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University announces details of six semester policy

| Monday, February 11, 2019

Early in the fall semester of 2017, the Office of Residential Life announced a new policy mandating that, beginning with the class of 2022, students are required to live on campus for six semesters. Immediately following the announcement, students expressed concerns about the policy regarding the safety and security of students who want to move off-campus due to instances of discrimination, sexual assault, mental health and financial distress. Since then, the Office of Residential Life has been investigating ways to alleviate students’ worries, including the possibility of exemptions from the policy for students who demonstrate substantial need.

In an announcement made via email Monday, the Office of Residential Life announced the preferred method of helping students with residential issues will be a streamlined hall transfer process. While exemptions will be available for some students, such exemptions will be rare and determined on a case-by-case basis.

Heather Rakoczy Russell, associate vice president for residential life, said the Office of Residential Life believes hall transfers provide students with the chance to find a community better fitted to their needs without moving off-campus.

“[The exemption] will be used rarely because we think what we’re actually doing is changing the culture — we hope to change the culture — around hall transfers,” Russell said. “ … We think there’s something very special about residential life here and we think that having an experience of being formed in the residence halls — multi-class, single-sex, randomly placed, all of that — we think that forms people. We want people to have the opportunity to flourish, and if it’s not happening for you in [your hall], we want to redirect you to another [hall] where you might have that experience.”

For those instances where a hall transfer would be insufficient, students will be able to apply for an exemption through the Office of Residential Life. Russell said because each exemption will depend on the student’s specific circumstances, she could not provide an example of what would qualify a student to live off-campus early.

“I think it will be on a very case-by-case basis, and I don’t think I could in a genuine way answer that question without it just being a shot in the dark,” Russell said. “ … We’re hard-pressed to come up the kind of case that would actually qualify because we think the reasons that would qualify someone for an exemption are probably going to be deeply personal and particular. So, will there be exemptions granted? Certainly, we wouldn’t have created a process if they wouldn’t. But we want to believe  that most of the challenges that students are encountering to their flourishing in their residence halls might be remedied by trying the experience of another residence.”

Russell said the application process for an exemption asks the student to demonstrate a clear, corroborated need to move off-campus.

You would first encounter the opportunity to apply for a hall transfer, which would allow for the possibility for someone to hear your story about why you’re not having a good experience and see if there’s another option for you,” she said. “But let’s say there isn’t. Let’s say, based on your particular story, there was an experience of discrimination or sexual assault or something that makes being here feel unwelcome, or maybe it’s financial aid driven, or maybe it’s medically driven, or maybe it’s mental health driven. If it’s any of those kinds of things, what we want to do … is allow for an open-ended process where the student can tell his or her story — but not have to retell it multiple times — and for that story to be heard and corroborated in some ways by someone else if that were attractive to a student.”

The announcement said students will need to submit a written application to receive an exemption. If the application is found to have merit, the student will have the option to appear before a review board as well as receive support from a member of the Notre Dame faculty or staff.

The announcement also said students will be required to renew their exemption each year.

The decision to prioritize halls transfers over exemptions was made by the University with the understanding that residential life is essential to a student’s development, the announcement said.

“Sharing life in community in the residence halls supports students’ formation as they deepen their faith, cultivate moral virtues, develop healthy relationships, become servant leaders and reflectively and prayerfully discern their future,” it said. “The mixed-class, single-sex, stay-hall system featuring random assignment of first-year students to modest-sized halls is critical for the model, as is each hall’s unique community, character and traditions.”

Because hall transfers will be the primary method of solving a student’s residential issues, Jonathan Retartha, director of residential life for housing operations, said the hall transfer system is changing in two key ways.

“First, the elimination of the requirement to speak to your current rector or the rector that you wish to move to,” Retartha said. “It’s not always an option that’s practical or advisable in some circumstances. … The second is to give people the option to select two preferred halls that they’re willing to transfer to. … [They’ll also have] an opportunity to indicate a willingness to accept a spot in any available hall, something closer to what we do in our float-for-a-single process. If they don’t elect that kind of floating option, they’ll be returned back to their original hall’s room picks if those two options they select are not available.”

Retartha said in an email that, with the new system, the Office of Residential Life hopes to allow a growing number of hall requests.

“Our fall semester typically sees over 200 hall transfer requests, the vast majority of which were approved,” he said. “We do anticipate that number to go up, and we hope to accommodate most requests. However, the capacities of our halls will always limit our ability to honor every request.”

These changes to residential policy come at the end of an extended process spent engaging with and listening to the voices of students regarding the six-semester policy. Russell said following the policy’s initial announcement, she saw an overwhelming student response.

“Over that fall semester, our office — the Office of Residential Life — received about a hundred emails from current students echoing those same sentiments [of worry],” she said.

Proactive engagement with students helped the Office of Residential Life understand the concerns of students better and quell fears held by some students, Russell said.

“In the spring semester, our office engaged students in focus groups and listening sessions,” she said. “So, we proactively said, ‘let’s get together,’ and we did that with different groups of student leaders — diversity council, committees on race and ethnicity and LGBTQ students, as well as student senate, [Hall Presidents Council], [Campus Life Council and] various [other] student groups.”

Russell said the process led the Office of Residential Life to conclude that what students want most was simply an opportunity to live well in a community.

“We think actually what students — without naming it — are asking for is a way to find a place to flourish,” Russell said. “And we think that’s actually to utilize the hall transfer process.”

While the new residential policies require students to stay six semesters on campus, there are hopes that new incentives for seniors to stay on campus will convince students to stay all four years. Russell said a mass movement of seniors off-campus would be damaging to the campus culture the University hopes to create.

“If what we do with the residence requirement is we have people who live here for six semesters and then they go off in droves as seniors, or we don’t successfully turn the tide on the number of seniors who are staying, our model still falls apart because we don’t have the halls that are created by class,” Russell said.

Breyan Tornifolio, director of residential life for rector recruitment, hiring and retention, said seniors who stay on stay on campus are fundamental to the development of all students.

“We want our seniors to stay, we want them in the halls,” Tornifolio said. “Our model doesn’t work without the seniors here. The leadership that our seniors provide is crucial to the development of our students, so ways that we keep them here is really important.”

To keep seniors on campus, Russell said the Office of Residential Life will be releasing a list of incentives designed to convince seniors to stay on campus in the spring, in time for freshmen to consider their options as they begin looking for future housing. Russell said while nothing has been approved yet, the incentives being considered include more flexible meal plans, free laundry and discounted room and board.

Russell said as the six-semester policy, and its associated changes to residential life, take root in campus culture, the program’s success will be found in the number of students who decide to stay on campus all four years.

“By giving the choice to seniors, they will vote [on the policies] with their feet and stay,” Russell said. “In a wonderful, perfect world, we have to go the administration and say we need ‘x’ number of new residence halls because so many seniors are opting to stay back because of the experience they had in all six semesters.”

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About Thomas Murphy

Thomas is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies, where he double minors in Business & Economics and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is ideologically in favor of the Oxford Comma, and encourages readers to contact their local representatives regarding the codification of its usage.

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