Student input heard in one RLAD debate

Administration reverses course in eleventh hour

The implementation of the new Residential Life Area Directors (RLAD) system has been fraught with all of the problems students have become accustomed to in recent years, particularly regarding student input.

Like other controversial proposals, the administration rolled out this new policy at the very beginning of the summer, when fewer students and student government officials are on campus than at any other time of the year. It caught students completely by surprise, as the concept of an RLAD had been apparently dropped on us without any prior discussions involving students. And then, the administration insisted that the system needed to be implemented immediately in a mad rush to cement it before students could coherently become a part of the discussion.

Per usual, they had “explanations” as to why this all happened. They meant to roll out the policy in the spring; however, the administration’s postponement of the announcement until summer appeared to be less of an oversight and more of a strategy, especially given their habit of regularly implementing controversial policies at the most inconvenient times for student engagement.

I had followed somewhat the developments of the RLAD drama, but my interest was piqued considerably when I was told that the entire first floor of MacGregor’s J Entry, the entry of which I am a chair, would be demolished to create an RLAD apartment. Members of MacGregor’s House Government (HouseComm) who happened to be here for the summer, concerned residents, a few GRTs, and I held a meeting.

As the smallest entry in MacGregor at 30 residents (the largest have 48), my entry and I feared that being cut down to 26 — or possibly 24 — rooms would be extremely detrimental to our entry culture. It would also strain our ability to accommodate handicapped students, and, most of all, two and a half hours of discussion with a few members of the entry over email was less than optimal. Not only that, but it would invade the H Entry main lounge, one of the louder lounges in MacGregor, which is probably not what the RLADs are looking for, particularly if they have young children.

We also made an interesting observation at the meeting: The housing plans we were looking at had been printed nearly a month prior to meeting, which meant that the administration had been planning to demolish a floor of MacGregor for several weeks and hadn’t told us until then, yet another demonstration of their determination to drive forward without real student input. At the meeting, we brainstormed other possibilities for the RLAD apartment that would minimize loss of student rooms, particularly in small entries, and created a list to give to Dennis Collins, director of residential life, with the greatest priority being to stay conscious of the size of the entries.

Our next meeting, which occurred last Tuesday, was attended by Collins, along with GRTs, residents, and a few members of HouseComm. It was expected that we would come to a final decision regarding the placement of the RLAD. At this point I’d like to emphasize again that at this meeting, the makeup of the group which would be making an incredibly important decision for all of MacGregor House consisted of two entry chairs (J and E), one social chair (J), the Housing Chair (resident of G), two students from H, and the GRTs from B, H, and J. The Housemaster also joined us for a bit.

This means that four entries were entirely unrepresented, and even the entries that were there were lacking key individuals who would have made important contributions. This is a direct result of the administration’s incredibly poor timing, and if they want to get serious about incorporating student input, they need to be much more considerate when it comes to the timing of their policy implementations.

The administration has lamented the weakness of the UA and DormCon, but when they make decisions like this one and time it in such a way that students’ elected representatives cannot represent them, they are undercutting the very systems they wish were stronger — they are disrespecting students. Students do not elect officials for fun; they do it because they want those people to represent them to the administration, and the administration needs to ensure that, if they are going to take an action requiring student input, they converse with student leaders and the student body. By letting us do our jobs, they will make theirs much easier.

The first topic brought up at the meeting was the option of eliminating the first floor of J, which most members present, and certainly all students, adamantly opposed. We presented to Collins the other options we’d discussed previously, some of which he agreed seemed promising, but stressing repeatedly that this would mean there would be delays in the placement of the RLAD, which would harm their ability to integrate quickly into the social fabric of the building.

Without going into the many and varied arguments had, it was the feeling of the students at the meeting that it was worth the wait to do it correctly the first time. Collins again tried to dissuade us from putting it off, and we began having the same discussion and arguments over and over again. Eventually, the topic of student input was brought up, and we pointed out that if they went forward with this despite our unanimous opposition, it would just be a continuation of everything that the administration had done wrong up to this point.

Then, Collins did something that, as a member of the administration, was quite remarkable: he listened to us.

Although clearly unhappy with the decision that we had reached, he agreed to go back to the architects and have them look at the other possibilities discussed. I commend Collins for acting in a way that will undoubtedly make his job more difficult, the job of his colleagues more difficult, and put the RLAD in a more difficult position, but finally puts students first.

The RLAD process is something that all of the administration should take a close look at to assess what worked and what didn’t.

What doesn’t work is rushing a policy through at an inopportune time for students and using that as an excuse to completely neglect gathering any student input on the subject. Because they did that, the RLAD for MacGregor, who played absolutely no role in the decision-making process, will bear the brunt of the inconvenience arising from the delay. I hope that when an administrative official informs the RLAD that, unfortunately, they will not be able to start living in MacGregor until the spring or next year, they make it clear that this was because the administration foolhardily made promises to them while being too busy to take into account what was best for the dorm from the students’ perspective. The blame for the RLAD’s inconvenience lies purely on the heads of the administration officials who rushed this process, not on the students who were forced to defend their interests and make a difficult choice in an already difficult situation.

What did work was listening. Collins certainly wanted to begin construction immediately, and the students certainly wanted to wait. In general, it is foolish to expect that students and the administration will always want the same thing. But the conversation we had with Collins was a good one; each side was able to present its arguments and point out possible flaws. In the end, Collins made a decision that was not what he wanted, but was optimal for the individuals he is serving — the students.

I am not claiming that the administration should cave every time students make demands. I recognize that administrators often have a much broader view of the Institute and its workings than do we and that, in the end, they’re the ones running it. However, transparency and discussion benefit everyone; students would not oppose the administration so frequently if they would just share the information they had with us, explain why they’re taking a certain action, and allow us to help shape that action.

The RLAD process has been a mess. But had what we seen from Collins last Tuesday been the norm throughout the process, it would have run a lot more smoothly. The administration needs to take steps to ensure that student engagement does not mean holding meetings with students, checking off the box that says “Involve Students,” then doing whatever they want anyway, but instead means substantive discussion and compromise between two groups. They need to make sure that the actions taken by Collins become the norm rather than the exception.