By Alex Eastman ’23
Yesterday, four members of the college administration, Registrar and Interim Vice President of Student Affairs, Bonita Washington-Lacey, Director of Residence Life Shane Peters, Director of Facilities Ian Smith, and Vice President of Finance and Administration Stacy Davidson, attended Earlham Student Senate for a discussion on-campus housing. Specifically, they came to give students an opportunity to ask questions and express opinions about the unclear future of the houses owned by the college along College Avenue and US 40.
Many of these houses have not been adequately maintained and, after decades of use, are beginning to show their wear. In 2016 and 2017, testing revealed dangerously high lead levels in drinking water of 12 houses, resulting in filters being installed. Now, heavy rain, changing climate assessments for the Midwestern US, and poorly designed basements have contributed to a black mold infestation that resulted in three houses being closed and students relocated shortly before school resumed in August. Having spent $250,000 fighting mold this year, the administration views continued investment in houses that are beyond repair as unsustainable.
How were the houses allowed to decline to this state in the first place? When asked what preemptive measures were taken to protect the houses, Smith responded, “What was being done proactively? The answer is not a lot.” He added that he still believed his maintenance department had done the best job it could with the limited resources, saying, “It’s like trying to scrape too little butter over too much toast.” The sentiment that the sheer number of houses was simply too many for the college to adequately support was shared by Peters as well. “Part of the challenge of this is, ‘you’re trying to maintain too many,’” Peters said, relaying advice he had been given from people outside Earlham. The fact that this situation is occurring in the midst of a budget crisis was not lost on anyone. Smith mentioned that the money spent to fight mold is an unbudgeted expense, contributing to the problem of, “how much we’re running over budget at a time when we really can’t at Earlham.”
For many students, the immediate concern is where they will reside if the number of operational houses continues to decline. Many first and second-year students wonder if they will ever get the opportunity to live in a house at all. “I am very disappointed with the possibility that I will not have the chance to live in a house while at Earlham,” second-year Micah MacColl Nicholson wrote in a letter to Senators which was passed on to the administration. “Since hearing about them, I was so excited about the ability to create or join a house that could have a positive impact on my community.” If more houses are forced to close, a solution will need to be found to the problem of relocating any displaced themes. The interim fix of moving to Brick City apartments, as has happened to Japan House, has not produced glowing results in the eyes of students who underwent the transition. “If we [residents of Japan House] are going to be guinea pigs to see if student housing can exist in the apartments, the short answer is this: it can’t,” fourth-year Scarlett Bangley said, adding that she fully expects the relocation to be temporary.
Looking towards the long term, focus may turn towards the broader cultural impact of houses, and how much harm could be done if they were lost. “The college houses are so far the only alternative to Greek life that the college has,” first-year Kate Goodpastor wrote. “Losing this supplement to frats and sororities may push potential students who want to both go to a liberal arts school and participate in community living to seek an academic career at schools such as Depauw University, which has both.” Fourth-year Sven-Erik Nilsson went even further in his critique, blaming the college for neglecting community. “The passive and active degradation of Earlham’s community housing system has led to a wider fragmentation and degradation of Earlham’s wider student communities,” Nilsson said. “Earlham claims to foster community in its principles and practices, and this move to demolish the community housing program only serves as another nail in the coffin.” Washington-Lacey, on the other hand, flatly rejected the notion that the administration was trying to undermine community spaces, or attempting to tear down houses. “We are not demolishing houses,” she said. “I promise you.”