The Residential Life Task Force Report: The Mere Semblance of Legitimacy?

By Paul Lagarde

In 2012, the Residential Life Task Force conducted a study of the housing situation at W&L and presented their report to the Board of Trustees in May of that year. Since that time, the task force has continued to seek input on this issue, conducting several focus groups on campus. Heading up the task force are Trustee Dallas Wilt and Dean Sidney Evans, Vice President of Student Affairs, who has been leading the charge on the home front. Bringing students back to campus and improving relations between men and women are the main arguments Evans has made for requiring junior students to live in university housing.

Though the report offered by the task force is extensive, it presents many flawed arguments as part of a clear agenda by this administration to require on-campus housing for juniors. Perhaps the most egregious shortcoming in the report is Section 1 Part C, a section of student quotes that seemingly reflects a widespread outcry among students about the supposed isolating nature of off-campus housing. For the past several months, Dean Evans has visited every fraternity and sorority house, assuring the Greek community that many students have voiced their opinions and believe it is in the best interest of future juniors for the administration to require them to live on campus. Citing anonymous quotes from students left and right, Evans has sought to convince students that the benefits of her plan far outweigh the negative consequences that such a change would have on W&L.

The skeptical observer might wonder which students made these statements. Was there some University-wide survey? Was there an open forum featuring discussions about the possibility of requiring juniors to live on campus? No. The Residential Life Task Force Report reveals quite different sources of student input. It turns out that these quotes were taken predominately from places like the 2010 Women’s Leadership Summit and vague “focus groups,” with the exception of a few posts from an online campus blog, which was considered reliable enough for the task force’s purposes, yet oddly, or perhaps conveniently, is not named in the official report.

As one might guess, the Women’s Leadership Summit is open only to women, thus eliminating the possibility for male opinion to be considered on this important issue. Furthermore, the Women’s Leadership Summit is clearly a magnet for liberal activists, with last year’s keynote address given by Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, an Oberlin graduate and founder of the Johnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I say that your average W&L student is not a liberal. So why, then, is Dean Evans supporting her project with quotes taken from this small, selective group of students, instead of the University at large? Evans will say that, in fact, she has done due diligence and consulted all different kinds of students in a focus group setting. However, looking at the profile of students attending the focus groups, one can see that perhaps these were not representative of the University as a whole either, with sophomore independents attending outnumbering sophomore Greeks, when in actuality, the number of Greeks on this campus is four times more than the number of independent students. Furthermore, one student who attended these focus groups described the questions asked as “very pointed” and “clearly intending to evoke a certain response.” When asked for comment, Dean Evans declined to respond.

Here are some of the quotes used in the report to support requiring juniors to live on campus:

“I think the fact that we don’t ever have to run into women at meals the following week after seeing them at parties encourages behavior in which we otherwise would not engage.”

“The only time we see the men is on their turf, on their terms, drinking their beer.”

“There needs to exist an even split of authority on this campus in order to balance out the skewed gender dynamics that have come to characterize W&L’s social world.”

All in all, sixteen student statements were submitted in the report under the section labeled “Student Quotes” (Section 1, Part C), and yet, not one called for things to remain the way they have for years. I find this apparent lack of support for the unique W&L culture and the longstanding tradition of student autonomy hard to believe. If the Board of Trustees is basing their decision partly on student input, then the quotes given in the report are a poor representation of student opinion at W&L, and it is a shame that Dean Evans and Co. would make them seem so. If the Board really wants an accurate reading on how students feel about this issue, I challenge them to conduct a survey or an open forum, so that all students have the opportunity to make their opinions heard in a fair, representative way.

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