Discourse / Editorials / April 30, 2009

Shelter from the storm

Hi. Remember me? Well, I wouldn’t either.

Now, I can’t quite believe that of all the things I could have written an angry letter to TKS about this year, the one I’m actually writing is about Theme Housing. This was never an issue I cared about, but you all clearly do. So, since graduating has sadly not tapered the flow of my dubious student-government wisdom, I hope you’ll let me offer some thoughts on how to fix this annual train wreck. Maybe once this is out of the way you’ll start worrying about things that are really important (hah, I know, right?).

Everyone’s accusing everyone else of bias. But when there are so many people applying for houses, and a ten-person committee, bias will always crop up. Everybody has an axe to grind, a social group or a demographic they support. Supporters of the Q&A and Feminist houses, notably, have tried to rise above that by claiming the need to fight prejudice as a trump card – surely those who oppose fighting prejudice are the biased ones. But this argument, just like the rest, is ultimately just another attempt to move the baseline by defining the underlying mission of theme housing in the way that most benefits them. Houses are a scarce resource; anything that benefits one group will look like bias to another, and everyone’s going to fight to define housing and bias in a way that includes the groups they support.

But all this argument about bias and prejudice is beside the point. There is no baseline to be moved; a baseline cannot exist until we decide exactly what we value in a good application and what themed housing’s ultimate mission is. Resolving these background issues doesn’t necessarily help: since the outcomes can determine the ultimate winners, debate just shifts to an earlier point. Besides, people will vote how they want no matter what rubric you give them. To summarize: this is all politics and there is no right answer, there never will be, and you have to just get over it already.

But I promised solutions, and solutions you shall have. Trying to define what makes a good theme clearly isn’t working; instead, reformers should look to settle ambiguities in the voting procedures, and re-evaluate the overall mission of the themed housing system.

First, replace “themed housing” with “project housing” (as it were). People often say that themed houses don’t do anything. Consider the exception: Eco House, a successful themed house and now a permanent house. They had a definable and visible project: to make their living space more ecologically sound. Instead of “being,” they were doing. Consider too the post-bac system, where alumni spend an extra year here, in the process completing a project that benefits campus in some way.

What I’m proposing (and more or less what I gather Craig Southern has been saying for years) is that we require the same thing out of all our themed houses: a project, of definable scope and lasting effect that can be completed over the course of a year. By asking what applicants will do instead of just who they are, we can sidestep the traditional weighing of [maligned demographic] against [whoever was in 3B the year before]. By requiring specific results and multiyear benefits, we set the bar higher, weeding out the uncommitted. Project-based housing shifts the emphasis away from providing one year of good programming and toward doing things that will benefit campus for years to come; for instance, it can help promote the creation of permanent campus safe spaces that don’t rely on having a themed house to survive. The system can even be expanded beyond those who have houses to widen the opportunities available for student-initiated projects. Finally, this system is relatively content-neutral – many good ideas can become good project proposals, and a good project proposal will be easier to evaluate and enforce than nebulous themes could ever be.

Second, we need to decentralize the selection process and use a more democratic voting structure to minimize the unavoidable biases. Clearly, leaving the decision-making with ResQual alone doesn’t work, or at least does not instill confidence in others that it works. As others have suggested, the housing fair should be brought back. The committee’s selection interviews should also be open to the entire community, with opportunities for attendees to ask questions.

The actual interviewing and voting committee should be somewhat large, perhaps as large as the entire Senate. Of course, whatever body is picked will not and cannot be unbiased. This problem, however, can be limited by using a better vote-counting system. Instead of each person just picking their favorites (a plurality system, which magnifies biases and blocs within a group), I suggest using the single transferable vote system, which uses a ballot on which each voter ranks all choices from first to last (ask Wikipedia for details). This system ensures that nobody’s votes are wasted and that people’s biases and conflicts of interest are balanced against each other and have no undue influence on the final result. It may be a little more difficult to tally, but it’s no worse than a three-hour Senate meeting. And if you’re wondering, yes: I think you’ll find Senate much more representative and democratic if your senators are elected this way, too.

So there you are. I hope this will help. Good luck.

Brian Camozzi

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