Why you should care about Zahm’s common rooms
Alex Caton | Thursday, March 27, 2014
Last Thursday at 1:45 a.m., Zahm residents received an email from their rector, Fr. Gary Chamberland, telling them that the Housing Office had decided a mere 15 days before room picks to nix a decades-old dorm tradition.
When Zahm residents gathered for room picks last year, they had seven “forced” room setups to choose from, including the coveted “eight-man” on the second and third floors. In this setup, one rising senior picks a single and pulls another senior into a single across the hallway. Those same seniors pull six rising sophomores into two triples. All of them share “the eight-man,” a large common room immediately adjacent to the rooms where their beds are. This is repeated on the third floor. A similar situation on a smaller scale exists for the five “five-mans.”
Next Thursday, for the first time since at least the 1970s, Zahm will gather for room picks and the two “eight-mans” will not be up for grabs. The Office of Housing is eliminating them to create standardized university lounges, and threatening the “five-mans” by interfering in Zahm’s long-held practice of pooling multiple rooms into one pick.
Yesterday, we had the pleasure of taking a tour of Zahm. After leaving, we agreed that we empathize with the Office of Housing. Because it’s really hard to write sensible policies for dorms in which you’ve never set foot. After touring the “House,” this is the only explanation we can conceive of for the Housing Office’s decision and subsequent unwillingness to discuss a compromise.
Zahm has reacted to a frustrating situation with nothing but class, despite administrative deafness and intransigence. Residents have issued two internet petitions, published a well-thought-out Viewpoint in this paper and solicited emails and phone calls and letters from Zahm alumni and Zahm parents. Several alumni with advanced degrees signed on to their petition pledging to not donate anything above the requisite $100 to enter the annual football ticket lottery until the decision is reversed.
The residents also took affirmative steps to try to reach an amicable solution with Housing. They drew up an alternative proposal which would achieve the same occupancy target (a net reduction of eight beds) without eliminating the eight-mans. The Housing Office summarily rejected it, giving only cursory indication that they had even considered the plan.
When Housing dismisses outright an alternative plan that achieves the same stated goals and has the residence hall’s approval, it is hard to see this as anything other than a concerted effort to eliminate or fracture seven of Zahm’s most desirable community hubs, without giving sufficient notice or warrant for doing so. Housing’s record over recent years makes it easy to view this particular Office blunder as part of a broader move, intentional or not, to limit the number of areas in which our 29 halls can really claim to be “unique.” In 2012, the Housing Office (then the Office of Housing and Residence Life) informed St. Edward’s Hall 18 days before finals and three weeks after room picks that they intended to replace our trademark lofts with modular furniture. For a number of reasons, that decision was retracted, but Housing’s penchant for issuing rules without consulting the students evidently was not.
If Housing’s rule was really designed to attain the “optimal mix of residential, social and study space” as their email suggests, we would not expect those who will reside, socialize and study in the affected Hall to react as they have. Why Housing feels that it can discern this elusive “optimal mix” without consulting the students is quite puzzling. If Housing is sincere in their pursuit of optimal mixes or of other unrelated aims like increasing the number of on-campus seniors, then they should immediately scrap the practice of issuing sweeping decisions only days before they are supposed to go into effect and engage residents in an honest conversation.
Housing claimed in an email to Zahm that “[T]he University’s efforts to realign Zahm’s residence hall room configurations were undertaken with a respect for and a responsibility to preserve its rich fraternal bonds.” Their implementation of the decision belies any such notion. Policy disagreements aside, “respect” requires openness and transparency when considering important decisions. Here, both are lacking.
Finally, if this must be handled within the bureaucratic confines of the Main Building, then we suggest that the Admissions Office take a close look at how the Housing Office’s actions will affect student tour guides who so reliably call “dorm life” Notre Dame’s biggest asset. There’s a lack of communication under the Dome if the Housing Office believes strong-arming students into a standardized vision of dorm life constitutes best practices. With this miscommunication set to continue, we implore the 7,800 Notre Dame students who do not live in Zahm to recognize bad precedent when they see it, and voice their discontent accordingly. Those crazy Zahm kids will thank you.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.