The Dorm Dilemma: Residence Halls, Housing Costs and the Six-Semester Policy One Year Later

The Dorm Dilemma: Residence Halls, Housing Costs and the Six-Semester Policy One Year Later

One year ago, the administration announced a new housing policy, the controversial six-semester rule. Students must now live in a residence hall until their senior year. The new protocol, created to foster dorm life and build community, has drawn fire from the student body. Scholastic examined this issue when the policy came out last year — but what has changed since then, and how has the community responded?

The dorm system remains one of Notre Dame’s most significant social outlets and a major selling point for university admissions. “The community has taught me how amazing it can be to just spend time with others on a daily basis, cracking endless jokes while also taking time to get serious and help each other when necessary,” senior Michael Kay said. “From day one the community of Dillon has welcomed me and helped me to be a person working to welcome even more people every day.”

Recently, however, the dorm system has been criticized not only as a result of the new housing policy, but as part of a larger examination of disparities between dorms. While new residence halls and campus facilities spring up every couple of years and other dorms undergo remodeling to fix structural and aesthetic issues, many remain in poor condition. Certain dorms face infestation and physical deterioration, and remodeling cannot come quickly enough. Others, while physically and aesthetically sound, lack amenities such as air conditioning or elevators.

Rises in tuition render the disparities in housing options all the more apparent, and some wonder if the six-semester policy sprang from monetary motives. “I just hope the reasoning for the mandatory living arrangement is wholly student focused and not driven by factors unrelated to individual students’ living
situations and well-being and more related to forwarding the university as whole,” Kay added.

Still other students — those who feel they do not fit in with the traditional dorm lifestyle, for instance — continue to protest the six- semester policy. “I think that the worst thing you can do to kids who don’t fit in is mandate them to stay,” student body president and Campus Life Council chair Gates McGavick said. “It’s too broad of a solution to what really is a nuanced problem.”

While some students support the dorm system as it is, others feel that reform — both financial and social — could be in order. What are students’ demands, and what has the administration done to address these concerns? In this issue, Scholastic will revisit the six-semester policy and take a balanced approach to the dorm debate, especially in the context of physical amenities and dorm culture.


Pros

All of the dorms across campus carry with them a unique character and history. Newer dorms have a polished look and amenities that students love. Older dorms, on the other hand, have built tradition over their long history and provide a “homier” feel.

When the two newest dorms, Flaherty Hall and Dunne Hall, opened in fall 2016, students were in awe walking through their hallways. Before long, they were referred to as “five-star hotels,” and it’s not hard to see why. Spacious common rooms, sleek hallways and new furniture gave residents all they could ask for.

West Quad dorms, all having been built in the last 25 years, boast some of the same amenities. All have air conditioning and elevators, providing convenience and luxury for their residents.

Even dorms like Walsh, older but newly refurbished, enjoy some of the new additions. “Walshies say that they love the central location of our building and the long singular wide hallways that make up each floor because it allows for more organic interaction to happen,” Walsh rector Liz Detwiler said.

At first glance, it might be easy to look at the newer dorms and say that they are miles ahead of their older counterparts across campus. Some residents of those more storied dorms, might disagree, though, as many explained to Scholastic the homey feel that they provide.

“Because of the size, everyone is known by name pretty quickly and it feels pretty much like a home,” Carroll rector Eric Styles said. “Even though Farley isn’t the newest dorm, it gives off a cozy and home-like feeling that some of the others can’t quite replicate,” freshman Ellie Parisi said.

“Howard was homey because it was so old and lived-in,” junior Susanne Seiler said.

While not every dorm is perfect, many of the residents enjoy the unique feel that their homes provide.

Dorms have much more to offer than physical beauty, though. From the minute the housing assignments are distributed, Notre Dame students enter into a new residential community that is one of the staples of life on campus. While each residence hall delivers this experience differently, what is common among them all is the bond among residents that makes each individual hall such a special place to live.

“Without the community that has shaped me over the course of three plus years I would not be where I am today,” Kay said. “The men of Dillon Hall have helped me to grow as a student, person and friend throughout my time here.”

“My favorite part of living on campus is the community,” senior Shannon Shilts said. “The women in Cavanaugh are amazing and so welcoming. I love coming home to [more than] 200 women who are ready to celebrate 

with me when things are amazing and ready to cheer me up when things aren’t going too well.”

The importance of unity in the hall pertains not only to students but also to the halls’ head staff, including rectors whose principal tasks include curating that experience.

“Because we are small, we have more hall identity than floor identity, so we generally feel that we are all in it together,” Detwiler said. “We are invested in the flourishing of our community and in each other — so we love to organize programs or events that build community or enrich our lives.”

The halls range in age from the most recent — Flaherty and Dunne — to Sorin Hall, which opened in 1888. Despite that variation, residents still appreciate the comfort that their respective halls provide. Even in a newer dorm like Ryan Hall, junior Julia Forte noted that the hall’s recently established traditions and character, like dorm Masses and enjoying cookies every Tuesday night with Rev. Joe Carey, C.S.C. — as opposed to the physical elements — have contributed to fostering a similar level of comfort.

“One of the most unique things Notre Dame has to offer is the residential life experience,” senior Christian Frederickson said. “If I lived off-campus, I would feel like I was missing out on one of the most special aspects of Notre Dame life.”


Cons

With all the positives that come with living on campus, there also are some glaring negatives. One of these is the number of physical disparities between the halls, which are even more apparent when comparing newer halls against their older counterparts. There is no hiding this discrepancy, and students across campus are well aware of the stark contrast.

“I would say that one of the flaws is the inequity between dorms,” McGavick said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s a little ridiculous at times. Flaherty, Dunne — five star hotels. Keough, O’Neill — great places to live.

“And that’s not to say a [hall] with bad facilities is a bad place, but it’s unfair to the kids living there that they’re paying the same,” McGavick added.

Kay acknowledged that the distinction is one of the most common complaints of on- campus residents. “The obvious complaint is there is a huge disparity in living conditions from dorm to dorm (to hotel) in some cases.” Shilts also pointed out that a key issue that she has encountered among students is paying the same for room and board as their peers in newer halls despite substantially “unequal living situations,” including the lack of air conditioning in many older halls. Shilts also mentioned the rampant presence of cockroaches in Cavanaugh. The newer halls, however, have the infrastructure in place to ensure that the building envelope stays sealed.

Another criticism of the differening halls involves the size of rooms. “I feel like I go to O’Neill and there’s a double that’s way bigger than my room [a quad, but] quads in Lewis are only two rooms,” junior Kathryn Doyle said. Seiler agreed, “Lewis is good, but the difference in the size of rooms is a little 

ridiculous. Doubles in guys’ dorms are the size of our room, and we have four [residents in our room].” Seiler noted that, during the year-long hall renovations, rooms should continue to be expanded as have been done already in Walsh and Badin. Since new halls are on the way, the new rooms would make up for some of the rooms lost by growing the existing rooms.

On top of concerns with the physical condition of some of the dorms on campus, there are numerous social issues that affect residential life for students.

First and perhaps most importantly, some argue, is Notre Dame’s lack of diversity. Because Notre Dame is largely white and Catholic, there exists a mold of the “Notre Dame student,” and those who don’t fit that specific type are more likely to feel out of place in their dorms.

“I had a friend from Cleveland with three kids, her husband went here ... The twin daughters came by and said, ‘Where are all the black people?’ This young, white girl sees that that’s a problem, and she named it. Notre Dame ought to look more like our country in that sense,” Styles said.

Indeed, making our residence halls more welcome to people from all backgrounds is an area for improvement.

“There is a large amount of stress that I see with students fitting in ... finding ways for people of all backgrounds and dispositions to feel welcome. You don’t have to conform,” Styles said.

Additionally, some students noted the differences between men’s and women’s dorms across campus, especially in terms of the enforcement of rules. This too affects the development of communities across campus.

“I would change the discrepancy between the ways that rules are enforced in male and female dorms; the female dorms should be run by the same standards as the male,” junior Dion Thompson-Davoli said.

In a similar vein, some feel that the single- sex residential system can provide obstacles for students.

“Parietals can be frustrating at times. I definitely appreciate the benefits of not having girls around at 3 a.m. when I’m trying to shower, but it can be very difficult to find a place to have a personal conversation with a member of the opposite gender when we’re both working up to midnight on the weekdays,” senior Matt Brown said.

The dorm community is one of the backbones of Notre Dame and while it provides most students a comfortable home on campus, there is room for improvement to ensure everyone loves their dorm and the atmosphere it creates.


Factors Affecting Senior Year Living

Top 3 Reasons to Stay on: 

Convenience: 76%

Sense of Community: 48%

Ability to Live with Friends: 42%

 

Top 3 Reasons to Move off:

University Policies: 55%

Ability to Live with Friends: 49%

More Space Available: 48%


Renovations

In light of the issues students have reported, the administration has made a concerted effort to improve quality of life on campus.

“We believe what we say we believe and that is if the experience our students have outside of the classroom is as constitutive of a Notre Dame education as their experience in their classroom, then we need to do right by those students in the residence halls,” Associate Vice President for Residential Life Heather Rakoczy Russell said.

Informed by her experience as rector of Pangborn and as founding director of the Gender Relations Center, Rakoczy Russell now oversees the undergraduate residence halls, the graduate communities, the people who supervise the receptors of these communities and the housing operations team, also servicing in an emergency on-call rotation to respond to arising student problems.

“I couldn’t be in the position that I’m in, serving the people who serve the people who serve the students ... if I hadn’t started on the ground in the residence halls and had a full appreciation for the robust ministry and student formation that happens there,” she said.

Perhaps one of the biggest developments in residential life of late are the many renovations occurring across campus. According to Rakoczy Russell, this is all part of a 10-year residential master plan, with one major renovation and one minor renovation occurring each year.

“We actually went building by building and said what do each of these buildings need,” she said. Based on recommendations from architects hired by a private firm, each building will be touched in one way or another over the next four years.

However, no predetermined formula stipulates the order in which dorms will be addressed. While Dillon is next in line to receive a major renovation and Siegfried to receive a minor one, Rakoczy Russell emphasized that if another dorm should need immediate attention, that dorm will be addressed first. The reason there is no set order is for precisely this reason: to allow space for potential crises to occur and be easily addressed.

In addition to these renovations, new dorms are being built, much in the style of Dunne and Flaherty, the structures of which were informed by focus groups conducted by the Office of Residential Life in order to incorporate student input into their construction. These new dorms will aid in the reduction of overcrowding on campus.

“Prior to 2016, we were living at about 109% capacity,” Rakoczy Russell said. “Some triples were quads, some doubles were triples. When Flaherty opened, we made it to 100% capacity.”

In light of the renovations taking place and the decrease in oversubscription, the one concern students most often cite is the lack of air conditioning in many of the dorms on campus. According to Rakoczy Russell, before every renovation this issue is evaluated. In the most recent case, Morrissey’s ceilings were found to be too low for the air ducts that air conditioning requires. If a dorm meets the list of criteria required for air conditioning, Rakoczy Russell affirmed that the university will consider it.

Many reactions to the major renovations have been positive.

“I think the renovation team did a great job of balancing the historic character of our building with the needs of our students who live here,” Detwiler said. Walsh Hall’s major renovation was completed in August 2017.

However, some residents in halls receiving minor renovations have expressed disappointment that the changes are not more expansive.

“They said they redid Howard ... but they only did the study spaces and lounges. They didn’t redo the bathrooms; those were super gross,” Seiler said. “They gave us new doors, but I would have lived without that to have a nice bathroom.” Howard Hall’s minor renovation was completed in August 2015.


Conclusion 

Clearly, the dorm debate remains far from over; student government, however, promises to advocate for students’ interests. “We want to be a voice for students,” McGavick said. “We want to work for you and your classmates. If we’re going to make campus a place where students stay for three years we have to make sure it’s a place they want to stay and right now we’re not necessarily seeing that level of investment.”

Such investment might not occur right away: administrative change at any institution, especially one as large as Notre Dame, does not always happen quickly. In the meantime, however, the responsibility for the creation of a positive campus culture — both in and out of the dorms — ultimately lies with the students. “Presume it’s your job to reach out and be loving, every day,” Detwiler says. “[Take] initiative, ask the questions, take the risk, share your own story, resist judgment. If each of us presumes it is our job to reach out to each other, we can continue to create a culture of care and belonging.”