Campus / News / Student Senate / April 23, 2009

Theme housing ruckus erupts in Senate

On Thursday, April 16, Student Senate contested the recommendations by the residential committee on which theme houses to approve. Senate members’ allegations of bias in the committee’s decision process resulted in a revision to the list of approved houses, as well as the creation of an ad-hoc committee to further deal with the issue.

While theme housing has always been a debated topic in senate, this year, senators were suspicious of the Residential Quality of Life Committee’s [ResQual’s] decisions after finding out that out of the four senators that applied for housing, only one did not get approval for her house. Additionally, some senators felt that ResQual members had an unfair edge on the competition because they knew how to fill out the application and there was no formal housing event to teach the student body that skill.

Senator Monica Harasim called for a formal re-evaluation by senate of rescom’s housing recommendations.

“The committee should be bias-free, meaning people that are serving on the committee should be biased free from the housing placement,” she said.

What went wrong

“Procedurally there were lots of errors made, the executive board was not informed there were so many members of the committee applying for houses, and it…violates the democratic process,” said Safety and Services Committee Chair Trevor Sorenson. “In comparison to last year, the biggest flaw that was made was not having the housing fair, because the student body had no voice in which houses they wanted … it was all put on senate, senate basically had to provide oversight [to the committee] … I’d like to see the housing fair made mandatory, as well as any member on the committee to tell Senate if they have direct conflict,” he said.

“Something we do in finance, if you’re involved with a club asking for money you’re not allowed to even be in the room. They may not have been in discussion with their own house, but they were in a discussion of other houses in competition with their own,” said senator Gordon Barratt.

Senator Michael Leon, the chair of ResQual, said that the issue of bias had come up in ResQual discussions.

“We knew the issue would come up. We also acknowledged the fact that Knox is a small school and that everyone is going to know someone who has applied for a house. However, in every case where there was somebody on the committee who was closely involved with one of the houses, we asked that person to remove themselves from the discussion concerning that specific house,” he said.

However, the number of committee members that had also received theme housing did not shock him.

“It isn’t surprising since members on the committee are leaders in their community. I think also that they had a good house proposition is not surprising,” he said.

“I don’t think this discussion would be any different if we picked the other six houses,” said Leon at the senate meeting, to the nodding approval of Senate president Elaine Wilson.

Campus Life Director Craig Southern said he observed the committee 40-50 percent of the time.

“They seemed to be direct in addressing what they valued on campus … from what I saw it was valid,” said Southern.

ResQual had previously approved the Feminist House, the Asian Cultural House, the Tree House, The Humor House, the Queer and Ally House (Q and A house) and an early block housing recommendation for Best of the Midwest House.

After allegations of bias became an issue, they adjusted the list to approve only the Asian Cultural House, the Tree House, and the Humor House. There are now two more houses available with Best of the Midwest, The Feminist House, The Q and A house, The “Studio” house, Play House, F.I.R.E. House (a dry house) and Co-House still on the table.

Senate passed the vote to remove from the approved list the Q and A House by a vote of 24 to 18 and the Feminist House with a vote of 26 members. The three houses that were approved by Senate, Asian Cultural House, the Tree House and the Humor House, were passed collectively with 27 votes of approval. The proposal to remove Q and A house completely from the list of applicants failed with a vote of only three supporters.

To further address the alleged bias, an ad-hoc committee was formed to select which programs will be assigned to the two remaining houses. The committee is made up of five senators, with Leon and Southern serving as ex-officio members. Three new senators were added to the committee, junior Heather Kopek, senior Sam Jarvis and senior Salleha Chaudhry. They were randomly selected out of senators who volunteered for the committee and were not applying for theme houses. Senior Jessi Chan and junior Linnea Larson will remain on the committee.

Removing remaining bias

Not everyone believes that Senate’s restructuring of the list of approved housing got rid of the bias in the selection process and some are concerned the decisions made were discriminatory, particularly the decision to remove Feminist House and Q and A house from the list.

Sorenson believed there was bias, but would like to see “all the houses that applied re-interviewed.”

“There were so many members of the [ResQual] committee in the houses already…the student body had no idea of this, the executive committee had no idea this was going on, we were left in the dark, so completely scrapping [the approved list] would make it unbiased, democratic, and completely fair,” said Sorenson.

Allegations of sexual and racial discrimination by Senate have been brought to the faculty diversity committee by the two student senator representatives on the committee as well as three independent students. While the Diversity Committee has not made any firm decisions yet on how to address the alleged discriminatory policy occurring at the Senate meeting, committee member and Gender and Women’s Studies Chair Magali Roy- Féquière said, “We will do something, there will be more.”

“We respect student autonomy, we have no intention of micromanaging student senate, [however] this does not mean we will overlook issues of diversity,” said Roy- Féquière. She went on to explain that while student autonomy should be respected, it cannot be a cover-up for violating student’s rights, or acting discriminatorily.

“Can the majority really know what’s best for the minority?” she asked.

Alleged racial discrimination was brought up with senate’s attitude towards the Asian Cultural House. Though it was passed, approval was highly contested first.

“That’s a race house. If they want to isolate themselves, fine, but not in a Knox house,” said junior and senator Maxwell Galloway-Carson.

Sorenson and other senator members disagreed.

“As far as Asian house, I think that’s something the administration needs to start working on. I think this needs to become a permanent fixture,” he said.

Feminist House and Q and A house were highly debated. Feminist House wanted to create a space that abides by feminist philosophy and offers a trained student rape counselor to the campus. Q and A house wanted a safe space and a place to hold queer-friendly events and parties.

“My biggest concern with the feminist house and the queer house is the segregation of campus. I don’t see the purpose for the feminist house and queer house much beyond the function of clubs. I guess I would like to see the difference between Feminist House and SASS. Where’s the difference between SASS and Feminist House besides the style of living?” said Kopec.

“I’ve been a feminist for eight years now, and I want to look at that fully. [The HRC] is not open 24/7 and we want to have a place where you can go a place to go when the counseling center isn’t open. We go home and we’re barraged by sexism. Yes, I am involved in SASS but I’m a feminist all the time,” replied junior Ashley Atkinson, an applicant of the Feminist House.

Some students believe way it was handled was sexually discriminative. Points were made targeting of Q and A House and Feminist House as biased, but not the humor house, of which a ResQual senator was a member.

“I understood that people want to be fair, and were concerned about bias. However, it was telling that, for whatever reason, no one claimed that we had an unfair bias with humor house even though a member of the house was on the committee. … I’ll leave it up to you to decide why many senators only brought up the issue of unfair bias when it came to the human rights minority houses, and ignored the issue for non-controversial houses like Humor House,” said Leon, now ex-officio to the committee.

Atkinson felt she was harassed when she attended the senate meeting, particularly regarding Sorenson’s allegations towards Leon that “there still is bias, your girlfriend [Atkinson] has a house,” in regards to her simultaneous relationship with the senator and the approval for a house to which she applied.

“I thought that was absolutely out of line. The fact is that that was so disrespectful that I actually look down on most senators for snapping an approval type of thing,” she said. “I did not talk to [Leon]…I wrote my application at the same time as everyone else and by myself. There were no secret meetings.”

Incidences of discrimination continued to emerge, with reports from members of houses that were approved being labeled as sexist. “My house [Steak House] in particular has been targeted, we’ve been called sexist. We were called a quote “man” house who does quote “man” things,” said Sorenson. “I would definitely say it was a result of what was said in Senate.”

Other debated houses brought up in Senate were Co-House and F.I.R.E. house, both of which were not approved for housing, but remain on the table. Co-House was not approved because ResQual did not believe they had successfully completed their mission of bringing together the community of Galesburg and Knox well enough this past year.

“Co-House was the house we took a vote on. We did feel they were an excellent house; part of it was that we thought some of their events were smaller then we would have liked to see. We were hoping there would be some more, it really was tough,” said Leon.

Supporters of the Co-House cited the fact that 40 students and 12 community members attended the mayoral inauguration party as one of their successes.

“We were restricted in terms of advertising because of trepidation of community members being on campus. A policy we have on campus is if a student organization wants to open the program to the outside community it needs to go through an ad-hoc committee. Each time the cohouse wanted to do something they went through that committee. The new mayor, Sal Garza, came to our house two or three times this year, Corine Andersen, a new alderman, was also there. …For that not to be seen as a success is kind of difficult to understand. It was featured in both TKS and the Register-Mail,” said one supporter.

“Co-House did what their mission statement was. They had a progressive dinner. Another thing the Co-House did was the community garden. They helped with everything after the general student body left.” said junior and senator Fayne Lawson.

F.I.R.E. house was also supported by members of Senate. F.I.R.E. house would be a designated dry house where members could throw parties and attendees would not be worried about being offered drugs or alcohol. Additionally, they would be working with the fire department in their house events.

Kopec supported the need for a substance-free space on campus.

“If you judge on the basis of who needs to have a place around campus, Feminist House’s goals coincide a lot with SASS, who uses the HRC for the location, but there is no place where you can have parties or events which are alcohol- or drug-free and I know all the houses are supposed to be drug free, but in all reality they aren’t,” she said.

“The real thing that makes people uncomfortable is substance, there’s not a lot of stuff to do on the weekends if you’re not drinking.” said junior and senator Abe Zumwalt.

Leon said that ResQual had not approved F.I.R.E. house because they felt not drinking alcohol was not a program.

Klayr Valentine-Fossum

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