Housing teaches powerlessness

The score on housing reform is in: Administration 48, Students 0. The campus spoke up and Morty swatted us like flies. So, the direction of housing is clear for the next year or so. What’s not so clear is how this experience will shape students and whether or not it’s consistent with the educational mission of this college.

So what is that mission? As it relates to the issue at hand, the part that matters the most is the one we trumpet the loudest: training the leaders of tomorrow. The College often rightly points out that training for leadership goes beyond the classroom.

Sure, the skills we learn in class are critical, but leadership isn’t just speaking out in class: it’s learning to speak and act in real life. And it’s not just skills; it’s a set of attitudes, like a belief in efficacy. If we believe that we can make a difference, we’re more likely to act for change. And if enough of us believe that we can accomplish something, we will. So if the College encourages a belief in efficacy, it goes a long way to fulfilling its mission of teaching leadership.

Now, if we were in a big city, the College wouldn’t have to do much except point us in the right direction. Centers of power would be at our feet waiting for us to influence them. We could feel like we mattered on issues great and small.

But we’re in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think anyone with two feet on the ground seriously believes that a protest in Williamstown is going to be heard any farther away than North Adams. So it’s no wonder that our campus has a strong bias toward apathy.

This naturally isolated and apathetic campus imposes a special burden on the College: it has to actively encourage the belief that what we do matters. If the College doesn’t, far too many of us will graduate as apathetic twenty-somethings who only work for ourselves because we’ve never seen that we can make a difference in anything else. If that happens, the College fails its educational mission.

So it has to find a venue where we can learn efficacy. It’s not going to be national policy. It’s got to be college policy. That means that when we speak out on college issues, the administration has to make us feel like decisions aren’t outside our realm of influence. It ought to give us a real say, but at least it has to avoid trampling us.

So when it comes to housing reform, it’s pretty clear that the administration has fumbled its educational mission. Heck, they were supposed to teach us efficacy, instead they taught us powerlessness. The whole process might as well have been designed from the ground up to show us that we shouldn’t bother trying to make a difference. Let’s start from the beginning. Last year, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) came out with a plan to drop the lottery size down to four. The campus erupted in reasoned opposition. The plan was put on hold. Students started to get the idea that we made a difference.

Hah! Next year, the same plan came back, only made worse because it included a blind pick-in system to boot. So now we’re dazed, but we’re still looking to fight back.

The trouble is that nobody is telling us when the final decision is going to be made or releasing all the details of the plan. We don’t know what to fight or when to fight it. Then, out of the blue, in a week-long whirlwind process, the final plan is released and approved before we could possibly organize any opposition. In that week, the CUL holds a few meetings to try to look responsive, but just to rub things in, they pass the same plan without any alteration.

So, now we’re mad. It’s abundantly clear that the CUL hasn’t been listening to what we’ve said. After housing booklets come out, most people get the idea that the battle is over. But some of us feel like we can still make a difference. More editorials get written, more e-mails are sent. Then, the CUL shocks us all. It moderates its proposal – not a lot, but just enough to make us feel like we mattered.

Wrong. After a year, it finally becomes clear that the CUL wasn’t the one making the decision. It was President Schapiro and the administration all along. Dean Roseman, in a comment to the Record, made it clear that the fact that students have convinced the CUL to moderate a bit doesn’t matter. The plan isn’t going to get any better. In fact, it’s going to get worse: the blind lottery system is moved up a year. The whole thing is like going into the boxing ring against Mike Tyson blindfolded – you’re going to get whipped and you can’t even see who you’re supposed to fight. And when you think you’ve landed a punch, it’s just the prelude to getting the wind knocked out of you. But the belief in efficacy has a last gasp. Students organize a protest with speakers directed at Hopkins Hall. Nobody shows up.

It wasn’t that we didn’t oppose the plan. E-mail polls conducted by myself and others revealed massive student opposition to the proposal.

It was that we had learned what the administration was teaching: student action won’t accomplish anything. We might as well just stay in the library and do our work because it’s more rewarding to work for ourselves than to try to influence anything larger. What a lesson for the leaders of tomorrow.

If the administration wanted to fulfill its primary educational mission, it should have moderated its plan in response to the well reasoned arguments and cogent action of the student body. A little compromise wouldn’t have hurt anybody. They certainly shouldn’t have made the plan worse at every step.

Nothing did more to drive home the message that student opinion has no impact. And at the very least, the administration should have evinced more genuine concern for what we thought. This was an issue the student body cared deeply about, perhaps more deeply than any other recent campus policy issue. When the administration squashed us, it hurt.

I suppose you might say that this was just one issue, but there are some things where you don’t get a second chance. If another matter comes up, students will recall Morty’s message from housing reform.

When faced with the time-consuming task of acting, they’ll remember that paper they’ve got due tomorrow and stay on the sidelines. Ten years from now, they’ll remember that presentation they’re giving on Monday.

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