November 23, 2018

Don't Force Us to Stay in the Dorms

The College forcing incoming students to live in College Housing for two years reflects a persistent disregard for marginalized students.

According to a recent e-mail from Dean John Boyer, there are three changes being implemented in the College for the Class of 2023 onward: 

  1. Incoming students will be assigned advisers by House, 

  1. First-year housing assignments will be made by random ordered choice, and 

  1. Incoming students will be required to live on campus for at least two years. 

The administration’s main justification for these changes being: 

  1. “to fortify academic support” within College Housing communities, 

  1. “to promote equity in the assignment of housing”, and  

  1. “that living, studying and socializing in our housing communities has a deeply, positive impact on student intellectual engagement and well-being.” 

These changes constitute a thorough disservice to marginalized students at UChicago. The third one especially limits their ability to remove themselves from environments that many find hostile and exclusionary. 

Living as a marginalized student at UChicago is as exhausting as it is everywhere. The “homey” or “welcoming” environments that many students live in, what many of your peers call “simple conversation” or “debate”, what they describe as “normal” social interactions can heighten the feeling that you’re being excluded, the feeling that the environment you’re in has swallowed you whole and is actively trying to spit you up. The “Life of the Mind” that the University is so fixated on disproportionately tasks queer students, low-income students, and students of color with giving their classmates “perspective.” To some extent, you get used to this, if anyone can really get used to feeling of being exhausted and pushed out.  

This experience isn’t limited to the occasional microaggressions from your classmates, other peers, professors, and University policy as it stands. This feeling, for many, is so much more than “the bad experiences,” because these experiences become what life is at the University of Chicago for marginalized students. That one boy in your house denying that “real” sexual assault occurs at UChicago in the name of “discourse,” the one professor who calls all the Black kids in your class the same name, the R.H. that tells you that you’re being “too sensitive” and suggests your concern is “undesirable and unwarranted” when you confide in them that a house tradition makes you feel uncomfortable and unwanted, the three kids in your Gender Civ class who say women aren’t discriminated against anymore, the housemate that called you “Nigress” the entirety of your first year. These are not just “bad apples” that happened once and are now stories that we tell each other for “warmth.” For many marginalized students, this is precisely what UChicago’s idea of community is: Being exhausted and then excluded in the name of the “Life of the Mind.” 

To be clear, these scenarios are all real things that happened at the University of Chicago.  Situations like these—ones that make people feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and unsafe—are not isolated incidents, and occur in College Housing just as often if not more so than everywhere else on campus. This seems to be the reason why so many marginalized students in Housing isolate from house culture, finding community elsewhere in RSOs or their workplaces, because they were in fact pushed out, and are now attempting to establish their own safe haven within a community that presents to them as hostile. I think it’s clear to anyone that, for students like this, such an environment cannot possibly have "a deeply, positive impact on student intellectual engagement and well-being" as Boyer states. A student that feels like they’ve been made to carry the brunt of “discourse” by being exhausted for their experiences before their more privileged peers will not want to continue to engage in this kind of “intellectual engagement” because it is at their expense. 

Nevertheless, the fact that this was said in the e-mail is unsurprising. It once again shows that the administration does not care about the needs of marginalized students. It shows that they did not evaluate how marginalized students felt in these spaces, that they did not consider the experiences or perhaps even the existence of marginalized students at the University of Chicago before trying to pin them into another year of Housing. That being said, this isn’t a case against Housing as an institution in particular—these same issues permeate the University of Chicago as a whole. What I’m arguing is that people should be able to choose the kinds of communities that can best support their well-being and “intellectual engagement”—and leave should they no longer feel welcome. This is why student organizations like UChicago United are currently fighting for Cultural Centers, and why students are constantly creating new spaces in which they belong and feel seen outside of Housing.  

Forcing marginalized students into Housing for an additional year cannot foster deeper community ties. Students cannot be forced to embrace a community already discriminatory towards them and not conducive to their well-being. This is, once again, the College attempting to force marginalized students to suck it up, internalize and remove themselves from their real-life struggles in order to engage abstractly with an environment that actively pushes them out. What marginalized students need is inclusion without erasure, and an administration that is willing to take action to make them feel them wanted, comfortable, and safe instead of making decisions to their detriment.  

Marlin Figgins is a third-year in the College.