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by Gerry Boyle '78, Yvonne Siu '03 and Neha Sud '05
It's the issue that won't go away.
Multicultural housing, studied and rejected by the College in 1995 and demanded again by some students last year, was rekindled as a hot issue this fall, with debate flourishing in a variety of forums.
Special-interest housing, in practice at many colleges and universities, houses students according to any of a number of interests and backgrounds, from race to academic major. That concept has been rejected by the Board of Trustees at Colby. As proposed at Colby this fall, multicultural housing--one form of special-interest housing--would be available to students who want to live with other students who share an interest in multicultural issues and perspectives, according to proponents of the concept.
The push for multicultural housing at Colby this year came from some students of color, who want a more comfortable and inclusive residential experience; from some queer students, who said they felt uncomfortable and even unsafe living in conventional dormitories; and from other students who want to make multicultural experience a more prominent part of their residential life.
Some students said multicultural housing would serve to proclaim the value of diversity where other efforts at Colby have fallen short. "The Pugh Center has proven ineffective in celebrating diversity," said Elizabeth Parks '03 at a debate sponsored by the Pugh Cultural Board in October. "It's time to bring Pugh to the Commons."
The call for multicultural housing was considered this fall by official College groups including the College Affairs Committee, the Multicultural Affairs Committee, the Queer Task Force, the Committee on Race and Racism, and the Presidents' Council as well as student groups including the Coalition for Institutional Accountability and The Difference. The Presidents' Council, comprising the presidents of each residence hall, voted in November to send a message that "establishment of multicultural housing should be examined by the administration as a viable option for the Colby community."
Some students had already considered the idea and pronounced it long overdue. Supporters described one version as a separate residence hall, open to all interested students, that would create an atmosphere that "celebrates, embraces and affirms" differences among Colby students. They also cited a need for creating a campus where students would feel comfortable expressing and sharing their differences. Some proponents see precedents in Colby's chem-free- and quiet-dorm housing options.
At a "town meeting" forum in November, students aired a plan that would give them the option to apply for multicultural housing regardless of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The process would be color blind, they said, but applicants would be selected according to their need for a place in a multicultural dorm or on a multicultural floor. Applicants who would best fulfill the vision of the multicultural house or center would be given preference, they said.
Supporters cited examples of successful multicultural housing at Wesleyan, Amherst and other Colby peer colleges where language- and culture-oriented housing is offered. Queer students and students of color argued that they have a right to an education without the added burden of serving as educational tools for the straight, white majority.
Opponents, however, argued that the move is unnecessary at Colby and actually would hinder diversity efforts already underway. "To hide away in multicultural housing is to ignore a stigma that still exists," said Edwin Stone '03. "It is defeatist."
As discussions continued in public, they also moved forward behind closed doors. Dean of Students Janice Kassman said the College Affairs Committee was studying the issue and preparing a proposal. While Kassman declined to reveal the details of the proposal, she said it would be presented to President William D. Adams in December.
The proposal had not been completed as this issue of Colby went to press.
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