Last Friday, Assistant Director of Residential Communities Isaiah Thomas announced in an email that the Office of Student Engagement had posted information about the upcoming housing selection for the fall 2015 semester on its website. The website indicated several changes in housing policy from past years; namely, the addition of substance-free housing and the removal of Danawell, Willets, and Kyle as available locations for sophomores to block into.
However, rumors soon began to circulate that the sophomore blocking process and the addition of substance-free housing were not the only changes being made to the Swarthmore housing system.
“I think how it started is that I’d heard about these changes, and they definitely sounded like something I didn’t like,” Sam Wallach Hanson ‘18 said. “I didn’t know how other people felt, so I started talking to other students here to see if they had similar reactions — the response I got was that pretty unanimously, everyone was opposed to these changes.”
The policy changes Wallach Hanson referred to alarmed him. Among other things, the administration was rumored to have shifted RA’s from a more mentoring role to disciplinary one, moved to relegate sophomores from dorms such as Willets and Hallowell to off-campus dorms, and done away with Swarthmore’s longstanding policy of mixing first-years with upperclassmen in residence halls.
“I felt like before I did anything, I wanted to go and figure out what’s actually going on, because I felt like making a whole hubbub about something that was a rumor would be a terrible idea,” said Wallach Hanson. “So I set up a meeting with Isaiah Thomas.” Although he found Thomas’s answers on the issues of sophomore blocking and RA’s vague, Wallach Hanson was able to confirm one of the rumors. “He told me that the current plan, as it stood, was to have five all-freshmen halls.”
Disconcerted, Wallach Hanson began looking for what he deemed “a more powerful statement” to send to the administration. This took the form of a 680-word “Open Letter To The Office of Student Engagement.” The letter, which he described as “a pretty crowd-sourced document — I don’t even think I wrote the majority of it,” was highly critical of the proposed changes. While it devoted the most attention to the first-year exclusive halls, it also criticized the withdrawal of Danawell, Willets, and Kyle from the sophomore blocking process, the rumors about the changes in RA policy, and the lack of transparency within the administration.
Within 24 hours, the document had garnered 525 signatures from students and alumni — including roughly 50 from the incoming class of 2019.
“I was alarmed when I learned that these changes might take place and didn’t quite understand why they were being proposed. I was honestly pretty excited at the thought of building relationships not just with my classmates, but also with upperclassmen when I start college this fall. It felt like this housing change would really limit the opportunity to do so,” said Juhyae Kim ‘19, one member of her class who signed the letter. Mo Bapps ‘19, another incoming first-year who signed the letter, agreed. “I signed because I wanted more of the freshmen to be spread throughout the dorms on campus,” he said. “Mainly though, it concerned me that a decision like that was made without any real student input.”
Administrators take issue with the claim that decisions were made without student feedback. In an emailed statement, the Office of Student Engagement asserted that they made the changes in accordance with residential surveys, focus groups, and dialogue with RAs. Additionally, they plan to consult the SGO Student Senate and consider their feedback.
“One of the points I would challenge in the open letter, is the implication that this is a ‘tight-knit’ community, that everything is working as well as it could be,” said Lili Rodriguez, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development. “Some students may feel that way, but I know a large segment that do not, that want change and want to be a part of a community that thinks critically about diversity, social justice, and hope to build an even stronger community. These changes provide us a platform for that work.”
Moreover, the OSE maintains that some of the concerns outlined in the letter overstate “relatively minor” changes. In fact, they said, the only major policy changes are the addition of substance-free housing and the pilot of first-year halls in Willets and Mary Lyons; the housing selection process has not changed significantly. “The process is exactly the same as prior years, juniors and seniors will have a lottery as well as block into rooms, and sophomores have limited blocking options as well as a housing preference process rather than a lottery,” they said. As for the decrease in housing options for blocking sophomores, they identified a housing crunch caused by construction and difficulty of determining the needs of the incoming class as causes, rather than the pilot halls. Additionally, they affirm that many sophomores will end up in on-campus dorms such as Danawell and Willets without blocking.
“This pilot is happening in conjunction with the introduction of Diversity Peers Advisors in residential halls. The current idea is to assign a few “wings” in some floors (about 20 first years each) in Willets and Mary Lyons to improve programming opportunities for RAs and Diversity Peer Advisers. All dorms will continue to be mixed years–we recognize this as a fundamental aspect of the Swarthmore experience. But we also hear and will be responsive to the need for programming that builds skills related to diversity and inclusion,” they said. Furthermore, the program is supported by student feedback, as a recent student survey found 79% approval for “RAs and intentional programming dedicated specifically to first years.”
Wallach Hanson remains skeptical, however. If widespread support for the changes existed, he said, “given the response to the letter, it’s very much a minority at Swarthmore, or there is at least a very, very, large vocal opposition to it.”
Although they may be in a minority, there are Swarthmore students who support at least some of the changes.
“My thoughts on the idea of first-year only housing in ML are very positive,” Catherine Martlin ‘15 said in an email. Martlin, who lived in ML as a first-year and was an RA there in 2013-2014, pointed out that the only non-first-years living on the first and second floors of the dorm were dissatisfied sophomores forced to live there because of their lottery results. “The community there interacts across the floors — mostly by hanging out in the huge lounge spaces — and so those freshmen would still get to know upperclassmen. Increasing the number of Freshmen there will also up the likelihood that everyone will find others that they connect with — the majority of freshmen in my year there were of a diverse background and interest and that was one of the reasons we all got along so well.”
For Wallach Hanson, the next step is uncertain: the OSE has not indicated that the letter will impact any of the policy changes.
“As a tour guide, I’ve had to think a lot about what I say is good about residential life here. I think that through that, I formed a pretty strong view of what I liked and didn’t like […] the reason I say I like having mixed halls is because sophomore, juniors, and seniors are living with freshmen — they’re people in their lives, people they live with, people on their halls. They’re not this other group who may be lesser in any kind of way,” he said. “I’ve got a tour on Friday — the first tour since all of this has come up — and I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
See Sam Wallach Hanson and Annie Zhao’s op-ed on the housing changes here.