WC’s bait and switch off-campus housing policy exemplifies administration’s ongoing issues with communication and transparency

By Emma Campbell

Opinion Editor

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, Washington College Residential Life sent a schoolwide email alerting students to the availability of housing exemption applications for the 2021-2022 academic year. The body of the email said, “As a reminder, we are a four-year residency college and have a four-year residency requirement.”

This announcement came as a shock to most WC students — me included — as this change had not previously been reported as regular housing policy. In fact, the information available to us stated the opposite; a Feb. 7, 2019 email from Res Life stated that “Exemptions are granted to students who will be junior or senior status at the start of Fall, have a 2.5 cumulative GPA or higher, and are in good social standing,” and an archived page from the official WC website on July 3, 2020 said, “Upperclassmen in good social and academic standing may appeal to live off-campus.”

If any of this language was meant to serve as a “reminder” of this consequential policy, its wording was shamefully misleading.

“[This] was not the policy in place when we had committed to the school and trusted WC with the next four years,” senior Izzy Sansanelli, secretary of student life for the WC Student Government Association, said. “There was no official announcement at least that I was able to catch…That was the first time I had heard of the official implementation of the policy.”

“I was definitely shocked…that [WC administration] thought this was an okay announcement to make in the current content,” junior Liz Hay, financial controller of the SGA, said. “There was a weird period of time where no one [in the SGA] was thinking as student workers. We were just responding as students. It was a very visceral shock. We were all personally hurt.”

Shortly after the Feb. 16 announcement, Hay sent an email to Chair of WC Board of Visitors and Governors Stephen Golding, Interim President Wayne Powell, Chief of Staff Victor Sensenig, Vice President of Student Affairs Sarah Feyerherm, and Residential Life “expressing alarm.”

“The burden of transparency is on the shoulders of those initiating communication; we are students, not detectives or mind readers,” Hay said in the email she made available to The Elm. “It is possible that I have missed an email or website update…However, that is simply not the point. The point is: even if, prior to this morning, there was technically a communication or implication that upperclassmen cannot live off campus at Washington College, it was not communicated well, transparently, or respectfully. It is difficult to trust the college on even more serious matters like racism and sexual assault when even housing communications are so fundamentally flawed.”

WC administration has consistently shown themselves to be inept at facilitating conventions of full transparency on campus. Former Elm Editor-in-Chief Alisha George ‘10 wrote a 2010 editorial titled “Transparency at WC,” which detailed the College’s discomfort with student journalists recording Board of Visitors and Governors, faculty, and alumni meetings. 

“I look forward to working on this matter in my remaining weeks left at WC and hope that the campus community can work toward being truly transparent in years to come,” George said.

Radio Free George released The Transparency Trap podcast on Jan. 8, 2021, taking “listeners through an exploration of communication and lack thereof at Washington College,” according to The ElmThe podcast was met with a large reaction from students, with its creators hosting a debrief event via Zoom to reflect on next steps that administration can take to increase campus-wide transparency. Ironically, no WC administrators attended the event.

Missing the mark on transparent communication seems to have become part of WC’s administrative culture. Had administration done more to prevent ambiguous wording from being published on the WC website and released detailed announcements describing housing discussions as they took place, trust among the student body may have been maintained.

“I think [the SGA] will even admit that they knew there were conversations about this happening for the last couple years,” Dean Feyerherm said. “I don’t think there’s anybody saying, ‘this is totally out of the blue.’”

“This was completely new news in terms of its enforcement,” senior SGA President Elizabeth Lilly said. “As an idea it’s been discussed, but as far as it’s being enacted, this was brand new… it was buried inside of an email and nobody had really heard anything about it except for this, and this is a really, really big change for students…To present it as a sort of afterthought feels dismissive.”

The shock of this announcement is exacerbated by the added stressor of COVID-19, which SGA and administration have been working diligently to mitigate. Claims that members of the student government ought to have seen this announcement coming in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis is absurd. 

“It’s not okay to pull the rug out from somebody and then say, ‘Why didn’t you see me pulling the rug?’” Hay said. 

Lilly, who ran her presidential campaign on a platform that aimed to “promote the safety, respect, and wellbeing of all students,” expressed disappointment at having forged relationships with members of administration only to be blindsided by an announcement that, in her mind, had only ever been conveyed as a long-term goal. Though she’s had meetings with administrators to advocate for students regarding this policy change, Lilly seemed unsure if the SGA will be able to effect change on this matter.

“I’m still incredibly confused as to where [this policy] came from, so I don’t know how effective any of our methods are going to be,” Lilly said. “Usually I would be like, ‘oh, they’re going to listen to us’ or ‘oh, I can trust them to respond.’ But I don’t know where any of this is coming from.”

Sansanelli, Hay, and Lilly — along with other members of the SGA — are responsible for conveying concerns voiced by the student body to WC higher-ups. The SGA directly engages with school policies on a daily basis. It should go without saying that if their members feel surprised and confused by the sudden shift in the WC housing model, then the rest of the student body may be feeling the same way.

“[Students] will always tell you two things,” Feyerherm said. “They’ll tell you ‘We understand the policy, but we don’t like it,’ or they’ll tell you ‘We don’t like it and we’re not sure we understand it.’ And I think what they’re telling us here is ‘We don’t like it and we don’t understand it’…Our job right now is to really attack the piece of ‘We don’t understand it.’ Because if they don’t understand it, then we haven’t done a good enough job of explaining it.”

It is respectable for Feyerherm to acknowledge this lapse, however, why did such a lack of clarity exist in the first place? It points to a severe level of disorganization at the very least — a flaw that no institution of higher learning can afford to ignore.

Perhaps most disappointing has been administration’s attempt to scrub any trace of the original housing policy from platforms accessible to students. 

“The lack of clarity is also made worse by…this shift in the website,” Feyerherm said. “And there’s all this stuff that came over from the old website that is now in the new website that sit on pages that aren’t Student Affairs pages…So what we’re doing now to sort of address that is we’re doing a full audit of the website.”

In this, Feyerherm seemed to acknowledge the conflicting housing information on the official WC website, much of which, according to web archives, was still accessible as early as 2019 and 2020. This disjointedness makes for consistent miscommunication between administration, students, staff, and faculty. 

“This isn’t ill-will,” Hay said. “[The administration isn’t] attacking students. They aren’t doing things to be mean…The only answer that is acceptable to me is that it is poor communication, or it is lapses in judgment or oversight.”

I used this choice of words in my conversation with Feyerherm, who defended the wording in the email.

“I prefer not to use ‘poor communication,’” Feyerherm said. “If we all look in a mirror, none of us is real great at all this, right?”

While this “nobody’s perfect” mentality is acceptable in some aspects of life, it is alarming when applied to transmitting basic information surrounding something so fundamental as housing. Despite the well-meaning intent of some WC administrators, it is indisputable that in this matter, students’ trust for WC administration has been compromised.

Featured Photo caption: WC Residential Life announced Feb. 16 that WC is a four-year residential college, blindsiding many members of the student body who claim to have been misled by administration. Photo by Mark Cooley.

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