Not their choice

THE RESIDENCE Life Office recently announced that incoming first-year students will no longer be allowed to specify a preference between Alderman and McCormick Road residence halls. Instead, students can choose based on "educational programs" such as residential colleges or first-year living areas. This change, ostensibly made to "desegregate" dorms, ultimately deprives members of minority communities a safe and comfortable place to live.

Members of the University community are likely familiar with the dichotomy that has been established between New and Old Dorms, but in case you are unfamiliar with these problems, here's a recap: Old Dorms house predominately white students and are often associated with upper-middle class culture at the University. Just down the road, the New Dorms are known for housing students from more diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds as well as more members of the Queer community.

For years, students and administrators have rightly found this segregation problematic. A lot of ink has been spilled on these pages, and activists have shouted about the need to integrate these disparate communities in order to further diversify students' perspectives. Angela Davis, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, told The Cavalier Daily last Tuesday that taking away dorm choice will allow for greater diversity in dorms. She is certainly right, but the University seems not to be asking what that sort of diversity means. Many minority students choose to live in New Dorms because they feel that they will be surrounded by a community that is more supportive and understanding than one they might find in Old Dorms. It is truly sad and embarrassing that at any liberal arts institution in the 21st century there is a concern for emotional and physical safety of minorities, but that is the reality we live in and the one we must work with.

Davis discounted concerns about safety, saying, "Every place on Grounds is safe." "That's not the issue. If anyone is telling you it has to do with safety, well that's just screwy." Although many might be right to disagree with Davis' first assertion, even more troubling is the apathy the Residence Life office displays toward students feelings. Feeling safe in one's home is just as important as actually being safe. We are only five years removed from a racially-motivated incident on the Lawn and just a few months from angry racist and homophobic messages scrawled on white boards and posted in dorm room windows. This community does not yet welcome everyone.

Although arguments may be made about pushing people outside their comfort zone, those people being pushed ultimately end up being minorities pushed out of communities where they feel welcomed. Many students base their housing choices on suite versus hall-style set ups, but for students with knowledge about the University before they arrive, there is certainly an understanding of what sorts of people stereotypically live in which dorms.

The lack of student involvement in the decision making process also poses a problem at a university that prides itself on student-self governance. Students have been participating on panels about this issue for years, but according to Davis, the residence life board chaired by Vice President Patricia Lampkin does not include any student, but the decisions made by that board ultimately affect the living situation of thousands of students. How involved are students in decision making processes if they are allowed to hold a few forums and then the "grown-ups" make the choices?

One might argue that attempts at dorm integration can help alleviate deep-seeded issues of racism and homophobia by opening up a dialogue between students of different backgrounds who are forced to live together. It is just as likely, however, that minority students will be spread out and could find themselves in a potentially hostile living situation and not in a supportive community. The ultimate question is whether or not dialogue furthering minority-majority relationships needs to happen before dorm choice by space is eliminated or if eliminating dorm choice by space will further that dialogue. Given Davis' dismissal of safety concerns as "screwy," it doesn't seem the Residence Life Office even thought to ask that question.

Maggie Thornton's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at mthornton@cavalierdaily.com.

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