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Joe Gonzalez discusses new dorms, renovations and future of Duke housing

The Chronicle sat down with Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life, to discuss new dorms, selective living and other housing initiatives. 

He’s been at Duke University for 14 years, but he initially “caught the housing bug” when he was an undergraduate resident assistant at the University of Kansas. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: Who gets right of return to the Hollows?

Joe Gonzalez: There are 23 houses [on Central Campus] that need a home. We were committed to making sure they had one when Central closed, so we’ve been working on this process for over a year now. 

We knew it wasn’t going to be an automatic exchange of if you’re living on Central now, you could go to the Hollows, in part because the houses at the Hollows are rather large and many of the houses on Central are small. Plus, they wouldn’t all fit. There are only nine houses constructed initially in the Hollows and we had 23 groups. So six independent houses are going to be moving to the Hollows. The students that are in those six, if they exercise right of return, they’ll be going to the Hollows next year. 

The other three houses will have selective living groups in them, but we actually ended up dividing two of the floors on the Hollows so that they’ll each have two selective living groups. So there’ll be five selective living groups and six independent groups at the Hollows. Those actually become identified [Oct. 21 at] night.

We are going to have eight houses at 300 Swift, seven of which will be selective living groups and one will be a large independent house, so the split between beds is almost 50 percent independent and 50 percent selective. Even though the number of houses is different, the number of beds is almost equal. Two of the independent houses that are going to the Hollows are currently in Edens. There’s a house in Keohane that’s being moved to the Hollows. The remainder are going into houses in Craven that are open.

TC: Are students still guaranteed housing if they want it throughout their four years?

JG: Yes. We’re doing everything we can to maintain that commitment that if you want to live on campus, we have a way for that to happen. That was pushed last spring. Initially, we didn’t have the inventory we needed but, fortunately, by the end of the semester, we were able to find an assignment for everybody who wanted to be on campus for the fall. That remains our commitment. If you want to live on campus, we want you to live on campus.

TC: Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, told Duke Student Government that Duke is planning to build two more new dorms on West Campus in the next five years. What can you tell me about that?

JG: That definitely is our ambition: to add 500 more beds to the inventory between two new buildings. That would allow us to bring the undergraduates that are being housed at 300 Swift to West, which is the ultimate goal. We want all upperclass students living on West. We’re going to be close, but we’ll still have a little over 400 [students] still out at 300 Swift until these new beds get constructed. It’s just a matter of when can we get there. We’d love to see that happen in five years, but it’s a matter of financing.

TC: We’ve gotten reports that there are some dorms on East, including Bassett, that have had problems with mold this year. What is the University doing about that?

JG: We did get some reports a little over a week ago, so we went in with consult from Duke’s Occupational and Environmental Safety Office. We contacted a company to come in and treat areas where anything was observed that needed to be treated. We also changed a number of the air conditioners at that building to make sure that those weren’t part of the factor of what led to the mildew and stuff that was observed. 

Basically, we followed the consult of OESO and worked with the contractor to take whatever steps were recommended. Our housekeeping crew was over there cleaning a lot of things as well. It seems like our efforts have been successful so far, but we’re going to continue to monitor it to just make sure that nothing develops further.

TC: Is Duke considering taking a more preventative approach through renovation projects on East?

JG: We have a lot of aspirations in terms of what we want to accomplish on East. Southgate is closed currently so we can introduce central air and sprinkling systems into the building. Our ambition is to do that in all of the buildings on East that currently lack those systems. 

The challenge is timeline and how do you pay for it. Our hope is to do Gilbert-Addoms not next year, but the year after. Then, once Gilbert-Addoms is done, we’ll start tackling the six buildings on the main corridor that lack those systems. We want to do that work—and there’ll be a number of other things that happen during those projects—it’s just a matter of how quickly can we pursue them and afford them.

TC: Students living in Swift don’t currently have access to their balconies. Why is that and could that change?

JG: Over the summer, the company that’s managing 300 Swift, Greystar, reported some concerns to us with some conditions they saw on a few of the balconies. Mostly, the concern was where the rails meet the balcony and making sure the rails were sufficiently strong to bear high levels of weight being put against them. 

We weren’t really worried about one person leaning against it, but there was more concern now that these buildings have undergraduate students in them—whereas they were originally designed to have graduate and professional students and young professionals in the community—we might have activity out there that’s a little bit different, and I don’t know that anyone would have thought maybe there’s 20 people on that balcony. 

We went over and reviewed and—really more out of a high sense of precaution—decided to bring in an engineering firm and have a thorough review done. That review is currently underway. I had hoped that it would be completed by now, but it’s taken a little bit longer, in part because of some of the weather incidents that have happened have directed that firm in other directions. 

But I’m hoping we’ll get that report back soon, and assuming it comes back the way we would expect, students can begin using the balconies again. We believe that everything will be okay, but you want to be sure.

TC: How has Housing and Residence Life changed since you’ve been at Duke?

JG: We’ve evolved a lot over the past 14 years. For part of the time, housing and dining were together. We no longer are. 

We’ve had different housing models during my time here. When I first arrived, we were working with what we referenced as the quad model. We’ve had the Duke houses model for the past seven years. The buildings themselves have changed dramatically during that time. We’ve had a number of major renovation projects, and we’ve had the good fortune to also build a few new buildings. But the core of what we’ve had to accomplish hasn’t changed—we’re charged with making sure our students have the best housing experience possible.

TC: There’s currently a moratorium on new group housing. What’s going on with that, and what is the future of selective living at Duke?

JG: It was agreed a little over a year ago that we would have a moratorium of any new selective living groups being added until fall of 2019, and that was in large part to allow us to successfully relocate the 23 houses on Central. But after fall of 2019, I think it’s really part of the conversation underway in terms of, 'What is the ambition for undergraduate housing moving forward?' 

There’s a task force operating at the Board of Trustees level talking about this question. It’s possible the moratorium could continue—it’s possible it could be lifted. It’s not a new question. The question has been asked during my 14 years here, but this is the first time that I would say it’s really being talked about at a different level. 

Selective living groups have had a long history here at Duke, so I don’t think it’s something that anyone would disregard lightly, but I also think there’s been important points made about, 'are there better possibilities for Duke that don’t include selective living groups?' We’ll see where the conversation goes.

TC: One of the alternatives to selective living would be first-year dorms blocking together. How is that program going?

JG: Three houses were offered that opportunity last year. This year, all of them will be offered that. I think a lot of students will be interested in that. We’re getting ready to roll out our resident feedback survey, and that will be our first opportunity to try to get a sense of "What were there outcomes for those students that participated in the program?"

One of the things that’s been true ever since I’ve been here is there’s always been this desire to offer East communities the chance to stay together. We actually had a version of this when I first arrived. The difference is this time, no one knows where they’ll be placed, whereas when we were doing it before it was already preordained where groups live. 

I think that led ultimately to that approach being discontinued because some houses were very happy with where they were being placed and some houses were very unhappy. With the way we’re doing it this time, you’re committing to each other and you’re basically saying location doesn’t matter, people matter more.

When it comes down to it, it’s the students and their desire for community that makes the experience special. Hopefully, we lay the groundwork for that, but students make the experience in their communities matter or not. My hope is that they capitalize on that opportunity.

The Chronicle: Looking forward, what are you most excited about?

Joe Gonzalez: What we’re most excited about is the fall of 2019 and how—for the first time since I’ve been here—we’ll have an upperclass housing inventory that we’re universally excited about. We’ve known about the need to renovate Crowell and Craven for a long time. Those renovations are finally being completed. The opportunity to discontinue using Central Campus and bring the Hollows online is an improvement.


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