Residential Life Doesn't Care About You

If you are a student, you probably read the title and thought, “Obviously — what else is new?” This might stem from month-long unanswered emails from staff (my personal streak is 7 months), lack of housing accommodations for students, or recent controversies.

What’s new is an opportunity to change Residential Life from a program that enforces arbitrary and harmful policies into a department that actually serves its students.

A student who works for the Student Housing Advisory Committee said, “There was actually some student input put in about the 75/25 policy from SHAC. They asked us what we thought and we were unanimously vehemently opposed to the idea. We even wrote a detailed proposal explaining all the reasons why the policy was bad and proposing better solutions. So, it’s even worse than them not asking for student input. They had it, and ignored it.”

I’ll start with an anecdote. At the end of my first year as a Resident Counselor (RC) in 2015, all five of the Area Coordinators (ACs) — who supervise RCs — quit, forcing Amherst to hire a completely new staff in less than three months. With three out of five positions filled and only a couple of weeks’ notice, the new and understaffed ACs were forced to create the 1½-week-long RC training schedule, assign freshman housing and handle student move-in as well as other miscellaneous residential life duties, none of which they had done before. During one of the training sessions in August, an AC approached me and asked, “Be honest, how much of a shit-show is this?”

“It’s kind of bad,” I answered. That was putting it nicely, but I knew it wasn’t the ACs’ fault. As I was told, they only had a week to plan and organize the RC training, which they had never been a part of, with little to no guidance from the Associate Director of Residential Life, Corry Colonna, who gave them that responsibility. This disorganization and frantic game of catch-up seems to be what Residential Life is best known for these days.

The failure to secure long-term employees has created a culture within Residential Life that is willfully ignorant of students’ needs. This became painfully obvious this past semester, when a new policy, referred to within this article as the “75/25 policy,” was announced. For those unaware of the controversy, this policy aimed to restrict 75 percent of dorm rooms as single gender, leaving only 25 percent for Amherst students who do not with to choose a room according to their birth sex. What’s more, the 25 percent would be open to anyone to take, nonconforming gender identity or not.

To be clear, this policy stemmed from the failure of a $60,000 online program Residential Life purchased last year to make room draw less stressful. Apparently, the program was unable to assign gender ratios to floors, so Residential Life’s answer was to manually designate rooms as either male or female, leading to the “75/25 policy.”

This policy was introduced without any input from students and was set to be enforced immediately without any prior notice. It was overturned when Amherst students bombarded administrators’ email accounts.

Who thought such a harmful policy would be a good idea? Why was it implemented without the expressed consent of students? Why did it take the student body’s vehement protests for the administration to acknowledge that we might have an opinion on the policies that directly impact our well-being and comfort?

Well, it boils down to incompetence and precedent. This isn’t the first time Residential Life has willfully ignored students’ needs or desires when enforcing a policy, which no one asked for, thus creating more problems than we had to begin with.

Perhaps you remember “Neighborhoods,” the 2015 policy that failed almost as miserably as the “75/25 policy.” The Neighborhoods project, in brief, was a policy that limited students’ housing options to three or four buildings, depending on the region of campus housing to which they were involuntarily assigned freshmen year.

This is yet another creation from Residential Life produced without any expressed consent or even acknowledgement of student’s opinions. This policy was announced so late into the second semester with such short notice that perhaps Residential Life thought it would get away with it. The program was copied from Notre Dame, the current residential life director’s alma mater, in hopes of facilitating community.

Anyone who knows the difference between large research schools and small private liberal arts colleges could tell you why this policy might work at a school like Notre Dame who has over 12,000 total students enrolled, but would fail at Amherst College, who has a total enrollment of 1,792 students. The small number of students and limited choices for housing would make this program excessive and confining, something the director would have known if he asked for students’ input.

During a conversation with the director of residential life about the failure of Neighborhoods, he told me a story about a girl during the school-wide protest breaking into tears about how terrible the policy was. However, he told me that the Neighborhoods proposal was not abolished, but put on hold. He said he hoped to implement Neighborhoods soon, after it was refined and after students had time to warm up to it. This does not sound like someone who has the best interests of students in mind.

What’s perhaps most disturbing is the school’s way of handling student dissent. When the “75/25 policy” was withdrawn, Susanne Coffey, the Chief Student Affairs Officer, sent an email stating, “We recognize and apologize for the impact the proposals described in The Amherst Student have had on our community.” As many students have already pointed out, the “75/25 policy” was not a proposal. It was introduced as a policy to be implemented during the current round of room draw.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is classic gaslighting. In other words, this apology is a manipulative tactic to make the “75/25 policy” appear less damaging than what it had the potential to be, an attempt for administration to save face when it was called out. These manipulative tactics are rampant in Residential Life. Ask your RCs the last time they ever felt like Residential Life was giving them the full story on any of their secretive “proposals” or goals for the future. The answer will be, “Never.”

Residential Life’s timeline in announcing changes to policy indicates another example in which the office has intentionally used manipulation as a strategy to avoid student protest. There is a disturbing pattern of announcing policies with such little time in advance that students feel it is hopeless to protest, as we witnessed with the “33/33/33 policy” in the Greenway dormitories, which allotted a third of Greenway rooms to each class year, except freshmen. There is no waiting period soliciting student input after a policy is announced. Rather, policies are kept under the table until cleared by higher-ups and are effective immediately. Unsuspecting students are expected to accept these rushed and undesirable policies because Residential Life said so.

To illustrate a real-time example of this process, I’ll let you all in on another one of these secret “proposals,” which has yet to be announced. Someone who worked with Residential Life claims that the current director of residential life is planning to change the funding process for the Zu (Humphries House). Apparently, the director, who is resigning after this year, plans on adjusting the food budgeting system at the Zu, whose residents cook their own meals. Currently, if the Zu is under their allotted food budget, residents receive the difference at the end of the year in the form of checks. However, the director wants to hold the difference from the Zu and have that money go back into the college.

Well, I can tell you what’s going to happen with such a policy: you’re going to further divide the Zu from the rest of Amherst College, especially from the administration, and the Zu will make it a point never to go under their food budget again, defeating the policy’s assumed purpose of saving money. It really doesn’t take a genius to understand the negative consequences. Now, this change in policy has yet to be announced, which means that Residential Life is yet again playing the game of “wait until it’s too late to complain,” or someone has actually grown the gonads to tell Residential Life that it’s a bad idea and it can’t just go and do whatever it wants without being held accountable. My bet is on the former.

To reiterate, these are not the only examples of Residential Life flexing its muscles and changing student policies to fit their own agenda. But instead of elaborating on all of them, I will give the rest of the examples in a bulleted list.
• The dispersion of a sub-free house on the First-Year Quad by dividing sub-free into floors and essentially destroying a completely sub-free environment for freshmen.
• An increase of single-sex housing on the First-Year Quad without an increase in demand, and in some cases, placing freshmen with explicit disinterest in single-sex housing into these floors.
• Moving the French House to Wieland.
• Creation of Greenway dorms and their layout.
• Destruction of “The Socials” and “The Trailers,” especially with the lack of available housing, forcing some students to reside off campus in Fall 2016.
• Exploitation of students by forcing students to purchase a meal-plan and on-campus housing. This is an issue that needs to change, and I will be working on an article to bring more attention to possible solutions.

Why were these changes enforced with no demand, let alone without asking what students want? The only reason given to me when I asked was that the director of residential life wanted it that way. Perhaps these changes seem small, even inconsequential, but I argue that they’re much more than that. The changes are precedent that residential life can change anything for any reason without any input from students, and the impacts of this become far more severe when these decisions border on discrimination. Besides, shouldn’t the students have a say in our living conditions and accommodation on campus, considering these policies directly impact, and only impact, us?

It’s no coincidence. Let’s entertain the notion that all of these impromptu and unasked-for changes have been beneficial and that the majority of students would have wanted them anyway. Why not present the policies as proposals first then? What is the harm in asking the student body, the only ones affected by these changes, whether they desire these changes?

The fact that Residential Life does not ask is not only disappointing but also infantilizing. Either we are the responsible young adults that Amherst touts us to be, or we are so irresponsible and reckless that the college cannot even trust us to tell it what would make us happy. It cannot be both ways: either treat us according to the standard you claim to hold us to, or acknowledge that your practices restrict student input, thus damaging morale and creating an antagonistic divide between students and administration.

An alum who graduated a year ago gave me their take. Because of the high turnover rate, we have ACs wanting to make their mark without knowing the needs of the student body. The high turnover rate is a result of understaffed ACs being overworked and undercompensated. In the past three years, seven ACs have resigned from their position, three of whom resigned after working for only a semester. That’s an average of 2.3 ACs who quit every year in a position that requires five total employees. Residential Life has failed to fill all five AC positions at any given time since I was an RC starting in 2014, and perhaps longer.

These numbers are alarming, and this situation needs to be addressed by the administration. There need to be additional incentives for ACs to stay in their position for at least three- to four-year increments so that they can develop an understanding of student needs and create policies that help, rather than hinder, students.

This isn’t the only change that needs to occur. Currently, there is no system of accountability to keep Residential Life in check. If there was a system in place that allowed students to present feedback on potential policies, administrators could no longer feign ignorance about students’ wants or needs. Policies such as “75/25” and Neighborhoods are only scrapped because they are egregious enough to provoke campus-wide protests or other strong reactions from students. This doesn’t mean students are satisfied with the other changes Residential Life enforces. It would not be difficult to set up a process in which the office emails all students about policy proposals and allows students to voice their approval or dissent.

Such measures would actually help Residential Life avoid controversies like the “75/25 policy” and foster a better relationship between students and the administration. I truly believe that if the “33/33/33 policy” were left to a vote, it would have passed. Instead, Residential Life didn’t take the chance because it doesn’t care about incorporating student input when it comes to enforcing policies that directly impact the student body. The students are the ones left to suffer.

There is hope, however. The current director of residential life is resigning, meaning that the position will need to be filled. Students of Amherst, let your voice be heard, as it seems that the only means in which we will be taken into consideration is when we demand it. When another policy is introduced which we do not ask for, protest. Do not settle for these policies simply because they are executed with such little notice that it seems hopeless to argue. Fill up the spaces in Keefe, in Frost and in Converse. Let the members of the administration know that this cannot continue, and I promise you, they will listen. We have already shown it twice in the past two years with Neighborhoods and the “75/25 policy.” If they don’t care to ask us, the students, what we want, then we will tell them, and we will tell them loudly so that they can’t ignore us.

First, we must start by outlining who we need to staff the Residential Life department. To my knowledge, the college has not yet announced any candidates or secured employees to fill the role, so we must tell Residential Life what the student body needs in order to properly represent us. We need someone who has a firm understanding of the dynamics in small, private liberal art colleges. The soon-to-be-former director of residential life came from Notre Dame and tried treating Amherst College as though it were no different and failed miserably. We need someone who can understand the unique complexities of our school and who will target issues that students care about.

Secondly, we need a director who will be devoted to improving the department and promote employee benefits to make positions more than a three-month-long stepping-stone.

Thirdly, and in my opinion most importantly, we need a director who will create a direct line of communication between students and Residential Life when it comes to policy decisions. The school devotes plenty of effort to analyzing statistics about varsity athletes, happiness on campus and student policy violations. Does the school consider Residential Life so unimportant that it doesn’t care to ask us our view of it? I repeat that Amherst boasts to have some of the greatest young minds within its classrooms. We are the ones who continue to raise the standards of Amherst College and add to its achievements. Why, then, are we not trusted enough to add our input when it comes to issues concerning residential life?

The students are the ones who need to demand these changes. We need to ask for meetings with candidates for the position of residential life director and show up. I have been to several hiring meetings between students and administrators, and there are rarely more than two students present. These meetings are important and not difficult for students to commit to. Furthermore, we need to be more active in reaching out to the employees who are paid to represent our well-being.

Email your opinions and the demand for a competent director of residential life to the following people, in order of position and relevance:
• Amherst trustees
• President of Amherst College
• Dean of the faculty
• Chief student affairs officer

When future housing and residential life policies are implemented without student input, email the following to express your opinion, in order of position:
• Amherst trustees
• Chief student affairs officer
• Associate director of residential life
• Assistant director of housing
• Your area coordinator (AC)

This is our duty as students. I remind you all of the Thomas Jefferson quote: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

In conclusion, I will say this plainly: the largest influence of day-to-day student happiness at Amherst is Residential Life, and Residential Life has repeatedly shown its incompetence in representing the needs and desires of students. The school needs to create accountability within Residential Life and give students a choice in the policies that directly impact us. The next time another $60,000 worth of funding towards Residential Life is put on the table, it should be centered around resolving this issue, not an online program that employees don’t even know how to use.

Correction: A member of the Student Housing Advisory Committee contacted The Student saying that there was student opposition on the “75/25 policy” prior to implementation. An earlier of the article stated that no student input was solicited. This article was updated at 11:19 p.m. on April 18.