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Response to “Improvements to graduate student housing”

| Friday, October 27, 2017

On Monday evening, Oct. 23, Erin Hoffmann-Harding met with the University Village community to further explain the University’s decision to cease providing housing for graduate student families. Despite her admirable patience and attempts at clarity and transparency, the reasoning and figures she presented offered little comfort to the crowd packed into the Beichner Community Center.

The administration — like anyone who has been involved with the Village over the years — clearly recognizes the beauty of the community and how much it has meant to those who live within it. That has never been the issue. The issue is whether the University should continue to invest in that community. The members of that community are saying “Yes, please” while the administration says, “No, it costs too much, and we can do better.” Or in the language of Dr. Affleck-Graves’s recent letter to the editor:

“Ultimately, we learned the costs of renovating or rebuilding University Village, Cripe Street and O’Hara-Grace were cost prohibitive, and we thought that alternative solutions might better serve more students, as the current facility houses only about 13 percent of graduate students who we estimate are married or parenting.”

This is the kind of well-crafted sentence that I tell my students to slow down on and note the rhetorical moves at play. Labeling renovation or relocation efforts “cost prohibitive” sounds straightforward, but subtly masks the inextricable link between cost and value. For an institution with Notre Dame’s resources, to call something cost prohibitive is to make a value judgment, not state an objective truth. Notre Dame pays for things Notre Dame values. The $400 million Campus Crossroads project provides a particularly stunning example, as do the dorms being built to accommodate the new on-campus mandate for undergraduates.

Pointing out the estimated percentage of married or parenting graduate students living on campus also sounds straightforward and rather ominous — certainly the University has cause to get rid of something that such a small portion of the population benefits from. But even if 13 percent is an appropriate estimate (it’s based on Graduate Student Life surveys that only had about a 50 percent response rate), speaking only in percentages denigrates the 89 families currently living in the Village. That is 267 people. 178 adults and 89 children (with five more children coming soon!). Sixty of these families are international. Simply citing a percentage overlooks the clear differences between those currently living in the Village and the majority demographic who have the choice to live outside the Village. Not everyone has the same flexibility to make that choice — especially international families.

The real rub of proudly reporting “off-campus housing options receiving much higher marks than our on-campus facilities” stems from the ignorance of such differing circumstances. Of course off-campus housing options receive better marks — the alternative is never-renovated buildings built in the early 1960s. That’s like saying the steak dinner receives much higher marks than the ramen noodles. But we love our Village for the same reason we love our ramen — it’s affordable and satisfying. The attempt to “better serve more students,” while commendable, should not come at the cost of a particularly vulnerable group whom the University already serves so efficiently with a resource like the Village.

While “in the process of implementing a variety of strategies to support graduate students in building community and finding safe, convenient and affordable housing,” the University is simultaneously in the process of turning its back on a resource that has been providing these precise features for over 50 years. In seeking to reinvent the wheel, the administration is ultimately searching for a cheaper option that, although perhaps not better for the type of graduate students currently residing in the Village, may be more helpful to more married and parenting students who currently live outside the Village (a demographic who presumably has no trouble finding safe, convenient and affordable housing in the first place).

Dr. Affleck-Graves’s letter emphasizes that the current commercial plans for the land where the Village now stands came only after the decision to close the Village: “There is no ‘profitability’ motive involved.” In the discussion of timelines, it may also be worth emphasizing that the University announced plans to close the Village only after Douglas Road was realigned (against the protests of Village residents) in a way that made the land particularly attractive to developers—it now sits right at the Northeast corner of a busy intersection that connects South Bend to I-80. If the University never expected the Village to close after realigning the road, nor a development offer for the land once the Village did close, it certainly stands to profit from the coincidental sequence of events. The University’s “interest in working with the community at large to improve the safety and aesthetics of an area that is the main entry point for visitors to our region,” comes in the wake of plans to demolish the graduate student family housing complex that currently sits in that location and secures these precise objectives.

As renderings of the proposed $65 million development are made public, Village residents await information on the new resources that are going to help more graduate families, if not necessarily their families. As of Monday,the one concrete option those without grandfathered rates do have is to move into the Fisher Graduate Residences for $1,260 a month — a jarring increase from the current Village rate of $520. For many student families, especially international student families, this is exactly what cost prohibitive looks like.

The University certainly does not have any obligation to ensure affordable housing options for student families, but the University’s 70-year tradition of providing such a resource has unquestionably made higher education possible for many whom it would not otherwise be. That tradition has meant the world to generations of Domers. Hopefully Dr. Affleck-Graves is right to end that tradition based on the results of his task force. Hopefully the new resources he mentions will support student families even more than the long-standing and vibrant tradition of the University Village. That is, of course, a lot to live up to.

Tyler Gardner

Oct. 25

graduate student

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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