By BIANCA LOPEZ
Dean of Students Dr. Stephanie Russell Krebs and the Residence Life (ResLife) office announced that first-year students will receive priority placement for on-campus housing beginning in Fall of 2016. This announcement came in the form of a campus-wide email from UT Emergency Operations on September 29 at roughly 8 p.m., moments after Dr. Krebs spoke during the weekly Student Government general assembly.
The announcement was met with pointed criticism from disgruntled students, particularly upperclassmen who would like to continue living on campus. Soon after the initial email from UT Emergency Operations went out, a petition was drafted, asking that the university “Reverse the Housing Rule.” The goal of 1,000 signatures was met within 20 hours of the petition going live.
Traditionally, UT has given preferential treatment to those with more credits– making it easier for juniors and seniors to secure rooms in the apartment-style housing that UT offers; however, the email announced a 180-degree flip, giving those with fewer semesters on campus higher priority.
“We believe that on-campus housing should be provided for those students who will benefit the most from the personal and community support of living on campus,” read the email. “As such, starting with the 2016-2017 academic year, the on-campus housing selection process will be adjusted to allow a greater number of first-year students to live in on-campus housing.”
ResLife officials announced that the buildings reserved for first-year students would be Austin, McKay, Boathouse, Morsani, Smiley and Vaughn. Depending on the student class size, Brevard may also be used to house some first-year students.
Continuing students will have the option to apply to live in Brevard, Jenkins, Palm, Straz, Urso and The Barrymore Hotel. Given the change in housing selection and priority, current freshmen (who will classify as sophomores in Fall 2016) will select their housing preferences before current sophomores and juniors, giving them the highest chances of living in the more popular upperclassmen housing options.
“I feel like it will be good for freshmen because they will be easier acquainted with the university and get a feel for college life having guaranteed housing on campus rather than The Barrymore, compared to a junior who already knows his or her way around,” said Mason Whitlam, a freshman international business and marketing major. “But then again, I feel like upperclassman should have priority since it is kind of like a seniority thing. I like the [previous process] where priority is given based on most to least credits.”
In order to receive priority, incoming freshmen will have to meet the May 1 housing contract and deposit deadline. Continuing students must meet the Feb. 1 deadline and be sure to complete all steps in the housing process to be considered and claim their spots.
The Barrymore Hotel, despite shuffling through many different names, has held ties with the university for 17 years and will continue to take in overflow students. Based on the information gathered, The Barrymore Hotel will house a mixture of freshmen students who applied past the May 1 housing deadline and “super seniors” and other students with many semesters on campus under their belts.
“These properties have served as a way to accommodate students who wanted housing when the on-campus inventory of rooms was exceeded,” Dr. Linda Devine, Vice President for Operations and Planning said. “It is not an uncommon practice in postsecondary education.”
Although the idea has precedence, with other schools such as Virginia Wesleyan College partnering with local hotels for overflow housing, it is an unfavorable choice based on research gathered by university officials. UT’s relationship with The Barrymore Hotel was a major factor in the decision to change the housing selection process.
“Our students that started in the hotel were not as successful as students that lived on-campus,” Dr. Krebs wrote in an email. “I am now in my fifth year as Dean of Students and in that time I have personally been involved with many first years students as they struggle to adjust to college life and find a connection to UT because of their housing placement. Many of these students end up leaving UT.”
A major concern for many students is having to live in The Barrymore if they wish to continuing living on campus as a senior, once it is no longer a viable option to transfer.
“As someone who lives in the hotel, I feel like it’s actually better for freshmen to live here. Everyone on my floor is really close and I’ve made friends I otherwise wouldn’t have met,” said Mina Buzzek, a freshman English major. “Putting upperclassmen over here isn’t fair to them and it doesn’t make sense to give them worse housing than underclassmen. It kind of takes away from the whole experience of the dorms getting better as you get older and I’m not happy about it at all.”
With ResCom under construction in Fall 2016, roughly 140 housing spaces will be lost until the extension of Palm Apartments is complete. This will give upperclassmen a greater chance of ending up either in The Barrymore Hotel or off-campus.
“Each year, our number of upper-class students that choose to reside on campus gets lower and lower,” Dr. Krebs wrote. “[A small workgroup of administrators looking into on-campus housing] made the recommendation to UT’s Senior Staff that we move in this direction for Fall 2016. When we made this recommendation, we were clear we could not move in this direction if were not able to allocate additional resources to our upper-class students. We want upper-class students to know they are valued and appreciated.”
The university will begin using new software in Fall 2016 to make the housing selection process more user-friendly and created the new Off-Campus Housing Coordinator position this year held by Joe Wynn as measures to help students adapt to the changes.
The petition is evidence that, despite the administration’s efforts, upperclassmen expressed that they do not feel valued and appreciated since hearing the news.
The comments under the petition ranged from notes written by aggravated parents with safety and monetary concerns to disappointed students who feel overlooked by UT.
Policies such as this one are not unheard of, as schools such as Penn State abide by the first-year student priority policy. Penn State requires first-year students to live on campus and most schools using this policy are situated in college towns. UT’s landscape, in the heart of downtown, makes it difficult for students to find equally safe and affordable housing if encouraged to live off-campus. At nearby schools such as Eckerd College, “Returning students are given first choice of rooms for the following academic year” (eckerd.edu). Even the University of Florida, while much larger than UT, assures that, “On campus housing is not guaranteed for incoming students” (housing.ufl.edu).
“Before this change in policy, I was planning on living on campus all four years because I love the community and involvement on campus,” wrote Molly Bagg, one of the 1,366 signers of the petition. “I hope that in the future, I still will be able to live on campus. The housing options for seniors was part of the reason I decided to come to UT. I can neither afford living off campus or the transportation needed, and I have absolutely no desire to live in a hotel during the most important years of my education.”
While Wynn has been hired to educate students on off-campus housing, many students attest that they are simply not in a position to be able to pay for the cost of living that is associated, nor do they want to live north of campus where prices are lower but crime rates are higher. A single room in an apartment style dorm like Palm or Straz is $4,188 per semester and includes furnishing and utilities, while a one bedroom apartment in popular Bell Channelside costs between $1,389 – $1,496 per month before utilities and furniture costs. Off-campus housing also requires a year’s lease and transportation. However, students who wish to live off-campus can save money by sharing with roommates.
“I have seen the petition, and I always value hearing feedback and especially value reading the comments of students,” Dr. Krebs wrote. “As we move forward with the new philosophy, we will work diligently to support students’ individual housing needs that have been identified both in the petition and in open meetings.”
Other concerns came from athletes and members of ROTC who will no longer be given housing preferences with the implementation of the new policy. Emily Barbosa is a junior allied health major who plays lacrosse for UT. With her strenuous class and practice schedules, school is a very delicate balancing act.
“The convenience of living on campus as a student athlete is somewhat of a necessity for me,” Barbosa said. “Having to deal with commuting back and forth with my busy day would add a whole new obstacle that I don’t want going into my senior year. The choice of UT regarding housing is not only unfair to student athletes but is also unfair to all upperclassmen.”
Those with questions or concerns were encouraged to attend any of three “open community meeting[s]” held by the Office of the Dean of Students and Office of Residence Life on Sept. 30, Oct. 6 or Oct. 8.
At the first of the meetings, anger-fueled conversations filled Reeves Theater, while confused and disappointed students, such as junior advertising and public relations major Michael Womack, filed in.
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, questions from students were non-stop. Administration seemed to lose control of the audience for a short spurt of time as students questioned the university’s ethics and priorities, among other things.
When his time came to speak, Womack stood and pulled a piece of paper out of his folder. He shared his story with those in attendance.
“I have lived in Tampa my whole life,” Womack later reflected in his email. “I grew up in Brandon and went to high school in South Tampa. I had a lot of options when choosing colleges. I could have chosen to attend a nationally recognized institution like The University of Florida or Florida State University. I would’ve been surrounded by old friends, more resources, and a more complete college experience- at a much cheaper cost. I chose UT based off the personal interaction that came with it. UT sold itself to me on the idea that I wouldn’t just be a number. Smaller classes, on campus living, and the community as a whole were supposed to be a reflection of this.”
Although he spoke highly of his first impressions of the university, his tone quickly shifted.
“The decision by UT administration to place brand new students, who haven’t applied yet and currently have no relationship with the school, before graduating seniors is unconscionable,” Womack wrote. “More and more I feel like I am attending a two-year university or a for-profit trade school like DeVry or Keiser. I never thought I would be treated this way here. For the first time, I have started researching possibly transferring to another college. I am embarrassed to go to UT.”
Womack voiced his feelings of unimportance and rejection by the UT administration. He thanked Dr. Devine for “graciously listening” to his concerns, however, Womack shared that he did not feel as though any real solutions were offered. Womack showed the piece of paper in his hands to the audience – it was a transfer sheet for FSU.
Click here for the initial coverage of the housing changes.
Bianca Lopez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org