation activities from the new facilities. Within a week, the CAs were issued orders to firmly enforce the state of Virginia’s open-container laws, while Public Safety patrols of the area increased dramatically. I personally witnessed several instances of CAs corralling students with beer cans back into their houses in what loosely mimicked a rodeo. Faced with the high presence of Public Safety and subject to the authority of the CAs who sometimes are younger than their own residents, the party scene has largely packed up and left.
What little of it remains is largely confined to small-scale gatherings inside apartments and townhouses before their participants leave for something else, far outside the influence of the school authorities. If the ultimate goal of Third-Year Housing is to keep students on-campus, this ambition succeeds until 10pm, at best. The nature of the college party, a cherished tradition of the W&L social scene, is such that University supervision and fun are mutually exclusive components. One simply cannot expect to quickly reconcile them, even with a mandatory housing arrangement. Perhaps in time, the University may loosen its grip upon the Village, allowing for some degree of moderation on this issue. In the meantime, the Students Affairs Department should stop pouring money into officially sanctioned events that no one will attend.