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Duke's unjustifiable housing: A response

Cue big sigh.

I appreciate some of the feedback I've gotten in so far as it was written and sent, which suggests effort. But the isolated attempt at reading my Feb. 23 column on housing as an all-out attack on not only selectives but also the people in them is exactly the kind of defensive-offensive play that has shut down all productive conversation on the residential model for so long.

This is not a war, and West Campus sections are not territories to be won or lost. As a senior, I have no “stake” in such a blood bath, if these are the unfortunate terms with which we should choose to frame the issue. We—that is, I as well as those who care about Duke in the expansive sense—are talking about our vision for Duke now and 20 years from now—our vision for an inclusive, rather than exclusive, campus community.

To put it in bullet points: we are talking about the inescapable fact that there is a racial and socioeconomic breakdown between West and Central. Moreover, to directly address some main points brought up in response to my column, we are talking about the fact that as part of our current “system,” students are selected or rejected on the basis of undisclosed criteria by groups of peers who have the authority to determine who lives where—authority that derives from “tradition” rather than fairness, practicality or common sense. We are talking about the fact that “rejection” from a fraternity or selective—a sad fate that many SLG proponents perhaps escaped and thus fail to seriously consider—is a double whammy for the rejected, who are not only out of luck in terms of bagging a group of prospective friends (whose desirability is heightened by the institutional legitimacy granted to their name or letters), but also out of luck in terms of desirable housing.

I believe that, on the whole, people actually like and identify with their SLGs and that the decision to rush either fraternities or selectives is not generally fueled by a simple desire for housing. I think, however, that acting on the simple desire for decent housing is perfectly justifiable as an end in itself.

In other words, I don’t see the desire for housing as simple or selfish at all. After all, where you live has major ramifications for the kind of intellectual and social life you will have the opportunity to cultivate as a Duke student. Nor do I see  the desire to live with a specific group of people as something to be put on a pedestal.

Wanting to live in a certain dorm, on a certain campus or within a certain community—these are not things to be derided, any more than is the desire for membership into a certain fraternity or selective. Nobody is denying that fraternities and selectives provide their members invaluable relationships and experiences. Nobody is calling for their wholesale dismantling. The reality that has emerged, however, is that current housing practices severely disadvantage those who cannot afford, were not chosen for or chose against joining fraternity or selective life. And this is unacceptable.

Duke’s housing model is exactly what my column headline suggests: unjustifiable, on a practical and theoretical plane. The fact that a discussion of the principles and unsavory demographic realities underlying our housing practices could so quickly turn into a discussion framed in terms of “attack” and “defense” is disturbing, but useful for highlighting the problem (read my supplementary Feb. 24 blog entry for a “thought experiment” modeled specifically on this issue).

Our housing system is embedded with structural dichotomies between those who are in, and those who are out. Fill in the blanks as you will. My point is that it is only too easy to think up all the possible contentious pairings. And it is a point that certain complaints in response to my column beautifully underscore.

I understand there are all sorts of subtleties, especially when you start pulling out the numbers, but these only reveal some of the more truly disturbing implications of closing our eyes to the problems with the current residential model.

For example, of the 30 percent of West Campus beds reserved for fraternities and SLGs, 77 percent are male, and the argument has been made that the imbalance is not merely attributable to but also justifiable because sororities have consistently turned down the offer for housing. Sorority preferences do not change the disadvantage to male independents, who are allotted fewer beds on West to maintain an even gender ratio. More importantly, though it may be true that sororities have refused housing, this preference is as much a function of historical practice as is the fraternities’ insistence on keeping housing. Not only could it be argued that fraternities, too, could continue to exist without being granted the privilege of guaranteed housing, but the sororities’ practical desire to live as independents should absolutely NOT “make acceptable” the fact that the predominance of male-owned social space on West ensures a distinctly gendered, undeniably lopsided power dynamic within Duke’s social scene.

As an end note: as a freshman, sophomore or junior, I could not have imagined the breadth and depth of our housing problems, and their implications for campus culture. My perspective is a culminating one. I speak not as an “authoritative senior,” but simply as a student who has lived on East, West and Central; as an unaffiliated sophomore who was “pushed off West” as a rising junior but who came to prefer Central to the point of opting to live there as a senior; as a friend to independents as well as fraternity brothers; as a soon-to-be-graduate who has seen how special it can feel to belong to a “selective” of any kind, living group or not, and how demoralizing it is to be made to feel stuck on the outside looking in.

Duke is not a battlefield. Duke is our home. And if I can, I want to make it yours in an even more complete sense than it has been for me.

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