Changes to Housing System Provoke Strong Reactions from Students and Alumni
The recent changes to ResLife’s housing policies, specifically the proposed dissolution of theme communities to take effect starting next academic year, have provoked a range of responses from students and alumni. These changes, revealed in a letter from members of the administration published by the Quest, detail the measures taken by ResLife “to enhance student success and improve student life on campus,” such as designating certain living spaces and dorms specifically for first-years and upperclassmen in what will be the replacements for theme communities: “neighborhoods.”
So far, the most outspoken critics of the new changes are students who currently live in theme dorms and alumni who lived in theme communities in the past, both of which consider them as integral components of their Reed experience. One alumni wrote on Facebook, “[Tír na nÓg] is one of the only good memories I have of Reed,” and another wrote, “I met my husband in theme housing!”, exhibiting the many social benefits theme housing has for certain students. However, despite the changes, the opportunity for students to live with peers of similar interests isn’t lost. With the new “neighborhood” format, students will have “more opportunities to live with friends and create intentional communities based around their interests, needs, and class year,” opening the possibility of current theme housing making a return next year, albeit under less organized circumstances.
Though theme communities have been important to many Reedies who participated over the years, institutional memory of theme communities is a mixed bag. For some alumni, theme communities were a central part of their four (or more) years at Reed, and the settings for their most memorable Reed experiences, but for others, the loss of theme communities is not a big deal. “I don’t have a problem with it,” said house advisor and senior Tessa Verbal when asked about the loss of theme communities. “It’s not like they haven’t been getting rid of certain theme communities anyway,” says Verbal, referencing bygone theme dorms such as Outhaus. She added, “I think the theme community is operated like a club, which is fine … but if it’s not ADA compliant then I don’t really see the point,” bringing up the one of the main reasons for the the overhaul of theme communities. In a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2016 outlining the specific American with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations Reed committed with the theme housing inaccessibility, officials address the administration’s failure to maintain a “grievance procedure that provides a prompt and equitable resolution of disability discrimination complaints.” Neighborhoods may seem like a sensible response to the need for easier social avenues on campus, but in reality, the idea for neighborhoods originated from a history of complaints from students regarding the inaccessibility of the dorms the theme communities are housed in.
The theme dorms faced legal action because were not in accordance with federal law established by the Fair Housing Act, which “prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin,” the administration was forced to compromise accommodations for students seeking interest-based living communities, and more importantly, the access to resources on campus by students with disabilities. A different hall advisor who wishes to remain anonymous considered this when asked about the current situation, saying “I know ResLife has spent a lot of time considering these changes and I don’t think there’s just one good model for Reed. However, I think we lose a lot with some of the changes.” The student also made clear that “after the changes go through, there will be two different types of HAs. This is a greater barrier to improving HA equity, which is a goal both of ResLife and of the HA union,” again leaving the state of student-ResLife relations on campus in a state of uncertainty.
Accountability of higher-ups is a difficult enough principle for a student body to uphold with limited cooperation, let alone with an establishment such as Reed’s administration. The challenge this presents to students trying to maintain strong communities that are transparent and available to the entire campus is a burdensome responsibility. Despite the struggle of trying to reform the housing system, the flaws of theme communities have facilitated important dialogue between students and the administration, under the auspice of community-wide improvements, and this time around, at the initiative of the students.