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Associate vice president for Residential Life discusses off-campus ‘differentiation’ policies

| Tuesday, December 10, 2019

When Notre Dame alumni meet each other, associate vice president of Residential Life Heather Rakoczy Russell said their first question is not “What did you study?” or “When did you graduate?” but “Where did you live?” Notre Dame’s residence halls, she said, are a defining feature of the undergraduate experience. Even after students move off campus, many return to their former residence halls to share in the hall community.

But this past April, the Division of Student Affairs announced in a campus-wide email that off-campus students could lose access to residence hall programming, such as dances and interhall sports. Administrators called this policy “differentiation.” Many students, who staged protests and circulated petitions, called it “exclusion.” On Monday evening, Rakoczy Russell held a meeting to answer questions about the proposed policy from the sophomore class — the first class to be impacted by these proposed changes. 

“As you may know, I received 5,000 signatures and a protest on God Quad last spring, which — while compelling and interesting — was a bit of curiosity to me, because people were protesting against something that hadn’t been established yet,” she said. “So where do we go from here? I thought the first [step] was to get you correct information.”

By offering incentives to on-campus students, and by differentiating the rights and privileges of on- and off-campus students, Rakoczy Russell said the University hopes to encourage more students to stay on campus all four years. Ideally, she said they want to raise the portion of seniors living on campus from 34% to 50%.

Rakoczy Russell said she wants to propose a policy to other administrators regarding the differentiation policy by March 1. But before she drafts a final proposal, she said she wants to have an open dialogue with the campus community, weighing the concerns of the student body.

Genevieve Redsten | The Observer

Jordan Theriault sits with Heather Rakoczy Russell in the Dahnke Ballroom to discuss the controversy surrounding the senior “differentiation” policy. Students of all grades had the opportunity to ask questions.

Shifting privileges for off-campus students

Rakoczy Russell said in the past nine years, many new housing developments have cropped up around campus. With this new housing, she said, came landlords who aggressively targeted underclassmen, telling students they needed to sign a lease for off-campus senior housing far in advance.

That effort by landlords, Rakoczy Russell said, led many more seniors to move off campus. With so many seniors moving off campus, Rakoczy Russell said men’s dorms needed more participants for interhall sports — so they began recruiting off-campus students. 

“As you can imagine,” she said, “human nature being what it is, when one hall does that, another hall says, ‘Well, we want to have a team, too, and we want to be as competitive, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”

Later, she said, many women’s rectors began allowing off-campus students to attend hall dances. Over time, she said more dorms shifted their culture, welcoming off-campus students into on-campus programming. Yet this shift wasn’t consistent across the board, she said.

Over the past several years, as University administrators spoke with residence hall staff and students, Rakoczy Russell said they discovered different dorms had different policies for off-campus students. The differentiation policy, she said, was designed in part to standardize those policies across the different residence halls.

In an interview after the meeting, president of the Sophomore Class Council Jordan Theriault agreed that many students seem confused about what privileges off-campus seniors have in their former residence halls. Despite this confusion, however, he said most students don’t want to push off-campus residents out of the dorm communities.

“I don’t think anyone really wants a differentiation between on- and off-campus,” he said.

 

Why differentiate?

Rakoczy Russell, who is a Notre Dame alumna, said off-campus students weren’t allowed to participate in on-campus programming when she was a student. Nevertheless, she added, off-campus students and alumni still felt connected to their former residence halls.

“I think there’s decades of evidence that there’s something special that happens in the formation in residence halls, and that’s not tied to whether or not you can participate in on-campus activities as an off-campus student,” she said. “Because we never did and we still loved our communities.”

Rakoczy Russell said the University wants to differentiate the on- and off-campus experiences because “there’s something different” about living in a residence hall day in and day out, “for all that’s good and all that’s bad.”

“When something happens in the life of a friend — a great joy or a great sorrow — and you’re there by his or her side, that’s different than somebody who lives off campus,” she said.

The question administrators are considering, Rakoczy Russell said, is whether to implement a “hard” or “soft” differentiation. 

With a “soft” differentiation policy, “off-campus students would still have different rights and privileges,” she said, but they could “still participate in the day-to-day life of the community.”

Rakoczy Russell said she’s spoken to students who find it unfair that off-campus students can still use the facilities in their former residence hall or attend hall programming. Others, she said, want off-campus students to be fully welcome in the hall community.

Going forward, Rakoczy Russell said she’ll be open to feedback from the student body, especially first-years and sophomores, who will be impacted by these changes. That feedback, she said, will help administrators decide how “hard” the differentiation will be.

“You’ll be the ones who can tell us what that would look like,” she said.

 

‘We don’t have the ability to protect you there’

With more students living off campus, Rakoczy Russell said, many off-campus houses have become unofficially affiliated with on-campus residence halls. Away from the supervision of hall staff, she said, those off-campus houses host parties that facilitate binge drinking and lead to instances of sexual misconduct and assault. 

During Welcome Weekend, she said many first-year students are initiated into their residence hall communities at these off-campus parties.

“We don’t have the ability to protect you there,” she said. “We don’t like that some students might perceive that those houses are in some way formally affiliated with us.”

Given these safety concerns, Rakoczy Russell said University administrators want to encourage more students to stay on campus. 

 

‘Life hits us all pretty quick once we get out of college’

Junior Curt Gouldin, president of Dillon Hall, attended the meeting and expressed his concerns about the differentiation policy. Gouldin said many seniors want to live more independently in preparation for life after graduation. He asked Rakoczy Russell whether the administration had considered developing on-campus, apartment-style housing for upperclassmen.

“That’s one of the things I feel a lot of people are looking for nowadays,” he said. “Life hits us all really quick once we get out of college.” 

Rakoczy Russell said the University has, in fact, considered developing more independent, on-campus housing options. But the University’s top priority, she said, is to keep 50% of students living in the residence halls through their senior year.

“I think we’re very open to your good idea and others like that — but not instead of first attracting back the 50% of seniors in the residence halls,” she said, “because we’re afraid if we fail to do that, we’re jeopardizing what’s special about our [housing] model.”

 

Preparing for March 1

Theriault said the Sophomore Class Council will circulate a survey to the class of 2022, soliciting feedback about the proposed differentiation. Rakoczy Russell said she will rely on student feedback to guide her decision.

Ultimately, Rakoczy Russell said the differentiation policy will reflect Notre Dame’s attitudes about community and identity.

“At the heart of this conversation, is the question: What is community?” she said. “What do we mean by community? Is community bound by a building? Is bound by an identity? Is it bound by sharing life day in and day out, 24/7? Is it bound by something else?”

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