An alum’s perspective on households

by Christopher P. Wright

I read with interest and concern Kathleen van Schaijik’s recent article “How not to help households.” Regarding the content of that article, in a word-Amen! However, in the true spirit of the University Concourse, let me expand.

From my own observations and from interaction with other alumni (including at the recent alumni reunion), it seems that the editor’s concerns are warranted. Many of the conditions she describes are not new; however, it appears that they have become incrementally more invasive and may have had the effect of stifling the individuality and creativity that used to characterize the household system.

Like the editor’s, my household experience (In His Image, 1983-87) led to life-long friendships, rooted in common faith and experiences. My fellow IHI alumni and I continue to stay very much in touch; we are regular guests in each other’s homes and part of each other’s lives. It would be a shame if well-intentioned but, perhaps, poorly executed management lead to reduced participation in this very worthwhile part of the FUS college experience.

In the mid to late-80s, Student Life exercised influence on household life by offering training, meeting with coordinators and arranging for household advisors, who were primarily members of the local covenant community. Such influence varied in degree depending on the household coordinator and advisor. Household covenants were written and entered (the original IHI covenant, almost 20 years old, could still be found in the common room as of last Fall), but the covenants were used as frameworks, not as weapons. However, the tendency to over-manage student life was also present at that time. Who can forget the absurdity of proposed book reports and “groundings,” or the annual argument over exactly how far “open” a dorm room door had to be? (In that context, the locked common room door mentioned by the editor although inappropriate isn’t particularly shocking.)

It is not, then, necessarily the type of activity, but, rather, the tone of Student Life’s involvement with households that seems very different at present compared to what went on in the “old days”. Training, meetings, gatherings, various group activities, etc. were attended by willing participants who took advantage of what made sense and worked around what didn’t. In my own household’s history, there has been no shortage of members and coordinators who could, and did, speak out about what was best for themselves and their fellow members. Any number of other households had the same experience. The situation described by the editor seems much more intrusive.

In examining this problem, I don’t think that we should lay too much at the feet of Keith Fournier or any of his successors. In the three years that I held campus-wide office and in which he was an administrator (Asst. to the President in 84/85 and Dean of Students in 85/86 and 86/87), I had a great deal of official and personal interaction with him and his various deputies. Not all of this interaction was agreeable. However, regardless of the inherent tension one experiences when dealing as an advocate/representative with officials seeking to expand (perhaps inappropriately) the boundaries of their own authority and influence, I believe that these individuals were sincere, concerned, committed and faithful. They were, however, attempting to achieve a “grand plan” with too little staff and too much else going on. I questioned then whether the plan itself was worth reaching for; history would now suggest that it probably was not. Ultimately, however, while it did appear that there was some official movement toward viewing households as something of a “farm system” for the local covenant community, the true cause of damage to household life can be more appropriately attributed to an attempt to establish uniformity, more likely as a means of simplifying an approach than as an attempt to co-opt student groups.

The series of “new mandates” handed down in the late 80s, and some of the current practices are all the result of a similar, well-intentioned, but flawed approach. Student Life staff observed “good ideas” and “great examples” of effectiveness in certain households, and decided to create “models” for all households (e.g. the New Model for Student Life of 1986 and the related annoying series of charts and brochures). Now, apparently, models have given way to rules—and, of course, a rule book. It doesn’t take an expert on human dynamics to understand the effect of this progression on a system—any system—and the results in this instance are not surprising.

My own view at the time, freely and frequently expressed both privately and in various official capacities, was that this “model” approach to households, while easier for administrators to explain and attempt to execute (execution seems to have failed), short-changed the system and the participants—who were and are both adults and paying customers. My own household (and various others) may have been insulated from these ill effects because we simply wouldn’t stand for being “herded.” Rather, we chose to work with the best of what was offered (there was a great deal of valuable assistance) and go our own way when that was necessary. This occasionally opened us up to being advised that we were not “buying into the vision.” Since we knew where we stood and why we were there, we usually ignored this advice. Perhaps we should have pressed our points more often with a view toward the future. To the extent that we failed to successfully and completely challenge flawed policies, we—and those who followed us—should share some of the blame for the resulting problems.

It seems, then, from the editor’s description and my own observations, that Student Life is in a rut, and is defaulting to rules and control rather than a customized or creative approach. It also seems that students, rather than engaging authority as in the past, are now voting with their feet.

First, let’s acknowledge that something must be done. The household system had a lot to offer, and I suspect that it still does. Not that everything should always be the way it was, but it seems that, in this instance, change hasn’t necessarily been good for the system. So, then, a little advice from a “thirty-something old timer.”

Student Life—Ease up on the rules, and pitch good ideas, serving as a resource, not as a surrogate parenting organization. If flexibility, creativity and custom approaches aren’t as easy as “the program”, too bad—work harder! Start listening more and dictating less. These are your customers, and the outcome of your performance is much more important than in traditional customer relationships.

Students—Join a household, or start a new one. It can be a great experience. Engage Student Life, and whomever else you have to deal with, and do it through channels (dorm council, Student Government, committees, if these still exist). If the channels don’t work, fix them. It’s worth the effort, and the effort can be rewarding and good preparation for your future in and of itself.

In the final analysis, although I am grateful for the forum provided by the Concourse, it really doesn’t much matter what I think. I had the “full household experience,” and I am glad that I did. But we alumni are on to other things now. I can read this journal, support my alma mater (I recommend the Carrigg scholarship) and enjoy the ability to hold forth on issues that seem to have changed very little, except for the outcome, in over ten years. However, if household participation is to increase and improve, it will be because current students want to join and make it work, which will only happen if the “program” is improved. Whether the dynamic leadership necessary for a change will be top-down or bottom-up remains to be seen. Nevertheless, I hope and pray that it happens soon.

Christopher P. Wright, Class of ‘87

Chris Wright, who was president of the Student Government Association (now known as FUSA) during his senior year at FUS, is a certified public accountant in New York, where he also volunteers as Treasurer of Episcopal Health Services, a hospital/nursing home system in Long Island and New York City.

Kathleen van Schaijik replies:

Since my old school mate Chris Wright obviously means to corroborate the main lines of my argument, I do not intend to dispute with him over details. But I would like to clarify a few of the facts from my article which seem to be called into question by his.

First, about covenants: I said that the idea of having them is relatively new. I ought to have said that the idea of needing to have them is relatively new. I was in two households, neither of which ever had any kind of written agreement. When I first heard that some households had one, I thought it was a nice idea, but had no sense of “ought” about it, until Kieth Fournier’s office made them if not mandatory then so “strongly encouraged” that they were felt to be mandatory by all households who hoped to remain in good standing with the Student Life Office. They are now clearly expected of households. The number two item in a current official description of the “components of household life” says, “A household is founded on a written agreement…” (their emphasis) and the Student Life Office tells me that there is now not a single household without one.

To his point that an RD locking a common room door is not shocking compared with what RDs did in our day I have two comments: One, if my memory serves, there was a very great difference in the manner of disciplining residents between pre-Fournier and post-Fournier RDs. I’m pretty sure book reports and groundings were “post-Fournier”—part of his philosophy of modeling dorm life on family life (hence the paternalism). And secondly, what is striking about the example I raise of the RD locking the common room is not that it is particularly severe, as punishments go, but that it is very strange that coordinators be punished at all for not attending meetings which are ostensibly designed to “provide training, support and guidance to these leaders.” Why should a coordinator not be perfectly free to say, “Thanks, but no thanks”? If the answer is that the RD needs to meet with coordinators in order to handle dorm business, then I say let such business be done—as it used to be—by elected reps. not coordinators, who have more than enough to do as it is. And let not business meetings be mixed up with training and support meetings. RDs are justified in making a minimum number of the former mandatory; the latter should be entirely optional.

Along the same lines, I did not mean to imply in my article that there was no interaction between the coordinators and Student Life in my first years at FUS, but rather that what interaction and training there was was much freer than it is today. The relevant point is that much of the interaction and training that goes on now is officially organized and mandated. (I was told by a student on the Household Council that even the annual retreat is mandatory: “Otherwise some coordinators might not go.”) And, even more, the impression is always “in the air” that the more you do in this direction—the more zealously you cooperate with every program and directive generated by Student Life or the RD or the RAs—the more exemplary and praiseworthy you are as a household. Resistance to Student Life initiatives or recommendations is generally frowned upon.

Finally, I would not lay all the blame at Keith Fournier’s feet in the sense of assigning him sole responsibility for the harm his measures did to households. Certainly he would never have been hired if others in high places at the University did not share his covenant-community-like “vision” for households; certainly, too, his ideas were enthusiastically endorsed by many among both staff and students at the time. Nor did I mean to suggest that he was not acting in good faith. I have no doubt whatsoever that he thought that what he was doing was a great for households, and he threw himself into it with admirable zeal. My claim is rather that his vision, and his manner of implementing it, represented a quantam leap in the degree of control Student Life sought to exercise over households, and that that control has proven over time to be inimical to the real genius of the household system.