Moving from crisis to living communities

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Photo courtesy of RIT Archive Collections

RIT students look out at the courtyard of their balcony in Kate Gleason residence hall. This photo was taken around 1970.

Shortly after moving to the new campus, it became apparent that students were unhappy with their living conditions. Issues related to construction at times left students without electricity or running water and lack of grass resulted in lakes of mud and dirt tracked into buildings. Repairs were numerous and ongoing. The students felt the spaces were sterile and lacked warmth, and vandalism of furniture, fixtures and finishes were common. In one instance, a water fight involving 200 students cost the school $4,000.

This issue turned into a major crisis for President Paul Miller. In typical fashion, Miller worked hard to understand the students’ complaints and include them in finding solutions. He spent nights in the dorms to experience the conditions first-hand and eventually convened a two-day housing workshop to provide an opportunity to air grievances in an open and supportive environment. More than 100 students, faculty and administrators came together, living for two days in the residence halls. Participants were asked to find creative ways to use the physical environment and to identify solutions to immediate problems.

Special-interest houses were created as a solution in the belief that closely-knit groups would build community spirit and result in increased respect, pride and responsibility. Some houses were formed around a specific major, affording even more opportunity for students to coalesce as a community. Students living and working together, taking the same classes, the same tests and doing the same homework, would begin to take on a team approach to learning. Photo House, Art and Design House and Engineering Houses were all formed in 1973. Facilities were to be provided for special projects and class work, such as darkrooms for photography students. A year later additional choices included International House; Havarah House, which emphasized elements of Jewish culture; Unity House with an emphasis on African-American culture; and Suite House, which would accommodate both deaf and hearing students to maximize interaction. Eventually the dissatisfaction with student housing seceded as student complaints were addressed and solutions enacted. Many special-interest houses are successfully thriving on campus today.