The administration is not moving forward with the proposal for a campus-owned residential co-op in the upcoming academic year. Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head cited mixed student support, the current housing assignment process and Dining Services as areas of concern.
Head, who consulted with the Housing Committee and a number of students, said in an interview that she received “mixed feedback.” The concerns, she said, were logistical rather than philosophical.
Concerns arose around “what residential life will look like in the future,” something currently being discussed in the Strategic Planning process.
“There’s no denying that I’m frustrated about the Dean’s Office’s decision, but we do have options, and something will happen next year even if it’s nowhere close to the ideal,” said group member Ben Wolcott ‘14, who lived in a co-op during his gap year after high school.
The student group, who received StuCo’s unanimous support to bring a resolution to the Dean’s Office last semester, says their aim is to “create their own communal culture and identity within the school community.” This would include cooking and cleaning together, meeting regularly and taking on communal activist projects.
The group proposed using Woolman House and offering places to students based on a separate housing lottery. This would potentially create 24 places in the co-op.
However, this raised the issue of equity in the current housing assignment process. Removing Woolman House from the lottery might push some underclassmen into less desirable housing.
The co-op model differs from dorm living in that the students who live there will actively choose to “invest significant amounts of time […] creating a culture,” according to the resolution. The proposal stressed that this is an alternative, not an option the members view as superior, to dorm life.
Dining in the co-op is both philosophically and technically problematic, according to the administration. While the group cites cooking and eating their meals together as a very important aspect of their idea of the co-op, Head called Sharples Dining Hall Swarthmore College’s “safety net,” one of the only places where the school gathers together communally.
Additionally, the option of being on-campus and yet off the meal plan presents concerns.
“We don’t want people to make the decision whether or not to eat because of the cost of the meal plan,” Head said.
This co-op would not be the first at Swarthmore College. From 1978-1982 the Ashton House served as the home to the Community Housing Project. The co-op ended as enthusiasm for the project dwindled after a couple of years.
“The Ashtonites cooked meals for each other, organized political action groups, held several all-campus parties, built a sauna in the basement, and started a small library,” according to a 1996 Phoenix article.
Abigail Henderson ’14, a member of the current co-op group, is helping organize alumni support by contacting former members of the Ashton house group. Her father, an alum, lived in the Community Housing Project.
“The idea is that we could use it as a model by looking at what worked and what didn’t and then fixing what didn’t,” said Henderson.
Head said that in the past other groups have sought specialized housing, including substance-free, foreign language and multicultural housing. The concern, she said, is the “sustainability of the program.” Problems arise when students who do not subscribe to the ideology of the particular type of housing are placed in it out of the necessity to fill spots.
The group is currently exploring off-campus options for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year. However, the current borough restriction on over three unrelated people living together is presenting difficulties.
“I can sense support building on campus, so I like to think that it’s only a matter of time until Swarthmore has a co-op,” said Wolcott.
Head said the administration would help and support the students as they continue to explore their options.