The University is re-examining its residential damage policy in hopes of compelling students to take a more active interest in the well-being of their living environments, said Eddie Hull, director of Residence Life and Housing Services. Potential changes include financial accountability for independents for damage in their residence spaces and restricted access to dormitories.
In theory, the University bills students or student groups responsible for damaging buildings, furniture or equipment beyond normal wear and tear. In practice, however, such enforcement becomes difficult when those responsible for the damage cannot be identified, especially while access to each residence hall remains open to all undergraduates.
"Right now we incur a great deal of financial costs in buildings that are not collected from students," Hull said, noting that the financial impact varies from year to year. "In some cases it could be really inexpensive--somewhere around $50,000. Or depending on what's going on, it could be very expensive--in excess of $100,000."
Hull noted that although selective living groups are currently held financially accountable for damage found within their living sections, the same responsibility has not been extended to include damage that occurs elsewhere in the residential buildings.
"If someone throws up in a bathroom across from a selective living group's party, it's pretty easy to say it was probably because of that party," said Stephanie Carter, residence coordinator for the West-Edens Link. "But in other parts of the dorm, it's hard to say who's responsible unless someone actually witnesses the incident and then drops an e-mail or makes a phone call."
These difficulties aside, however, Hull said it was time to question whether the current policy was appropriate. "There are a number of independent students as well as members of Greek and other selective groups who would suggest it's a double standard," he said.
In order to foster a greater sense of community responsibility and to reclaim some of the costs of repair typically absorbed by the University, Hull said he was considering charging independent students for unclaimed damage to their sections of the residence halls. Whether the University would charge students by hall, quad or other residential unit was still under discussion, Hull said.
"There's an idea that exists for many students that because no one told them they're responsible for their own living space, they don't have to care who is responsible because they don't have to pay for it," he said. "Is there a financial interest in changing our policies? You bet. But my biggest interest is in promoting a different kind of community in which more people feel like they are responsible as a community for what is going on in their own homes.
"We know there are students who know who is responsible for the damage to the residence halls, but for whatever reason they choose not to accept responsibility for the damage or to inform the staff of who is responsible. This should be troubling to anyone living in the community."
Anthony Vitarelli, president of Campus Council, said he supported Hull's notion of consistency in the enforcement of RLHS's damage policy for independents and selective living groups.
"There's no reason why we should charge one kind of group for damages and not another," he said. "Even for independents, the people living in the hall should be responsible for what occurs on that hall. That includes what may happen when residents bring visitors to their halls."
Both Hull and Vitarelli noted, however, that the issue of accountability is complicated by the fact that access to dormitories is not limited to the residents of each dorm.
"It's hard to talk about damage policy without also considering who has access to these buildings," Hull said. "I've had some conversations about restricting access more in the quads, but it has not yet become a formal request or proposal.... Still, it's something we need to have a serious conversation about."
Vitarelli said that although he saw the potential benefits of restricting access to the residence halls, he had some reservations. "Restricted access could increase small group responsibility, but runs contrary to our sense of community as an entire campus," he said.
A number of students echoed Vitarelli's sentiment.
"I don't think that the answer to this problem [of accountability for damage] will be found in restricting access," said Jessica Efird, a junior. "That only breaks down the community spirit that the University is trying to build without always solving the problem, since many times the damage done is from people who live within the same quad."
Hull said he had given some thought to problems that could arise from restricted access, such as limited access to computer clusters and house courses, but recognized that he needed to explore such issues in more depth before implementing any sort of change.
He noted that questions of residence hall access pertain not only to the University's damage policy but also to concerns about security--an issue that has received much attention in the last few weeks after two students were reportedly sexually assaulted on campus.
"At some point you have to question whether the convenience of unrestricted access is important enough to stand up to what people consider legitimate security issues," he said.
Some students, however, questioned whether restricted access would truly increase security, noting that locked doors often turn into propped doors and thereby increase accessibility to include even people who are not part of the Duke community.
Hull said he would continue to discuss the issue of restricted access with members of the residential staff and Campus Council before making any decisions. He said he hopes to have reached a decision by the end of this academic year, with the possibility of implementing a change for the fall of 2004.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.