Monied clusters of Greek organizations, geographically segregated ethnic houses, and nepotistic, thematically-lifeless Row houses plague Stanford’s housing system, bemoan University administrators. Stanford has consequently adopted the belief that a vast overhaul of campus housing is the cure-all for these ills: The University’s ResX Task Force has recently been discussing what they call “the ideal neighborhood concept.” Substantive details on this proposed housing restructure are scarce. Nonetheless, we believe it would be useful to infer what the consequences of such systematic changes might be.
If Stanford were to adopt a series of “neighborhoods,” akin to the residential colleges of Harvard or Yale, which exist within a single building, our iteration would see each neighborhood consist of an incongruous mix of existing residential buildings. The University would likely force current residences to drop their unique themes and instead repackage them into the cookie-cutter dorms of each given neighborhood. Upon assignment to a particular neighborhood, it is unclear whether students would be able to deviate from it in the remainder of their four years. In an attempt to simulate this proposed housing panacea, Provost Persis Drell even suggested in ResX’s Charge that the task force “build a new dorm complex that can serve as a test case and foundation for a future vision of residential life.”
Beyond the fundamental failures of a neighborhood system, there are intrinsic issues with the structure and composition of the ResX Task Force at large. According to its website, a corpus of “faculty, students and alumni volunteers” make up the group’s leadership. There are no current students among those in charge. The two class of 2018 graduates on the committee barely scraped the surface of Stanford’s housing diversity in their time on campus — having collectively lived in one freshman dorm, four-class dorms and the Human Biology-themed Storey Row house out of 85 total residences.
The rest of the committee is comprised of Student Affairs representatives, professors (some of whom are past or current Resident Fellows), a member of the Board of Trustees and a co-founder of a private equity firm. Even if the committee includes a diversity of non-student members, last February’s Long-Range Planning White Papers for residential education suggest that robust student input should inform the group’s charge. Because residential changes “are personal to [students] and can be a source of stress for some students,” the White Papers recommend that “student voices should be included in designing changes.” We agree. A coalition of students with a multiplicity of residential experiences should make up a substantial proportion of the committee, rather than the motley crew of administrators with zero or limited firsthand knowledge of the intricacies of campus living today.
Furthermore, the specific metrics that the ResX Task Force is using to evaluate the current state of student life on campus remain to be seen or heard. There is no empirical evidence — at least, none that is available to the public — to suggest that the failure of the current housing system is so egregious as to demand an overhaul as extreme as the neighborhood system. The same Long-Range Planning White Paper corroborates this expressed need for more concrete metrics, recommending that Residential Education’s (ResEd) “vision must rely on strong empirical data to develop strategies” for future campus residential communities. However, ResEd has never sent representatives to visit any themed houses to assess how well they adhere to their theme or to measure the strength of their in-house communities. Nor has there ever been any sort of all-campus climate survey to gather the pulse on student satisfaction with the housing system. Without any sort of evidence-based proof to defend its validity, the neighborhood system is an ill-fated and ill-informed shot in the dark attempt to solve student housing issues on campus.
Providing broad accessibility to desirable housing options while also maintaining distinctive communities is a challenge that all universities face in designing the residential experience — especially true in Stanford’s case, where 99 percent of undergraduate students live on campus. And, despite all of its imperfections, Stanford’s housing system currently grants wide latitude for students to select a community to which they feel a sense of belonging and a lifestyle with which they align. After their freshman year, students are free to self-select into communities that interest them, or to draw into houses with their choice of friends. With the neighborhood program, the University would effectively force students into artificial social groups that could potentially last the entire duration of their time at Stanford. Such a move would not only strike as patronizing, but as an unnecessary assault on free choice and free expression, which is so often conveyed through one’s housing community.
In many ways, ResEd’s move to credibly reconfigure Stanford’s housing system smacks of hypocrisy, given its recent administrative blunders in handling delicate housing situations. Its decision to revoke and suddenly reinstate Outdoor House’s theme for next year due to an “administrative misstep,” as well as to rescind and restore fraternity Theta Delta Chi’s housing due to a “procedural flaw,” are evidence of managerial failures that should not go unchecked.
No university’s housing system is perfect — and certainly, neither is Stanford’s. However, we believe that simpler, tangible changes will optimize the system in ways that a total evisceration of institutional memory via the neighborhood system never could.
For one, Stanford’s current system underserves the freshman community. Stanford consistently fails to accommodate a large portion of the freshman class’ first-choice rankings for placement into all-frosh dorms, leaving many freshmen in four-class dorms unsatisfied with their residential experience. To address this issue, why not transform notoriously unpopular upperclass dorms such as Trancos into all-freshman territory, given that all-frosh dorms consistently face high demand from incoming students? More generally, what about moving freshmen off lackluster four-class dorms on faraway West campus? How about moving the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program from behind the Tresidder parking lot on socially isolating central campus to Branner or Kimball, so it retains its unique academic-living balance while getting a taste of the much sought-after, all-frosh experience? Currently, SLE students are mixed with other non-frosh and upperclass students. Non-SLE frosh overwhelmingly report that living in SLE-mixed dorms is a negative experience due to the insular nature of the SLE program. The entire SLE program could easily fit into one or two dorms alone, a simple fix to this problem.
Ethnic-themed dorms like Casa Zapata and Okada suffer from a lack of demand among upperclassmen who find the residences’ awkward location among freshman dorms unappealing. Providing such communities better living space on the Row, such as near Native American cultural house Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, or in the newer dorms on west campus, would be a welcome solution. There are, of course, many more ways to improve our undergraduate housing arrangements.
Asking students may be a good place to start.
We implore the University to strongly consider the negative implications that the proposed neighborhood system bodes for the future of student life. Rather than displacing entire communities and attempting to force the spontaneous generation of new ones, Stanford should acknowledge that strong communities require breathing room and time to incubate organically. The ResX Task Force approach to student housing is ill-informed, extreme and — given the lack of undergraduate representation among its leadership — failing on its own terms.
Contact the Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.
A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the ResX Task Force as being a branch of Residential Education. In fact, the two administrative bodies are separate. The Daily regrets this error.