Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let’s take the “H” out of Housing: It’s all in a name!

In the late 80’s when I was directing the National Resource Center for The First Year Experience at USC, we entered into a collaborative project with ACUHO, the Association of College and University Housing Officers--International, namely, to produce a monograph on the importance of the “residential first-year experience.” This seemed like a no brainer for me in that the largest percentage of students in college-owned residence halls are first-year. Well, we had a great partnership and such a monograph was produced.

At the same time the outsourced “housing” movement was developing and more and more companies were getting into the act and I began to see them as a threat potentially, and certainly a competitor to college owned housing operations. It seemed apparent to me that “housing” is not the core business of the academy whereas “housing” was the core business of these companies. I came to conclude that “housing” was really not the business we should be in and that the very term itself was inviting outsourced “housing” to organizations that could do it better. My argument was/is that we are in the “education” business, but conducted in a residential context on college campuses. Now this is more than a semantic distinction. Names reflect culture and values.

At the same time for a half century or so the US higher ed accounting model had classified “housing” as “auxiliary” revenues. I came to regard this as a terrible idea because it reinforced the perception that the primary role of such units was to “make money.” Hence the reporting model, I understand at many places “housing” reports through business channels.

And further, at the same time, in the 1990’s I became very involved in promoting the basic theme that we needed to ramp up the extent of “academic” initiatives in the residence halls, particularly the concept of “residential colleges.” So, again, in partnership with housing professionals, we at the USCNRC published a monograph on the residential college concept.

Then I went over the edge. I wrote, I seem to recall either the President or a number of the members of the ACUHO Board of Directors, this was somewhere in the mid-late 90’s and I spelled out my concerns about the “H” in their name. I got no response. I assume they felt, quite correctly, that my feedback was both unsolicited and meddling.

And, so, that brings us to where we are today: the “H” is still there. I see the “H” as a vestige of the old era of student affairs work, largely unconnected to the academic enterprise and mission and more concerned with “affairs” than with learning. I have also seen the role of the “H” played out on many campuses where the “housing director” is either still attached to the vestigial view of such facilities and/or in conflict with more contemporary thinkers and trying to integrate the academic curriculum into the residential life environs. So, in conclusion, I see the presence or absence of the “H” as being fundamental to what this profession is all about. I also believe that the higher ed residential setting has changed much more than the ethos of the organization, apparently, by the continuing presence of the “H”.
Ok, now what to do about this? More in my next post.

John N. Gardner

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