Faculty panel discusses rooming process design exercise

Panel members agree that squatting can be incorporated, express varied opinions on mutual selection

A faculty panel convened Feb. 7 to discuss the room assignment and move-in process design exercise that residence halls have been asked to participate in.

The exercise involves suggesting a process that removes upper-level students’ say in first-year room assignment (“mutual selection”) and allows first years to retain their initially assigned rooms (“squatting”).

The panel consisted of Professors Ray Reagans, Parag Pathak, John Essigmann PhD ’76, and John Fernandez ’85. It was moderated by Susan Silbey, chair of the faculty. Panelists answered student questions based on their experiences with residence halls and interaction with undergraduates within their dorms as well as their areas of expertise, such as economics and sociology.

Students from multiple residence halls asked questions about topics such as community, fairness in the rooming process, and the relationship between mutual selection and homogeneity. Some students spoke to the panel about the rooming processes in their dorms.

The panel seemed to be at a consensus that squatting could be incorporated into the room assignment system. Fernandez, who is part of the Department of Architecture and head of Baker House, defined squatting as “the ability to stay in your room with your roommates,” clarifying that this did not apply to a subset of roommates.

In the context of Baker House, which allows squatting, Fernandez said, “We feel, entirely on principle, that if you have a group of residents who want to stay together in a room, that should be allowed.”

Fernandez also acknowledged that Baker is “on one end of the spectrum” when it comes to hall culture. Baker doesn’t have “very strong and long-standing cultures,” he said. Although there is interest in forming “sub-groups” on floors, Fernandez thinks that this will not be “fundamentally compromised by allowing squatting.”

In response to student questions about how squatting could be implemented, an algorithm was proposed by Pathak, a professor of microeconomics. First, people are put in a priority order. If Person A wants the room belonging to Person B, B is put higher in the order. B then has the option to look for a room they would like better than their current room. If A and B’s preferred rooms are being squatted by their respective occupants, B can also squat their room and A will look for a different room. According to Pathak, this algorithm addresses the problem of people not participating in the rooming process because they are afraid of losing their squatting rights.

“We know there are some students who stay put because it’s the easy thing to do,” said Essigmann, head of Simmons Hall and former head of New House. “What we need to do as a community is to find ways to get people to want to get out and explore.” He also brought up difficulties in moving from one dorm to another and said that these barriers should be lowered.

“I think there is very little that I see that the motivation for squatting is inconvenience,” added Fernandez. He said that it was more common, in his experience at Baker, for people to feel a sense of home with their assigned rooms and roommates.

The panel seemed to be more divided on the topic of mutual selection. Essigmann, speaking about his experience in New House, acknowledged both the benefit of mutual selection and that about three to four students each year would be unhappy due to their rooming assignment.

New House has nine houses that mutually select their residents. “Most students felt embraced by a wonderful loving family of people who were like them. So it was good for almost everybody, but some people were intensely distressed,” Essigmann said.

One student from Burton Conner was concerned that squatting first years might not necessarily be interested in participating in floor culture. Silbey responded that people work at what they have to do together, regardless of who they are working with. She remarked, “For most of human history and even in the contemporary world,” people did not participate simply because they’ve chosen their fellow participants.

“We don’t mutually select each other all the time,” Silbey said. She gave the example of arranged marriages working out, to the confusion of the audience.

Reagans, a Sloan professor of organization studies, said that while he “couldn’t imagine what it would feel like” to be turned down by a community, mutual selection is working for some residence halls. “The objective was to find alternative ways to realize the benefits that mutual selection is creating,” he said. “So it wasn’t necessarily removing something, but trying to figure out ... what exactly are the benefits that it’s creating, and if we know what they are, are there other ways?”