Why Theme Housing Matters: A Proposal for Student Voices to be Involved in the Theme Housing Selection Process

Annie Beth Clark and Miu Kazama

Contributing Writers

Ecce quam bonum, “Behold how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.—Psalm 133:1,” (NASB: New American Standard Bible, 2020). 

On January 30, 2023, our administration made a unilateral decision to remove several theme houses for the upcoming year in order to reallocate housing for faculty, staff, and seminary students. Students simultaneously learned, or were reminded of, the longstanding housing crisis faculty and staff face on the Mountain.

In the following months, many displaced theme houses were relegated to dorms for the upcoming year. Many theme houses have already had to adjust or completely forgo programming to function in a dorm. These negotiations only occurred because of several petitions and demonstrations of theme housing’s positive impact on campus life.

In a Psychology Action Research lab, we set out to understand these issues by holding focus groups for student voices to be heard and gathering data about the theme housing selection process and grading rubric. We asked students how we can best come together as a community to address housing inequities for all members of our Sewanee community: students, faculty, staff, and the administration. 

We particularly focused on analyzing the metrics used for theme housing selection. We discovered that all theme houses were graded on a scaled rubric. Only events registered on Engage were taken into consideration. This method did not account for non-Engage programming such as providing condoms, pregnancy tests, drug testing strips, etc. Many questions on the rubric were written in formats that could not be thoroughly answered via quantitative data, such as a theme houses’ larger impact on campus. The selection committee has never been revealed, though it has been confirmed that no student had a role in determining the fates of theme houses for the 2023-24 academic year. 

 Are we living together in unity?

This research project started when we were walking to class days after the news broke in our community. In several meetings with administrators, we were told that there was nothing more to be done. After we saw Residential Life’s grading rubrics for theme housing selection we were left to wonder about all the strengths of each student organization that weren’t considered by an unidentified group of University administrators. 

Student voices were unheard behind the shut doors of the selection process. We questioned whether the administration meant to pit students and faculty against each other in the decision to designate houses as either student or faculty. Like other students and student organizations, we struggled  to understand what it means to dwell in unity. This research project was inspired by one of the banners flying high, marking paths to academic building– a banner peddling flourishing as a pillar of Sewanee’s community.

We listened to students. With 16 total participants in two focus groups, here’s what they had to say:

  • Sewanee students feel that “there is some brokenness in this community.” 
  • Theme housing, “a beautiful part of Sewanee,” stands as a shining example of “diverse interests our student body has on campus.” 
  • Theme housing “acts as nodes for connection and intersectionality,” engulfing students in “creativity,” “character,” “service,” and “passion.”  
  • Students feel “silenced,” “disconnected,” and “diminished” by the administration’s continuous negligence of student voice and stakeholder importance in community-wide issues. 

Students want to have a voice in theme housing decisions, and they need transparency from residential life and other administrators. While they don’t “assume malice,” they  believe that student voices are often “invalidated” in order to push administrative agendas. Students do not want to take away housing from faculty, nor do they demand that all housing be given back to the theme housing lottery. Most often,  students asked that they and their organizations be guaranteed  a voice in the theme housing selection process for the 2024-25 academic year by means of  “co-director interviews/presentations.” Co-directors would speak to the strengths of their organizations with qualitative data accounted for, as many houses provide resources not listed under Engage. 

Others shared similar proposals, such as making the selection rubric available to all students of the University and allowing them the opportunity to share strengths of individual theme houses and potential limitations of the rubric itself. Another proposal included houses which have demonstrated “vital importance” to community flourishing. They suggested those houses be given an opportunity to be guaranteed dedicated housing space for several years, unmoved by the theme housing lottery. 

Housing is a community concern, and all community members should have a say in how we are living together in unity. Theme housing is a unique opportunity here at Sewanee that actively contributes to our shared goal of community flourishing. We ask that the Theme Housing Selection Committee for the 2024-25 academic year listen to student voices, take into consideration Sewanee values, and be held accountable when our housing policies do not reflect our values. Only then will our community actions reflect the flourishing banners billowing in the Sewanee breeze. 

One comment

  1. We can only hope that the New VC will get things back to EBQ and YSR!!!! The current administration has gone down the wrong path for last 3 years.

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