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Mythbusters: Housing reform edition

Since the front-page column penned by Duke Students for Housing Reform, there has been a considerable response from students, administration, faculty, alumni and parents. Many people responded extremely positively, and a few extremely negatively. Most, I can confidently say, were slightly intrigued. That’s a job well done in the newspaper business these days.

However, there are a few myths that have trickled down from the piece, mainly considering just how much the Reform group has done and what the group wants. As a member of the movement, I’ve talked to independents and members of selective organizations who are anxious about our work, our mission and our actual, tangible power (hint: it’s not much without their support). I hope it’s a misunderstanding I can address.

I’m a member of a fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), though admittedly a more inactive participant than most of my brothers. Last year, I was friend-of-house to Wayne Manor; I scored a sweet single overlooking K-ville and lived a few doors down from some extraordinary friends. This year, I currently live among another group of extraordinary friends in AEPi’s section.

I’ve gotten lucky. Both of my experiences of selective residential housing have been comfortable, eye-opening and really, really fun. Each have provided or led to essential moments that make up my Duke experience. Yes, some homogeneous aspects of various Duke living communities bother me—especially as my hindsight self-corrects—but we were all once first-years looking to fit in somewhere. So I got out of my all-male living spaces by spending the majority of my time outside of my dorm rooms, falling deeply into organizations that graciously welcomed me and gave me much-needed perspective.

But the majority of Duke University is not Jackson Prince (that would get too loud, and pretty irritating). Nor is the majority of Duke University Greek. Nor is the majority of Duke University in an SLG.

There’s been relatively little noise about housing since the model changed in 2012. A few weeks back, The Chronicle reported on homogeneous communities within Greek life through a deep data dive of their senior classes. A panel on “The Future of Housing at Duke” concluded that “the current housing model makes it difficult for students who live in independent housing to have a strong community.” And a data brief dated Sept. 21, 2017, “found that only 56 percent of Duke students graduating in 2017 agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘Duke houses provide a sense of community and sense of belonging.’”

Duke Students for Housing Reform was founded as a response to the resurgence of disjointed discussions about housing, with an eye out for 2019 and the departure of Central Campus. We want to synthesize these factors and craft informed responses to administration and the Board of Trustees. We want to initiate what plenty of Duke students see as a necessary conversation. We want more say in our University’s destiny, and the futures of Duke students to come.

No, Duke Students of Housing Reform is not playing Settlers of Catan on a map of West Campus in President Price’s locked office. There have been no sections stripped nor communities disturbed. There have been no commissions created, no solutions endorsed, and—most importantly—no doors closed.

Duke Students for Housing Reform has extended an invitation, not a threat, to members of selective residential organizations of all kinds—fraternities, sororities, SLGs, even academic- or scholarship-based living situations—to reflect on their experiences of housing, to defend their individual ideas and values regarding housing and, most importantly, to listen to other people’s residential experiences. We rarely afford ourselves the opportunity to listen to one another, independents and affiliates alike, and yet we expect a united, healthy Duke community to magically—gothically—create itself.

While we stubbornly shut ourselves away from one another and lean back into the comforts of our insular communities (many of which are currently situated on a Central Campus doomed for destruction in two years), Dean Joe Gonzalez and an understaffed HRL will determine the future of West Campus, affecting all of us. There will be no self-determination. We’ll get what we get and we might be upset—and helpless.

If you’re happy with the current housing model, you should share why that is the case with those people who are on the fence or who aren’t convinced. If there’s something you want changed about housing but you don’t care for the models Duke Students for Housing Reform has proposed, you should absolutely be contributing to the conversation.

As a “selective” myself, I believe that the most selfish action is to ignore or silence budding conversations surrounding housing and those that stem from it—conversations about diversity, happiness and safety. To reject an invitation to self-reflect and to listen is to regard the perspectives and backgrounds of other Blue Devils as lesser than yours, as unworthy of being incorporating into your Duke experience.

For me, I believe that living amongst people who don’t necessarily look or identify or think or socialize like me would have been beneficial to my Duke experience. I also believe that there is a future Duke in which selective housing is no longer relevant, though I recognize that today might not be the day to join some of our peer institutions with that motion.

So I joined Duke Students for Housing Reform to immerse myself in the realities of housing today, and to question if the housing model is truly doing its best for everybody. What are the pros and cons of sorority sections—which are a recent addition to the housing model—and how we can set aside safe, common spaces for sorority members (and, for that matter, all Blue Devil women) in a West Campus housing model? How can fraternities practice better methods to combat toxic ideas and actions that can arise from their homogeneous living situations? How can respective SLGs’ cultures be improved, and how can their hyper-selectivity be better legitimized? And what do independent students think about all of this...what do their communities look like?

Duke Students for Housing Reform hopes to give Duke individuals a chance to influence one another. To challenge and to empathize, perhaps even to compromise relatively less important aspects of their housing experience for the sake of dramatically improving another’s Duke experience. Perhaps even, ideally, to make a united statement to the administration and Board of Trustees that we demand better than what HRL might force onto us.

At our forum this Sunday, entitled “Public Forum on Housing at Duke” which will be held in Schiciano Auditorium B at 7 p.m., Duke Students for Housing Reform will simply open up the conversation. 

Nothing’s better than some healthy debate. It’s why I’ve been editing these opinion pages since the day I accepted my bid into a fraternity.

Jackson Prince is a Trinity junior. He is the Editorial Page Editor. 


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