On Feb. 28, the Campus Life Committee brought a list of recommended theme houses to Student Senate for what is designed to be a quick approval process. Instead, a plethora of questions, problems and additional meetings finally resulted on Monday evening in every house that applied being approved. Theme housing has historically been fraught with controversy — in 2009, it led to a petition to impeach the Senate president — and attempts to improve the process have had little effect. Here, we present four recommendations for streamlining the approval process while building a diverse group of theme houses with the support of the student body.
First, the student voice needs to be the most important selection criterion for theme houses. Despite receiving the most votes at the housing fair, Health and Wellness House was not approved. Senate Campus Life Chair junior Paul Brar stated that this was partially due to what he perceived as the unattractiveness of their booth at the fair, but this clearly did not deter students from supporting them. There is something ironic about a publicly elected body largely ignoring the public vote on special interest housing. If theme houses are supposed to put on events and provide services for the student body, students’ views must be first and foremost in the selection process.
Second, it needs to be clear from the beginning what spaces are available for theme housing. This year, two groups who applied for theme housing were given 16-person suites in Post Hall, despite neither group having 16 people. There is no way to ensure that the extra students placed in these suites will be interested in carrying out the mission of the theme house, an especially problematic situation for Health and Wellness House, which aims to be substance-free. Having groups apply to live in specific areas — and making clear how many block housing arrangements in dorms are available — will let students know what to expect and avoid the problem of making uninterested students live in theme areas in order to fill beds.
Third, Senate needs to take care to avoid redundancy in theme housing. This year, two book-oriented houses — Book Club House and the Burrows — were approved, while some houses with unique themes were initially not. Similarly, Tree House, an environmentally-themed house, was approved despite the existence of Eco House, a longstanding theme house. Perhaps there were significant differences in these houses’ missions, and perhaps the student body expressed a desire to see multiple houses with similar themes. Perhaps other problems existed: the Sweet Suite, which was initially not approved, has five potential RA’s who will not be able to live in the suite if they are offered RA positions. Still,
Senate should take an active role in making sure diverse interests are expressed in theme housing, as such an array was present at the housing fair and all houses were eventually declared to have “good themes” anyway.
Finally, Senate must take a more active role in helping theme houses become active parts of the Knox community. Low attendance at events held by newer theme houses is a perennial problem, and Senate, as the overseer of the special interest housing process, has a duty to address this. Frequent inquiries with theme houses to see how they are doing, as well as more information on how to hold successful events, would establish a chain of communication and help should theme houses require it. It is not Senate’s job to save failing theme houses, but it is its responsibility to work to improve the student experience at Knox, and that includes making sure theme houses are able to contribute to residential life.