May 1, 2015

Location, location, location

The University shut down the satellite dorms based on assumptions, not student input.

According to the College-wide e-mail sent by Dean Boyer and Vice President of Student Services Karen Warren Coleman, the decision to close satellite dorms and move houses to Campus North will ultimately “strengthen the residential experience for current and future College students.”

I disagree.

I live in Breckinridge and am not at all involved in the house culture. Nada. Zilch. I would love to live closer to campus and have newer facilities. I am an individual who is not interested in or invested in house culture for various personal reasons. So why am I arguing against the University’s statement? Because the people they are representing with that opinion are people like me—who are in the minority. Not the people who will personally and emotionally be affected by their closure.

The satellite dorms represent a subset of house culture whose main characteristics—the ones under fire, anyway—include distance from campus and the opportunity to live in a historic, older building. Did it ever occur to the administration that these characteristics were what initially attracted students? Many of the residents in Breckinridge chose to live further away because they wanted to.

“At the meeting, they kept assuming that we didn’t want to live far from the quad. But many of us like the walk; we like to get away from campus and school, and that distance makes Breck feel more like a home,” said Charlotte Hovland, a first-year in Breckinridge. I talked to her the day after Breckinridge residents met with University representatives about the closure, and she, along with all the other residents I interviewed, seemed agitated—to put it mildly—by what the representatives (and administration) were saying:

“They assumed that we want to live in a shiny new building. They assumed a lot of things, and we need to confront those underlying assumptions. They don’t understand the vitality of small dorms and are projecting the interests of the administration onto students. They don’t seem to realize that our interests are not the same,” Hovland continued.

Sydney Purdue, another first-year, was particularly aggravated by the University’s sugar-coated “parity” agenda: “They kept bringing up the word ‘parity,’ how they wanted consistency among dorming options, wanted to have dorms close to campus with Resident Masters, wanted the satellite dorms to have better unity with other the other houses, wanted to give students the option to connect to faculty through the Masters…. But we already have that. Sophie Day, for example.” Purdue is referring to a Breckinridge tradition where residents invite faculty to the Hall to celebrate their namesake over dinner. Faculty, then, as Purdue asserts, “are approachable already,” and Breckinridge “definitely isn’t disconnected from the other houses—[residents] interact in dining halls, IM soccer, snowball fights, Scav, Kuvia” and easily maintain inter-house relationships despite the distance. “Parity” and “continuity,” words that were supposed to appeal to residents, seemed to have the completely opposite effect. Indeed, the words I heard other residents use instead were “monolith,” “assimilation,” and “uniformity”—words which are antithetical to the unique, diverse character Breckies and members of other satellite dorms treasure. This “parity” is an attempt by the administration to persuade residents that their pilgrimage to Campus North will solve their problems, problems that never existed in the first place.

In fact, the move seems to create even more problems. When residents asked how the administration expected house culture to survive without its name or its building, the response was less than invigorating: “They gave the impression that preserving house culture was our responsibility, which is very hard, if not impossible, to do.  It’s because we have this building, this space and name, that we are who we are. We’re Breckies. One house, one hall. They didn’t seem to understand that,” said Tim Csernica, another resident. Again, the University was operating on assumptions—this time, the assumption that house culture could survive outside of the very physical anchors which helped develop it. What is Breckinridge without Breckinridge Hall? Without Breckinridge the house?

To be frank, it’s just not Breckinridge.

The evolving theme seems to be that the set of ongoing decisions regarding the closure of the satellite dorms has uncovered far more than a clear disregard for student input. As the Maroon Editorial Board pointed out, this is something we’ve come to expect from the administration in recent years. The University’s lack of transparency and communication shouldn’t have—and, let’s be honest, it really didn’t—come as a surprise. Sadly, at the root of their disregard is the dangerous idea that they don’t need our input because they already know what we want.

If the administration assumes that it’s right, why bother wasting time chasing after student input? Decisions are being made based on projected opinions—opinions that aren’t shared by the majority of the people who are affected by them. Since Dean Boyer announced the closure of the dorms last week, alumni and parents have withheld donations, the Facebook group Save Our Satellites! has gained 857 members, major cyber protests were launched by affected residents on the AlumniWeekend page and the #24hourimpact hashtag (protests which were subsequently pulled by page admins), and a petition aiming to save Sophonisba Breckinridge’s name has already gained 636 signatures. The outcry and impact generated by the people who want to see the satellites and house names survive and who don’t mind the distance or the old buildings is simply too large and too passionate for the University, or anyone for that matter, to believe that they are the voice of the minority, not the majority.

On that latter point, there is much to be said about the revocation of house names (which will be replaced based on alumni donations). Sophonisba Breckinridge was the first woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School and the first woman to serve on the University’s faculty, and was a prominent social activist and feminist leader. She was, in short, a visionary and a role model—the type of person Breckies have been proud to call their namesake. Losing her, this accomplished and amazing woman, as their figurehead would be a blow not only to her house, but also to the integrity of the entire University.

I’ve been framing this issue through the anger and frustration of Breckinridge, but that anger and frustration extends to four other halls and eight other houses. The satellite dorms and their residents represent a unique and spirited niche of UChicago’s housing system; niche housings which provide around 700 people and countless other generations before them a place to call home. They live far from campus in older buildings with older facilities and nestled comfortably in quirky, tight-knit communities. These are their trademarks—trademarks that the University either refuses to recognize or simply cannot comprehend. When the administration assumes that it knows what the satellite dormers want, it is effectively homogenizing the student body, imposing a norm and declaring any preferences that do not coincide with its ideas as unworthy of its consideration.

What is in store, then, for the satellite dormers? Will their traditions and their house names eventually dissolve in the cookie-cutter continuity of the emerging housing system? They are losing not only their homes but also their namesakes; they are trading their carefully constructed, well-loved cultures for an uncertain future wrapped in chrome and condescension.

All we can hope for is that, in the future, the administration will stop viewing its assumptions as incontrovertible fact and turn to student input before making any sweeping, major decisions. In the end, they do have the final say, but we have the right to protest it as well. The decision to close the dorms, disband the house names, and relocate disgruntled students to Campus North, made without their input and based on uninformed assumptions, has been defended by the administration as a positive and understandable change.

But for the people ultimately being affected by this decision, it is neither positive nor understandable and, more importantly, it will never be forgivable.

Cortney McInerney is a first-year in the College  majoring in English