Baxter Fellows program comes under scrutiny

A year after Campus Life announced the creation of the Baxter Fellow position, the system continues to draw criticism. Current student complaints and the results of a survey regarding the Baxter Fellow program, administered by the Office of Campus Life late last semester, have called into question the effectiveness of the system.

The position was designed and implemented at the beginning of this year to fulfill a role similar to that of the Housing Life Coordinators (HLC) of years past, but with an additional link to the neighborhood system. Beginning this school year, Baxter Fellows assigned to each house were charged with creating a sense of house community by planning events and serving as a link between residents and the Neighborhood Governance Boards (NGB).

The Baxter Fellow role varies slightly by neighborhood, but in all cases each must dually focus on the responsibilities of his or her assigned house as well as the NGB. In-house duties primarily include “passive programming,” such as creating door decorations and informational posters, providing monthly snacks and serving as a point person for dealing with house damages and complaints. The role of Baxter Fellows on the NGBs ranges from having to serve as full board members, as in Wood Neighborhood, to only serving on specialty committees, as in Dodd.

Of the approximately 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors who participated in the Baxter Fellows survey, 42 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “My Baxter Fellow talks to me regarding house programs and needs.” Almost 50 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with, “My Baxter Fellow organizes monthly snacks” and with, “My Baxter Fellow keeps the house informed of events that are happening in my neighborhood and across campus.” 66 percent of participants in the survey disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I feel a strong sense of community within my house.”

“My Baxter Fellow has done absolutely nothing this year,” said a resident of Dodd Neighborhood who wished to remain anonymous. “Our door signs are ugly, too.”

According to Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life, the position will undergo an extensive reconsideration over the next few weeks. “We’ve been getting a lot of mixed feedback about it,” he said, citing the reconciliation of the different Baxter Fellow duties as a primary area of concern. Schiazza indicated that important decisions regarding changes to the role would be made in the next few weeks, so that applications for next year will be available by spring break. “As it stands now, the expectations for Baxter Fellows may be more than what’s realistic,” he said.

Lack of consistency

One major area of concern of the Baxter Fellow program is the lack of regulation and consistency from house to house. Some dorms enjoy attractive door signs and regular snacks courtesy of their Baxter Fellows, while residents elsewhere claim they have yet to hear from theirs this entire year.

The Baxter Fellows of each neighborhood are supposed to report to an assigned Campus Life Coordinator (CLC), who serves as their boss. Arif Smith, the CLC in charge of Spencer Neighborhood, explained that he does not regulate his Baxter Fellows with a heavy hand. “The only real sort of regulation we do is making sure each Baxter Fellow has the same tools to execute their job,” Smith said. “Too much standardizing can start to limit the ability to develop the particular identity of a house.” Smith did say that he tries to meet with each Spencer Baxter Fellow monthly, although the meetings are usually “creative” opportunities to brainstorm activities for the house, and rarely entail an assessment of the Baxter Fellow’s work.

Smith nonetheless pointed out that a major flaw with the system is the potentially erratic behavior of certain kinds of Baxter Fellows. “Seniors are very unpredictable and aren’t always present when they need to be,” he said. “In the future, we might have to look into a more careful screening process when we appoint the Baxter Fellows.” Several residents of Spencer House have said that one of the first times they heard from their Baxter Fellow, Jeanie Oudin ’08, was when she e-mailed the house midway through the year informing them that she had been unable to perform her Baxter Fellow duties because of her extensive job search.

Katie Kamieniecki, the CLC in charge of Dodd Neighborhood, explained her hands-off approach to dealing with her Baxter Fellows. “We try to keep in touch,” she said. “We had a retreat this fall and a re-training session this Winter Study.” Kamieniecki added that more rigorous enforcement could serve to improve the system. “It would work better if we regulated it more strictly,” she said. Several students on the Dodd board pointed to one Baxter Fellow, Steven Menking ’10 of Tyler Annex, who had not fulfilled his duties to the NGB since September.

Jared Currier ’09, Baxter Fellow for Hubbell and Parsons, cited the lack of close oversight as a major contributor to the unpredictability of the system’s effectiveness. “It’s hard to be motivated to plan events when there is nobody above you forcing you to,” he said. “It’s just hard to do a good job when nobody at any level seems to care whether you do or not.”

Without strict regulation enforced, many Baxter Fellows shirk their responsibilities, doing little for either their houses or neighborhoods. “I think it’s a piece of cake to get by being a lazy Baxter Fellow,” said Brittni Micham ’10, one of the Baxter Fellows for Currier House. “When you see people getting paid the same as you for doing so much less, it’s hard to stay motivated yourself.”

David Schoenholtz and Tim Leonard, the CLCs for Currier and Wood Neighborhoods, respectively, outlined similar systems of checking in on their Baxter Fellows to the other CLCs. In Currier, Baxter Fellows must meet with their NGB on a regular basis, while in Wood all of the Baxter Fellows were appointed positions on the board itself. Thus, the CLCs interact with the Baxter Fellows on a regular basis at these meetings. “Unless I get a direct complaint, there are no repercussions for Baxter Fellows,” Schoenholtz said. He explained his role as more of a resource for Baxter Fellows to talk to and bounce ideas off of, rather than an enforcer or disciplinarian.

Nordia Savage ’10, the Baxter Fellow for Wood House, said that the CLCs need to be more explicit with their expectations and hold the Baxter Fellows to them. “We’re getting paid a fair amount,” she said, referring to the $750 annual salary all Baxter Fellows receive. “If they held us accountable more, then the system would work better.” Savage added that she felt that the lack of explicit consequences or discipline was no excuse for laziness on the part of Baxter Fellows.

Ambiguous job description

Several Baxter Fellows described difficulty in balancing their house-specific duties with responsibilities to their NGBs. “I originally thought the position was going to be focused on the people in my own house,” Micham said. “It turns out that a lot of my responsibilities have to do with the cluster as a whole.” Leonard sees this as an obvious flaw in the position. “In Wood, it’s hard for Baxter Fellows to devote enough energy to both their cluster board and their individual house,” he said, explaining that in order to improve the effectiveness of the position, the roles would need to be separated.

Baxter Fellows and CLCs unanimously agreed that, even though not explicitly included in the job description, an important aspect of a Baxter Fellow’s job is the promotion of a sense of house community. “That’s why I took the job, because I was excited about trying to build a tight community,” Savage said.

Several Baxter Fellows, Savage included, said they have found it difficult to foster any sort of camaraderie in their houses and questioned whether or not it was a feasible goal. Susan Yoon ’10 of Dodd said the difficulty she experienced merely stems from the physical layout of her dorm. “Everyone lives in singles and has their own bathrooms,” she said. “It’s hard to connect with people when they don’t even connect with each other.” Leonard expressed similar sentiments towards the dorms on the Greylock Quad, conceding that certain living arrangements are not conducive to a tight community within a house.

Another key issue, identified by sophomore Baxter Fellows, is the difficulty of reaching out to upperclassmen. “Seniors already have their group of friends and aren’t interested in a community outside that,” said Savage, who lives in Wood, predominantly a senior house. She added that, even though having a Baxter Fellow might work for the few sophomores who attend her events, she felt that the goal of creating a house-wide community was unrealistic.

Currier expressed similar frustration, saying that his residents have not shown interest in his attempts at community-building activities. “It makes for a dangerous cycle, because when they stop showing interest in getting involved . . . I stop being interested in planning things,” he said.

Some Baxter Fellows believe that general frustration with the cluster system has contributed to the negative reception they have received. “It’s just a logical extension – people don’t like clusters, they associate Baxter Fellows with clusters, they don’t like Baxter Fellows,” said Raff Donelson ’09, a Dodd House Baxter Fellow. Donelson said that for Baxter Fellows, creating community is impossible, and he cited the need for a narrowing of the focus of the position. “What a Baxter Fellow can do is create a safe and hopefully respectful house environment, even if everyone in the house isn’t best friends,” he said.

Smith, on the other hand, sees Baxter Fellows as key to the success of the cluster system, and believes that slight modifications to the position will enable Baxter Fellows to create a strong sense of house identity. “If people begin to associate Baxter Fellows with their neighborhoods, they can begin to represent the administration in a human way,” he said. Smith added that the key to improving the role would be providing more funds for “active” programming, such as parties and more significant events, which he believes are effective ways for Baxter Fellows to foster community.

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