This upcoming Sunday, Nov. 23, the Vassar Student Association will vote to determine if elected house officers will be required to follow behavioral expectations set by the Office of Residential Life. Along with input unanimously supporting the amendment by House Student Advisors and Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa, members of the VSA are still seeking the opinions of students ahead of the decision. The change in expectations for house officers comes in light of increasingly noted tensions between house officers and the rest of house team. According to a statement prepared by Inoa, if the VSA fails to pass this amendment, the Office of Residential Life will automatically begin reevaluating the entire system of House Teams.
Currently, two separate groups operate within the House Team system, those individuals selected by the Office of Residential Life—student fellows, House Fellow Interns, and House Student Advisors—and those elected to their positions—house presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, and secretaries. This split has also left the two groups operating with separate requirements, mainly that Residential Life employees receive compensation and housing benefits in exchange for their work to foster dorm unity and support students, particularly freshmen, and a pledge to abide by a contract defining unacceptable behavior as determined by the Office of Residential Life.
According to the current contract, breaking this contract can result in reprimands from a House Advisor or even forced removal from a specific dorm. As it stands, despite receiving preferred single-occupant housing during room draw, elected house officers are not required to sign a contract agreeing to follow any Residential Life regulations.
Of central concern in this amendment is the contractual obligations related to expectations related to alcohol, drugs, and sexual behavior, commonly referred to as the “3 Bs.”
The contract in question, as drafted by the Office of Residential Life, reads, “A House Officer who knowingly engages in underage drinking or the use of other illegal substances with first year/[Transfer/Visiting/Exchange] students from his/her house may be move to another house on-campus,” and “House Officers should avoid interpersonal relationships (sexual, intimate, and/or amorous) that would prohibit their responsibility to objectively support and represent the first year/TVE students living in their house.”
While such measures will be voted on after one week after the amendment reached the VSA Council floor, those working within Residential Life view this as merely the long-awaited solution to a protracted problem for House teams. VP for Operations Ramy Abbady ’16 said, “[Inoa] didn’t want it to be an administrative top-down thing, which is why even though this has been an issue before, he hasn’t pushed for it. But this year students wanted it so that’s why it came about now.”
According to the proposal submitted to the VSA by Inoa, “Over the past 9 years I have repeatedly heard concerns about the behaviors of officers that were problematic to the community and just as important disruptive of the house team dynamic.”
He continued, “Anecdotally these behaviors include providing drugs to freshmen, hooking up with freshmen while under the influence, and/or hosting parties.”
The severity of these house officer-freshmen encounters was more heavily stressed in a letter, sent collectively by the House Student Advisors (HSA). In it the group wrote, “There have been numerous occasions where the actions of a House Officer have effectively endangered first year students by way of unhealthy power dynamics involving alcohol, drugs, and sexual or romantic relationships.”
On a personal note, House Student Advisor for Lathrop House this fall Margaret Ginoza ’16 agreed with this sentiment. She wrote in an emailed statement, “The lack of official expectations for officers leads to confusion and tension within house teams, as well as uncomfortable situations with first year students.”
Aside from preventing potentially harmful actions or attitudes with the freshman class, supporters believe that the amendment will promote healthier house team dynamics. In the HSA letter, the group noted, “The current structure of house teams, in which House Officers are not held to any sort of behavioral standards like those to which selected positions are contracted, has for several years fostered a resentful and unhealthy environment for house teams and first year students.”
It continued, “In many houses, this lack of guidelines for House Officers has led to divides between positions that prevent effective communication and functioning of the house teams as a cohesive unit.”
Amidst the debates about the merits of such a contract being necessary for the sustaining of a healthy residential experience, points to the functionality and normality of these regulations are also critical. Ginoza explained, “I think it is important to note that the things being asked of the officers (not drinking with freshmen in their house, etc.) are not only against college regulations in the first place, but also the law—asking an officer not to participate in underage drinking or illicit substance use should not be considered a huge burden, when the safety and comfort of first year students should be one of the house team’s top priorities.”
She continued, “The other parts of the expectations are simply things that officers have long been expected to do as part of their position, but never formalized.”
While those affiliated with the Office of Residential Life appear to have presented a united front supporting the amendment, members of the VSA have registered some degree of hesitation on the amendment.
Among the chief reasons for criticizing this proposal is the perceived threat of reconsidering, or even restructuring, the House Team program. The Office of Residential Life proposal states, “If VSA decides that it does not want to hold all House Team members to the same behavioral standards, Res. Life will then need to reevaluate how much to invest in the concept of a House Team.”
Despite co-authoring the amendment in question, Vice President for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16 noted her discomfort at the timeline and forcefulness presented by the Office of Residential Life. She acknowledged the varied opinions related to the issue, some of which were negative. She said on the Council floor on Nov. 16, “This was handled very poorly and ResLife sprung this on everyone with short notice and the timeline was very strict. Having to make a decision before Thanksgiving was unfair and tying room privileges to all of this is coercive. I think this is an intentionally crafted amendment we’ve talked about a lot. I really appreciate all of you.”
Abbady echoed this belief. He said, “I don’t necessarily like the way it’s been presented to us, but I don’t think that’s the core of the issue we are discussing.”
Another potential concern is the endowment of the Office of Residential Life with the ability to remove elected officials from their housing. The wording of the amendment does grant the Office of Residential Life some ability to reprimand or remove elected officials from their housing. However, Ginoza was quick to explain that this, as in previous cases for other Residential Life employees, would not be a common instance. “As it would stand if the new expectations are adopted, decisions on consequences for certain infractions would be considered on a case-by-case basis; [serious] infractions may indeed result in a removal from the house, but as is more likely to be the case, minor infractions would simply result in a conversation with the House Advisor about the infraction and the officer’s ability to continue fulfilling their duties appropriately,” she explained. “Just as ResLife does not arbitrarily remove Student Fellows from power without justification, they would not simply remove an officer from power for any minor mistake.”
As the decision has yet to be made, students invested in the issue have avenues for voicing their opinions. Ginoza explained, “Students can reach out to members of their house team, particularly their president or class reps. In addition, if they have questions about the exact content of the proposal itself, House Advisors and other Residential Life administrators may be of use, as well as the VSA executives involved in this process.”
Abbady also advised students to talk with their class or house presidents who sit on VSA Council ahead of the vote, as these individuals, unlike those affiliated with Residential Life, will cast the votes determining the amendment’s outcome.
While the amendment will face a decision this weekend, there may be further changes to the house officer position. Matsunaga said, “I think we can also expect another amendment like this in the future. If we believe in treating house officers like we treat student fellows—student fellows get $200 in VCash—some kind of shift that acknowledges what other house officers do would be good.” Despite this statement, proposals on the monetary compensation of house officers remains fairly vague, as talk has yet to reach the phase determining whether the VSA or the Office of Residential Life would pay for such a measure.