After living with the same group of friends for three years, Alex Jonokuchi, CC ’14, decided he would finally join his fraternity brothers and move into Beta Theta Pi’s privately owned brownstone.
But thanks to a new policy change from the Office of Residential Programs, what once seemed like the perfect senior year is turning into a nightmare.
As Bwog initially reported, Columbia quietly changed its housing policy over the summer to re-classify any student without an undergraduate housing assignment as a guest — and it’s made Jonokuchi into a second class citizen.
The sign-in line outside East Campus stretches out the door
Despite holding a position in the Beta fraternity, leaving his long-time suitemates was no easy choice for Jonokuchi. In an email to The Lion, he explained how he worried that living off-campus would separate him from his oldest Columbia companions.
“As much as I love my fraternity and as much as I have wanted to live in our amazing brownstone, I was afraid that by choosing to live outside of Columbia housing I would isolate myself from people with whom I have become so close over the years,” said Jonokuchi.
After a long deliberation, Jonokuchi decided that living in Beta while still regularly visiting his old friends was a preferable balance. Plus, all of his fraternity brothers had previously been able to get swipe access by filling out an online form.
However, when Jonokuchi returned to campus in the fall, he received an unpleasant surprise. The form was gone, and his CUID no longer granted him access to campus dorms.
Would knowing this last semester have affected his decision to live in Beta? “Definitely,” says Jonokuchi.
Now, every time he wants to visit someone outside of Beta house, Jonokuchi needs to be signed in. And that means he’s often isolated from the people who made his Columbia experience so special.
“They are some of my closest friends I have at this school,” said Jonokuchi. “[They’ve] shaped how I’ve changed and grown over my time here, and I haven’t been able to see them as often as I want to because I want to avoid hassling them.”
While a sign-in requirement might seem like a mere annoyance, the reality is that Columbia is not set up to accommodate students who don’t have swipe access. Many of Jonokuchi’s attempts to spend time with friends in Columbia housing have often been so logistically intensive or time consuming that he has just given up.
“It really upsets me when people say that it isn’t a big deal, they can just sign in, or meet somewhere else,” says Jonokuchi. “Sign-in has taken me as long as 40 minutes. And if most of the social gatherings occur in undergraduate residence halls, then where am I supposed to go?”
A central problem is East Campus’s sign-in process. Signing in at high traffic times, the only times when Jonokuchi can visit, can take almost an hour. Ironically, this problem is largely caused by Columbia’s insistence that all Barnard students — even those who live in Barnard College housing — must be signed in as well.
This crush of people tediously filling out visitor logs makes getting into EC a chore for those who do have swipe access. For students who don’t, seeing friends in East Campus often means asking those friends to suffer in the sign-in line as well — something many prospective visitors are reluctant to do.
Another problem for those classified as “guests” is they cannot be signed into a building by someone who doesn’t live there. For off-campus students, that means the following: If your friends are going to an event in another dorm, and you can’t convince someone in that building to sign you in, you’re out of luck.
As Jonokuchi explains, this makes spending time with on-campus pals even harder. “Am I supposed to take my friends away from their other friends who are going to parties in their residence halls?” he asks. “I am like that underage friend when going out to bars, or the high school friend visiting from another school, someone who is a constant burden?”
Jonokuchi also makes it clear that social impediments are just one part of the issue. The larger problem is that commuter students are made to feel like they don’t really belong.
As a consequence of the change, the Beta member can no longer use the bathroom in John Jay, even when he’s eating a meal there, and is barred from the Schapiro practice rooms. He cannot study with classmates in the Wallach Sky Lounge, use many of the printers on campus, or see a friend’s band perform in the John Jay. He can’t even surprise his boyfriend with a visit, because he needs to sign him in.
“I can’t do anything by myself,” Jonokuchi adds. I am a dependent, incapacitated by a rule change that happened under the table."
According to the administration, the new policy is merely making the old rules more consistent. In an email to The Lion, Katherine Cutler, Director of Communications for Student Affairs, said the following:
"Access to the undergraduate residence halls is a paid privilege by students who choose to live in the residence halls.
Students who were not in CC/SEAS (including Barnard College students who were not participating in the CU Housing Exchange, General Studies, Columbia graduate students, other students with CUID) did not have swipe access to the undergraduate residence halls due to safety, security, and access to amenities paid for by students living in the residence halls.
In order to ensure consistency across schools, beginning in fall 2013, all CC/SEAS students who choose to live off-campus need to be signed in by a resident host."
However, this statement simply leads to more questions. Is protecting the availability of residence hall amenities worth ostracizing such large portion of the student body, including two entire schools, from the rest of the University? And how can Columbia students themselves be considered a security risk?
Most importantly: Why were people like Jonokuchi not informed of an impending rules change before they signed up for housing?
The answer to some of these questions may lie in an email conversation between Jonokuchi and Anna Schmidt-MacKenzie, Director of the Office of Residential Programs. In the emails, which were provided to The Lion by Jonokuchi, Schmidt-MacKenzie appears to suggest that a desire to keep students in campus housing, combined with security paranoia, is a motivating factor behind the policy change.
When accused by Jonokuchi of changing the Guide to Living in order keep students from seeking off-campus housing in the future, the Residential Programs director denied his charge in the weakest possible terms.
“[The policy] is not intended to alienate anyone, but we would love to encourage all students to live on campus,” wrote Schmidt-MacKenzie. “That is not necessarily the reason for the policy, however—the policy has already existed for other Columbia students all along. This policy for SEAS/CC students who select to live off campus makes it more consistent with all Columbia schools.” (Emphasis our own).
When confronted with the argument that Columbia was essentially telling commuter students they were more of a security risk than on-campus students (the latter of which are allowed to sign into any dorm, whether they live there or not), Schmidt-MacKenzie also had an unexpected answer.
“I would actually agree and would prefer if students could only swipe into their residence hall,” said the director. “That would be my preference, but this policy is not as extreme as that.”
When contacted, Student Affairs denied any currently plans to revoke swipe access for on-campus housing residents. However, the fact that the director of Residential Programs herself appears to support this notion suggests it is not outside the realm of possibility.
In addition to answering some of his questions, Schmidt-MacKenzie also promised to inform Jonokuchi of what the administration can do make the sign in process easier. He is still waiting for that email.
Ultimately, whether or not Residential Programs understands how harmful their new policy has been, the rest of campus appears well aware. Bwog commenters excoriated the administration for alienating their friends, and other off-campus students shared horror stories about their experiences.
According to Jonokuchi, even Public Safety is on his side. As the Beta member recalls, During one particularly infuriating visit to EC, “the guard was surprised when I offered my CUID and tried to swipe it because he didn’t believe I had to be signed in, but then I told him my situation and he agreed how shitty it was that I had to wait in line with all of these random visiting students just to go to my friend’s suite.”
Additional reporting by Sean Augustine-Obi