Fixing Dorm Damage
By Nathan Nash '12
Regrettably, as The Student pointed out in a Dec. 1 editorial, dorm damage is a fact of life at the College — just take a look at the crime log — and almost any college campus. The College’s dorm damage policy is different from that of many other colleges and universities. Here it is very difficult to lose the privilege of living on campus after committing “excessive” dorm damage since we are such a residential community — 97 percent of Amherst students live on campus. The shape of our more nuanced dorm damage policy is therefore very relevant to virtually all Amherst students, and I thank the Student for opening a discussion of this issue.

Our policy assigns a cost for the consequences and cost of damage beyond normal wear-and-tear in college buildings in order to hold students responsible and accountable for their actions, as they will be very soon in the real world. However, it is sometimes very difficult to determine whom to charge for dorm damage, especially if the damage is highly visible or costly. In that case, after a performing a thorough investigation into the matter over a period whose length is largely at the Resident Counselor’s (RC’s) discretion, the RC will assign an all-gender, all-floor or all-dorm charge — in which the RC is included — depending on the nature of the damage and the dorm.

The RC’s goal is to avoid such general charges because they penalize many who probably had nothing to do with the damage caused. The cost of the damage remains, however, and, as it is the College’s stated goal to hold all residents accountable and responsible for their living spaces, as such general charges are sometimes necessary. It is hoped that such a charge will make residents more aware of who is doing what in their dorm — an effect I have witnessed every time I have had to assign such a charge — and the perpetrators more willing to confess, lest they incur their fellow residents’ awakened passion for their dorm’s integrity. As a result, dorm damage should significantly decrease, as it indeed it did this past year (discounting the malicious damage in Hitchcock). In other words, this charge, though unfortunate, does increase residents’ commitment to maintaining the high quality of their living spaces and ensuring that their peers do the same.

The goal of this policy is not to create a witch-hunt for perpetrators, although I appreciate “Pratt Patrol’s” recent successful efforts to control dorm damage in Charles Pratt. Nor is the solution found in having the RC or a group of residents stand guard over the common areas day and night. The goal is, rather, to create a sense of community, trust, accountability and responsibility within each dorm that recognizes dorm damage as an intolerable act. While these are the policy’s intentions, last week’s editorial shows that its effects can also divide and create resentment in residential communities. Therefore, to address the larger question of increasing respect for our living spaces, we must first discuss how we can get perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions — or at least encourage others to make them do so — and avoid all-dorm charges and dorm damage in general. Not charging anyone when untraceable damage occurs does not answer the larger question dorm damage poses.

One common answer is to increase costs — if dorm damage becomes more expensive, this argument goes, then residents will turn in the person or persons responsible. This notion also has several flaws: is it not unfair to charge a freshman who forgot once to “strive for .05” the same inflated charge as someone who consistently overindulges? This policy would further stoke resentment and division in dormitories by even more unfairly punishing those not responsible or less able to pay.

Another proposed solution is to make the cost of communal dorm damage non-monetary. This has the benefit of punishing everyone equally: financial penalties unfairly have a greater impact on those with fewer resources. It also forces residents to appreciate and assume the consequences of dorm damage and the overtime work the custodial staff puts in for each instance of dorm damage. This argument is not without its drawbacks, either: if we mandate a “community cleaning requirement,” aren’t the people who habitually commit damage, the targets of this policy, probably the least likely to participate? There is also a logistical piece to the puzzle: many acts of dorm damage require an immediate cleanup due to health and safety hazards they might pose if left unattended. It would be difficult to assemble residents immediately to remove the damage, especially as most dorm damage occurs late on weekend nights.

A third possibility is to adopt the more severe dorm damage policies of other institutions, specifically those that remove frequent perpetrators of dorm damage to off-campus housing. Although this may help reduce dorm damage as a whole, create the impression among students that the administration means business and foster respect for the dorm in those who previously had little, this policy too leaves questions unanswered. First, would forcing students to live off-campus undermine the College’s commitment to a “residential community?” When would a lot of dorm damage become “too much?” Most importantly, what prevents displaced students from returning to their former dorm and committing even more damage now that they no longer have any kind of stake in the residential community of the College?

These are only a few possible solutions to the problems raised by The Student, and all have positive and negative features. The next step should be for this issue to be opened to a wider, informed discussion, made a more formalized part of beginning-of-the-year dorm meetings — especially those for first-years — and possibly, in the longer-term, incorporated into the honor code since it addresses the same issues of ethical conduct and personal responsibility.

I hope that this exchange will make dorm damage the inspiration for a lively, campus-wide debate and not merely for chuckles at the campus crime log. I look forward to seeing where it goes.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:32:17