A few weeks ago, I was attending one of the Vassar Student Association meetings when I came across an interesting piece of information. VSA President Ramy Abbady ’16 was giving an update on the latest Seven Sisters Conference, a yearly assemblage of the student executives from Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Wellesley College and Vassar College (Radcliffe College had merged with Harvard in 1999). Among the topics discussed at this conference, one of the most controversial centered on Barnard’s winter housing crisis.
To provide context, the relationship between students and administration at Barnard has been more than sour for several years, especially regarding winter housing.
Per usual, many Barnard students return home for winter break to celebrate the holidays with their families while international students and others in complicated housing situations reside on campus either due to travel distance or financial reasons.
The haggling process to demonstrate need is unreasonably difficult, and staying for the break’s duration costs $400. In the past, the school’s policies mandated that students staying on campus could still stay in their own dorms, since most of the dorms would’ve remained open throughout the winter (Columbia Spectator, “Want to stay in Barnard housing over break? Get out your wallet,” 12.10.12).
Well, not anymore. In an effort to save money, the Barnard administration has implemented a series of changes to the winter housing system that have made an already difficult process even more frustrating.
In an email to the student body earlier in the spring, Barnard Dean of the College Avis Hinkson announced that all but one of the dorms would effectively be shut down over winter break since “it makes sense, for safety and well-being, to have the small population of students who are on campus during that time reside in one location,” (Columbia Spectator, “Barnard Housing changes: less winter break housing and sliding cancellation fees,” 03.05.14).
While seeming sensible at first, this decision was incredibly one–sided. In the email, Hinkson causally mentioned that students who do not live in that one dorm, Plimpton Hall, must “secure permission to use the room of a Plimpton resident.”
This means that even after successfully demonstrating need to the administration, students from the 11 other residence halls must go through a more difficult process of competing for a room in order to actually stay on campus.
“If you don’t have a friend in Plimpton, you’re basically screwed,” states one Barnard junior (Columbia Spectator, “Barnard announces changes to winter break housing policy,” 03.06.14).
At first, I must admit, I didn’t see the gravity of the situation. Surely, there can’t be that many people staying over winter break, I thought to myself. The Dean herself said that there were only a “small population of students” staying over break, after all.
Well, that can’t possibly be true, because the administration further cut down on the number of students eligible to stay to make up for the lack of rooms in Plimpton. At the start of the fall semester, the Barnard administration announced its decision to deny winter–break housing to everyone except students who possess “mission critical” roles (Columbia Spectator, “Barnard students express frustration over further restrictions to winter break housing policy,” 09.20.15).
“Mission critical,” in this case, translates to varsity athletes competing for the school and students who will give admissions tour guides during winter break. Bravo, Barnard, bravo.
According to the college profile, approximately 10 percent of the student body, including 15 percent of the class of 2019, are considered international students (Peterson’s, “Barnard College (International Students)”). That’s about 250 students that Barnard College decided to completely ignore, not to mention the students who are living on welfare, students who have been kicked out of their family for issues of sexuality and gender identity, students who come from abusive households and students who are literally homeless.
Naturally, the entire student body at Barnard was outraged at these coldhearted changes and demanded that the administration reverse them. The administration’s response? “Students could certainly look into house-sitting…I also know of another student who was a nanny over the holiday last year,” stated Dean Hinkson.
During the Seven Sisters Conference, all the other student executives expressed their support for the Barnard students in their endeavor. Additionally, the VSA agreed to form a coalition with the Barnard student government to provide as much help as possible, from assisting with policy recommendations to reaching out to Vassar alumni to host students.
Just two weeks after news of this issue spread at the conference, Barnard reinstated winter break housing for students with demonstrable “financial or personal” need and invited low-income students to stay on campus free of charge. It seems to me that the administration finally listened when it realized that its precious image was in danger of tarnish.
While people may view this outcome as a situation where justice was served, I see it more as a worrisome indication that colleges are becoming more and more profit–oriented rather than focused on their students. It’s no surprise to me that college is a huge, lucrative venture equivalent to multi–billion corporations.
Just look at the rising tuition costs. But what happened at Barnard wasn’t just carelessness, it was absolute blindness. The administration clearly wasn’t thinking about the students’ “safety and well-being” when it decided to close all but one dorm over winter break.
It was so incredibly obvious that the college was looking for ways to easily save money at the expense of the people it was supposed to aid. All that talk about student safety was just a shameless excuse to justify its money–driven decisions. All this wouldn’t bother me so much if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious.
I don’t consider myself a naive person. Colleges need to make money, and this obsession with increasing profits is a predictable result of a capitalist system. And honestly, that’s the harsh reality.
But really, Barnard, did you actually think you could get away with admitting more international students into your college, who must pay more money because they’re ineligible for U.S. government aid, just to leave them homeless over the freezing winter? That’s not a problem with greed, that’s a problem with gross overconfidence. That’s the same level of manipulation you would see out of “The Jungle,” for heaven’s sake.
“I feel like the administration isn’t exactly in touch with the needs of the students…Honestly, knowing Barnard, I’m really not surprised that they would do something like this,” stated one Barnard junior.
In that case, for this Thanksgiving season, I’m very thankful to be at Vassar. At this point, I think it is essential for students to make it clear to college administrations that we’re not just brainless idiots who they can scam effortlessly.
We can, and we will, fight. Maybe then we won’t see such disgusting overconfidence from colleges in the future.
Note: If you readers are interested, search #homelessness and #WhatHasChanged on the Columbia Class Confessions website (to clarify, Barnard and Columbia are closely interconnected) to hear some of the Barnard students’ voices.