Questions Surround Off-Campus Housing Lottery

By Emilie Munson

On Feb. 19, a group of 10 disgruntled students shook up a Community Council-sponsored “Community Conversation” event with loud allegations directed towards the College’s Residential Life team. These ten students, all former or current varsity athletes, complained that they had been unfairly treated in the off-campus housing lottery on the basis of their identities as athletes.

The off-campus housing lottery is a random process through which rising seniors can apply to live in houses not owned by the College. Interested students can submit applications for groups of up to three people. These applications are then put into a pot and selected at a drawing event that is open to all students who applied. The applications are then drawn from the pot by a random student who applied for off-campus housing. According to the College’s website, the only criterion that may bar applicants from being accepted to live off campus is official College discipline.

As the Campus reported on Feb. 25, 58 rising seniors were approved to live off campus in this year’s lottery, which took place on Feb. 17. Of these rising seniors, approved only eight varsity athletes were chosen from the lottery, of the 37 varsity athletes who applied. Three others athletes were accepted just after the lottery because Residential Systems Coordinator Karin Hall-Kolts, who organizes and conducts the lottery, forgot to add their names to the pot.

It was the shockingly low acceptance rate among varsity athletes that caused the Community Conversation outcry. How could the lottery be random if so few athletes were accepted, they challenged.

“It just doesn’t seem random based on who got it,” said Riley Dickie ’16, a former men’s hockey player who was rejected from the lottery and spoke at the Community Conversation event.  “It just seems so fishy.”

“I would like to think that it is random because it is such an important thing for so many students,” added Maggie Caputi ’16, a women’s lacrosse team member who was accepted in the lottery but also spoke out at the Community Conversation. “At the same time, I think it’s really suspect that such a big group of specific people weren’t approved to live off campus. I think that’s really weird.”

“I don’t think that the people in the hat were chosen to be in the hat,” said Mary Claire Ecclesine ’16, a former field hockey team member. “I just think that maybe some people were taken out. And there’s no way that anyone could know that.”

Claiming that the administration may have rigged the lottery against varsity athletes that they believed were more likely to throw parties, specifically football and lacrosse players, these ten students claimed there was foul play.

The Campus Investigates

In the light of these claims, the Campus decided to investigate just how random the off-campus housing lottery was on Feb. 19.

Based on calculations performed by Paige-Wright Professor of Economics Paul Sommers and this reporter using hypergeometric probability distribution, the probability that only these 11 athletes, who applied in 6 application groups, would be accepted in a random lottery—and so many others would be rejected—is 35/10,000 chances. If we excluded two application groups, whose names were not or were likely not in the lottery pot at the time of the drawing (the three athletes who were accepted just after the lottery and five athletes who submitted an invalid application of five people), the probability rises slightly to a still miniscule 44/10,000 chances.

These figures indicate the low likelihood that so few athletes would be accepted in a random lottery process. However, it is crucial to note that the only thing these figures prove for certain is that there is a chance, though slight, that this outcome would occur. It is not impossible for this result to occur in a random lottery process.

Sommers interpreted these low probabilities to indicate that, possibly, there may be something impeding the randomness of the lottery system.

“Somewhere there is an element of non-randomness,” Sommers said. “And it may be as simple as someone who conducts the lottery not thoroughly mixing the slips.”

Administrative Response

In an interview with the Campus last week, Associate Dean of Students for Residential and Student Life Doug Adams maintained that the lottery was 100 percent random.

“The reason we do the draw is to address the concern that there is something other than random chance [happening],” Adams said. “It is completely random chance.”

Adams pointed out that only seven of the 111 total students who applied to live off-campus attended the lottery drawing. Those that attended did not see a problem with the drawing.

Moreover, Adams added, this lottery process has been occurring for years without complaints. This is the first year that complaints of discrimination against a group of students who applied have been raised.

He maintains that the off-campus housing lottery is one of the most transparent processes of any at the College.

“The [process] is about as open as you can get, currently,” Adams said.

Hall-Kolts was away on a personal leave and unavailable for comment about these claims.

The Waitlist

In addition to the lottery itself, athletes rejected from living off campus found issue with the waitlist process that follows it.

After the initial lottery, students who applied to live off campus are emailed to inform them whether they were accepted or not, and those students not accepted must respond to the email to obtain a spot on the waitlist. It is imperative that students respond to the email quickly as the order in which students respond determines their place on the waitlist. A higher spot on the waitlist is ideal because if students who were accepted to live off campus cannot find housing or decide to live on campus, students on the waitlist can then have a chance to move off campus.

Complaints about this waitlist process are two-fold.

 First, Hall-Kolts sent the emails informing students about the results of the lottery during practice time for varsity athletes—between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. This meant that students who applied in all-athlete groups were not able to respond to her email and secure a place on the waitlist until over an hour after the email was sent, disadvantaging them against non-athletes who might be able to respond right away and get a higher spot on the waitlist.

Adams responded that this was not an issue he was aware of, but that the timing of the email was not intentional.

“[The email was sent] at the time that she [Karin] was done processing the information,” Adams explained. “We certainly can adjust our times if it’s felt that that is a sensitivity.”

Secondly, several athletes reported that they were not informed of their position on the waitlist. This lead them to suspect that students were not getting off the waitlist as a result of their position on it but due to other factors, such as pressure from parents, especially those who are significant donors to the College.

“The perception of a lot of kids is that money talks,” Dickie said. “When in doubt, get your parents involved.”

Adams countered that these allegations are “completely not true.”

He said the reason that students’ positions on the waitlist are not shared with them is because the waitlist is fluid, with positions changing often when students are accepted from it to live off-campus or decide to drop off the waitlist and live on campus instead.

“We don’t take anything into consideration except available slots. If I don’t have anything available, I don’t move people around [on the waitlist].”

On Campus Housing Policies

These complaints about off-campus housing policies and suspected discrimination against athletes arrive in the context of other claims that athletes are being treated unfairly in on-campus housing processes.

In this year’s superblock and social house application process, two groups of varsity athletes applying for superblocks felt that their applications were denied because of their identities as athletes.

In an interview with the Campus on March 4, Alli Sciaretta ’16, a women’s lacrosse team member, explained that she and 14 other current or former varsity athletes applied for Homestead House with one non-athlete. The group felt optimistic about their chances of getting the house. They were the only group that applied to live in Homestead.

After their presentation, however, the house was given to a group of rising juniors who did not apply to live in Homestead but applied to live in Meeker. Sciaretta feels that the group may have faced some discrimination because of the athlete compisition of their group.

These fifteen athletes also applied to live off campus and all were rejected in the initial lottery.

Stewart Denious ’15, football player and organizer of the proposed Palmer social house “The Hall,” felt his social house application was denied for the same reason: 24 out of 30 students living in Palmer in the fall would be athletes and 26 out of 30 in the spring.

In an email to Adams sent after the group’s rejection, which Denious shared with the Campus, Stewart explained, “We (…) feel we were biased against as an athlete heavy house, one of the students at the meeting was very obvious about seeing us as an athlete house asking us how many non-athletes we have on the roster.”

Finally, a student who wished to remain anonymous told the Campus that during his application process for a mod he was directly told by Hall-Kolts that the administration tries to avoid giving superblock housing to all-male groups of athletes. This student’s all-male athlete group was eventually awarded a mod for next year, however.

Adams denies that applications for social houses or superblocks are ever denied on the basis of the number of athletes who will live in them.

According to Adams, this year an especially high number of athletes applied to live in superblocks.  Additionally, over 50 percent of the students who were accepted to live in superblocks and social houses next year are athletes.

“We always look at athletic status after we make the acceptances for the main reason that we want to make sure that we are not discriminating against a group,” Adams said. “We look for the strongest program, not [at] the group of students that are backing it.”

Thus, according to Adams, the applications that were approved were those that the committee felt were the strongest; they were not chosen based on the number of athletes on their roster or the gender of those athletes.

 Implications

The Campus is unable to prove or disprove the randomness of this year’s off- campus housing lottery based on the available information. Nor can the Campus say for certain whether athletic identity may play a role in whether some superblock and social house applications are chosen over others, consciously or unconsciously. The evidence presented in this article suggests, however, that while the Residential Life team may believe that the off campus lottery is as open as it can be, some students believe there is still room to improve it.

Students, such as Sciaretta, have suggested that students should be able to put their own names in the lottery pot so that they know that the pot was not pre-selected. Additionally, doubts about the integrity of the waitlist have caused many students to express desire to see the waitlist and know their position on it, despite its fluid, changing nature.

While the lottery was moved early this year, to the month of February, to try to redress the discrepancy between when homeowners want to sign leases (fall) and when the students are approved to life off campus (spring), students expressed desires for improvement on this front. In an interview with the Campus, Adams explained that the College plans on hosting a series of meeting with local property owners to try to address this issue.

Finally, and most radically, some students have doubted whether a lottery is the best system for choosing which students can live off campus.

“I feel like if seniors find a place to lease off campus, they should be able to live there and be approved to live off campus,” said Kelsey Phinney ’16, a Nordic ski team member who was approved to live off campus in the lottery. “A large group of my friends spent a lot of time and energy finding a great place to live off campus and then none of them were approved, which does not feel that fair.”

Lastly, in the largest sense, the student complaints highlight a growing belief, on behalf of athletes, that the administration inaccurately and unjustly perceives athletes at the College.

As Denious suggested in his email to Adams, some students believe that administrators draw broad conclusions about athletes based on this one aspect of their identity.

“This [Denious’s Palmer social house group] was a group with incredible diversity in majors, being from different places in the country, social interests, and some of us happen to play sports,” Denious said. “To label it as an ‘athlete house’ is to make sweeping generalizations, and completely diminishes the individual character of each person in the house and completely goes against what Middlebury stands for.”

“People say a lot of things about the athletic community here without really knowing enough individuals or without really understanding the culture of each team,” Caputi confirmed.

“But athletes are very aware of all the things that are being said. I think that regardless of whether or not the lottery was random, it is important to know that athletes who were rejected do have a right to speak up about it,” she concluded.

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