THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


When a Dorm is Not a Home

The institutional harms caused by Brown’s Office of Residential Life

by Mira Ortegon

Illustration by Mara Jovanović

published August 7, 2020


content warning: sexual assault

 

Paint peeling down the walls, a broken heating system, and mice scampering under the bed. As many college students know from experience, the physical conditions of on-campus residence halls can range from disappointing to unacceptable. Brown University is no exception. Jason Carroll, Vice President of Brown University’s Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) in 20192020, told the Independent that the most frequent type of complaint that students brought to UCS in the past year had to do with on-campus housing or the Office of Residential Life. Students have experienced heating and cooling issues, vermin problems, discolored water flowing from the tap, and mold that makes them sick. These issues have even garnered national attention—the New York Times featured a Brown student who developed a heat rash and pain after mold grew in her humid, uncooled dorm room.

When asked to comment, Brian E. Clark, a spokesman for the University, assured the New York Times that this was an isolated issue. Clark rejected the idea that unfit dorm conditions are a pattern at Brown, pointing to yearly room inspections and the University’s paint program. Carroll echoed the sentiment that the University maintains upkeep of residence halls through the Summer Restoration Fund. The Fund allows Brown to perform repair work on 12 residence halls each summer, and focuses on the bare essentials, such as a dorm that needed a new roof last summer. 

The University has also taken larger steps that reflect its recognition of persistent issues with on-campus housing, recently announcing plans for two new residential communities to alleviate the increasing need for updated on-campus housing. On some issues, students have successfully advocated for changes in residence halls. Carroll explained that broader concerns that affect the health and safety of large swaths of students are the types of issues that UCS can and does make traction on. Carroll himself created a buzz on campus after he brought bottles and bottles of brown water from the tap of on-campus residence halls located on Wriston Quadrangle to one of his UCS campaign events. In Carroll’s time as VP, UCS has successfully leveraged its frequent meetings with administration and staff in the Office of Residential Life to convince Brown to replace all of the water tanks in the dorms located on Wriston Quad.

While the reception to addressing physical dorm issues is positive, Carroll said that the UCS also receives complaints that it doesn't have as much ability to advocate for. Regarding individualized student complaints concerning mental health or accessibility, the UCS protocol refers students to the appropriate resources on campus, like Student and Employee Accessibility Services (SEAS), Sexual Harassment & Assault Resources & Education (SHARE), and the Office of Title IX. These offices then advocate for students and work with the Office of Residential Life to find appropriate solutions. 

 

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But what happens when students have support from the appropriate resources but are ignored by the Office of Residential Life? While dorm conditions are a highly visible manifestation of the issues with Residential Life happening at the University, there is also a dark underbelly of harmful experiences that students have had with the Office that are not as visible. Feeling safe, comfortable, and happy where one lives is a fundamental factor of being a successful college student. Combatting issues that undermine this environment should be a priority for Brown’s Office of Residential Life, but the University lacks a formal mechanism for addressing such issues.

When asked to comment on how the Office of Residential Life handles issues related to disability, mental health, sexual assault, and more, Koren Bakkegard, Vice President for Campus Life, told the Independent that “Residential Life works with many partner offices and processes to support and respond to students’ needs.” While Bakkegard did not provide a more detailed explanation of the Office’s protocol, she did say that “where there is such an intersection between a student’s needs and a change in their room configuration, room assignment, or room condition, then staff in Residential Life work to address those needs in a timely and responsive way.”

Despite the University’s purported commitment to supporting students experiencing a variety of complex issues, students continuously share stories that paint a very different picture. Students have provided accounts of reaching out to the appropriate resources for help navigating poor housing situations that were negatively affecting their mental health. Though students carefully followed the necessary protocol, the Office of Residential Life ignored calls and emails, laid the burden of these problems on the shoulders of the already struggling students, and exacerbated mental health crises.

When Elena* was a sophomore at Brown, she and a friend were living in a two-bed room on Wriston Quad. They had mutually decided that they needed to move out of their double and into single rooms—while they remained friends, the housing situation was not working for either of them. Elena was not getting enough sleep and was experiencing high levels of anxiety, so she reached out to SEAS and got approval to move out of her room once a single became available on campus. The uncertainty of the situation was frustrating, though, and Elena attempted to get in contact with the Office of Residential Life in order to ask about the chances of a room change, as well as the process and the timeline. Despite reaching out to various members at the office, weeks went by without communication, and the lack of support amplified Elena’s anxiety. She began looking for her own solutions and eventually came across two students who lived in single rooms and wanted to switch into her double.

When she emailed the office with this information, a staff member replied immediately and approved the plan as long as all four students were willing. Even so, after all the students had confirmed their approval, Elena got no response from the Office of Residential Life for a week. It wasn’t until her parents, who are lawyers, called the Office and pressured them to act] that Elena and the other students were able to carry out the move. The process, initiated in the beginning of November, dragged on until mid-December, forcing the students to switch dorms during finals period. 

“When it comes down to it, they [the Office of Residential Life] need to have systems in place that can handle these types of situations,” Elena told the Independent. “I was lucky because Brown was made for students like me, a student with lawyer parents from Massachusetts. But the majority of Brown students don’t have parents that are capable of making a phone call in the middle of the day to tell the Office ‘My daughter has anxiety and you are actively harming her mental health by not responding to any of the emails that she has sent.’” 

Even though things worked out for Elena in the end, her success was a byproduct of her relative privilege, and the process still felt deeply unsupportive. Her living situation induced stress, and the responsibility of having to find a solution herself compounded that stress. After she moved into a single, she reported that sleeping better and feeling comfortable in her home made her significantly more productive and happier. Without her parents' help and her own advocacy, Elena would likely have been unable to move at all, potentially spending all year in a negative environment.

Jamie* echoed Elena’s concern that the Office of Residential Life lacks an effective mechanism to deal with these individualized cases related to mental health. After surviving sexual assault during her first year at Brown, Jamie now has panic attacks when she sees her assaulter around campus. These panic attacks are so draining that Jamie is sometimes unable to attend class, instead returning home to sleep for the rest of the day. As she began to process the experience during her sophomore year, Jamie realized that she needed to reach out to resources on campus to get support. When the housing lottery for junior year on-campus housing came around, she had already been in touch with Advocates from the Sexual Harassment & Assault Resources & Education (SHARE) office. Alana Sacks from SHARE worked with Jamie to reach out to the Office of Residential Life. Given how debilitating these panic attacks were when Jamie was out on campus, it was clear that she could not live in the same on-campus dorm as her assailant without a deeply negative impact on both her academic performance and personal well-being. Even with a SHARE Advocate, a professional employee of Brown’s administration, on her side, communication on Jamie’s behalf was largely ignored. Alana had to call four people within the Office of Residential Life before she could even discuss the situation with them. 

Jamie had hoped that the Office of Residential Life would ensure that she and her assailant did not pick the same dorm location for junior year. The Office of Residential Life told her that all she could do was enter the housing lottery like everyone else, and once all the rooms had been selected, the Office would tell her whether or not he had selected the same building as her. “It boiled down to the fact that if I picked the same housing group as him,” Jamie explained, “I was the one who had to make the decision to leave.” The Office of Residential Life wouldn’t tell Jamie where her assaulter lived, just whether or not he lived in her dorm. This meant that he could live in the dorm next door, or in a dorm where Jamie frequently visited friends, without her knowledge—leaving her in constant fear of seeing him. 

The Office cited confidentiality as the reason not to disclose the dorm that Jamie’s assailant had selected. There is certainly a valid legal constraint there, but where students live at Brown isn’t really a secret. Names are tacked to doors with playful sticky notes, and students know their hallmates; unlike health information or financial status, the living situations of students on campus is largely public information. Without sharing the information with Jamie, it felt like the Office of Residential Life placed that burden—and all of its consequences—on her shoulders. “That was a lot of what I noticed,” Jamie told the Independent. “Any time I reached out for resources or help with the situation, it was pretty much like ‘Well, you figure it out. If this is something you care about, this is your problem.’”

 

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Despite the fact that Jamie had professionals within the Brown community advocating for her, her needs were not met by the Office of Residential Life. This was extremely disappointing for Jamie, who said that having a safe and comfortable living situation is a crucial and foundational element of everything else she does on campus. This negative housing situation further intensified the existing challenges that she was dealing with. “A lot of the support I needed after experiencing an assault boils down to autonomy and control and feelings of safety, and a lot of autonomy, control, and feelings of safety come back to where you live,” said Jamie. “To not have the autonomy to be able to say ‘This is how I want to live in a space and this is what I want it to look like,’ and the safety of knowing that I had a space of my own that I felt comfortable in made being on campus feel like a nightmare.” 

In order to ensure that her assailant would not be in her living space, Jamie ended up having to sign an informal complaint with Title IX, which required the Title IX Coordinator to sit down with her assaulter and request his agreement to avoid her dorm. In order to file the agreement, Jamie had to give up the right to file a formal Title IX complaint, meaning she was essentially giving up the right to hold her assailant accountable and receive justice while at Brown. The process Jamie endured in order to satisfy her short-term needs—a home she felt safe in—fundamentally preserved the power differential between her and her assailant. The assailant got to choose whether or not to comply with the informal Title IX agreement to avoid her dorm, while Jamie had to give up the right to formally file a report against him. This experience was deeply damaging to Jamie, who had believed that Brown was a place with accessible resources that students wouldn’t have to fight for. She felt like Brown didn’t care about her. 

At the highest level, the problem that Jamie identified was that the Office of Residential Life has no formal procedure to deal with situations that threaten students’ mental and physical health. These student issues don’t gain critical attention because of their highly personal nature; outside of this anonymous article, the only way Elena or Jamie could have gained widespread support would be to publicly share their personal experiences. While it can be easy to complain openly about the mold in your room and join together with other students, the stigma and legitimate privacy concerns surrounding mental health and sexual assault render these individual student experiences invisible.

The reality is that there are likely many more cases like these at Brown—one student even responded to my request for an interview and later declined to participate because they were afraid to antagonize the Office of Residential Life any further. The impact of institutional neglect in the Office of Residential Life is surely felt by many students, but the students who are most detrimentally affected are those who are already facing structural inequalities. The stakes of a housing arrangement are far higher for students who hold marginalized identities, are low-income, and/or are undocumentedespecially at a university with a body of students as wealthy and well-connected as Brown’s. The University’s reluctance to sufficiently address student needs exacerbates the intersectional oppression and emotional trauma that these students are already subject to on campus. Even further, students who hold marginalized identities often lack the access and resources needed to advocate for their legitimate concerns, while wealthy students have reportedly used connections to powerful University Trustees like Marty Granoff to “bypass university processes and gain better housing from the Brown Office of Residential Life.” It is crucial to consider the Office of Residential Life’s role in further entrenching these glaring inequalities. 

 

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What can account for these negative experiences with the Office of Residential Life? Is it true that Brown doesn’t care about students who are struggling with their mental health? In response to my email laying out the subject matter of this article, Bakkegard wrote: “I must reject the implication that students’ legitimate needs are disregarded by the Office of Residential Life. The professional staff members in Residential share a commitment to ensuring that our residence halls provide students with healthy, safe, and comfortable places to live and study and that our operations and processes are fair and responsive to students’ needs.” 

Clearly, there is a considerable disconnect between the Office of Residential Life’s ostentible commitment to student wellbeing and the actual lived experience of students at Brown University. While the administration's intent may be to support students, Residential Life is a heavily bureaucratic system in which students’ needs often fall through the cracks. To continue to dismiss the claims of students and shirk accountability for harmful housing situations is neglectful on the part of the University.  

This issue is perhaps attributable to understaffing, something the Office has struggled with for years. The Brown Daily Herald published an article in 2018 discussing the problem of retaining a full staff in the Office of Residential Life. According to the Herald, three community directors and Kate Tompkins, the Associate Director of Programs, left the already understaffed Office of Residential Life in the summer prior to the 201819 school year. The remaining two community directors and one associate director each worked double duty while also relying on student Residential Peer Leaders (similar to a typical university’s Residential Advisor, or RA) to carry the extra weight. 

Residential Peer Leaders expressed significant concerns over taking on extra responsibilities outside their jobs descriptions and reported that the department had been understaffed for at least two years. This was confirmed by Mary Grace Almandrez, Dean of Students and Acting Senior Director of Residential Life at the time. Given that the Office’s website currently lists vacancies in four out of five Area Coordinator positions, it seems that the Office of Residential Life has not been at full capacity for at least four years, or the entire student tenure of Brown’s cClass of 2020. Bakkegard conceded that the professional staff has vacancies but did not go so far as to respond to the Independent’s question of whether or not this impacts the Office’s ability to carry out its work. 

Another component of the problem could be the fact that there is no formalized procedure for the Office of Residential Life to take student feedback into account. In response to my questions about the process by which students should express their housing needs, Bakkegard suggested that students report physical dorm issues to Facilities Management. She recommended that students experiencing mental health challenges speak with their Residential Peer Leaders, who would connect them with resources from offices like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Students with disabilities must seek out housing adjustments through the SEAS office. When students followed the exact processes Bakkegard described, however, their communications were ignored and their needs neglected. Their experiences of deep personal harm became invisible. The solutions Bakkegard provided are vague and place the burden of responsibility on other offices within Brown University. This decentralized, bureaucratic system hinders institutional change, as students are not able to make their voices heard. 

The root cause of this issue is not clear, and the University’s Office of Residential Life did little to elucidate that. My repeated emails to multiple staff members were ignored for weeks, until Bakkegard finally responded. Rather than conduct an interview with me, she asked for a list of questions and answered only a handful of them. My attempts to follow up—even for seemingly innocuous questions on statistics—were also ignored. What has become clear is that the University’s Office of Residential Life needs to take a concerted, critical look at their processes and impact on student experience. The Office’s Mission Statement affirms the following: “The Office of Residential Life fosters a safe and inclusive living environment that promotes student learning and holistic development by providing tools to help students navigate the social, emotional, and academic elements of their residential experience.” 

Brown must recognize the fact that their lack of action to address student housing needs actively hurts their students, exacerbating mental health crises, compounding structural inequalities, and ultimately threatening the holistic wellbeing of the student body. A purely discursive commitment to support students does more to undermine students’ claims of harm than to reduce actual instances of harm. The Office of Residential Life should stop writing empty statements and instead focus on creating new systems of accountability--systems that are transparent, center student experiences, and actually mitigate harm.

 

MIRA ORTEGON B’20 has left her own ResLife woes far behind her.

*Names have been changed for anonymity.