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Residents push back as Residential Education moves to strip Outdoor House of its theme next year

Administrators offer no explanation for decision to change the popular West Campus residential community to a generic suite

Courtesy of Katherine Van Kirk

Outdoor House will be stripped of its outdoor education theme for the 2019-2020 academic year, Residential Education (ResEd) announced Tuesday in an email to the Residential Fellow (RF) overseeing the house.

RF Melissa Schellberg informed house staff shortly thereafter, and staff alerted residents to the decision in-person Wednesday evening at the residence, a division of Suites located in Jenkins.  

Without a theme, the house’s partnership with the Outdoor Center — which grants Outdoor House $10,000 each year for activities and programming — would be discontinued. Students would also no longer be able to pre-assign into the house, and would draw into it like they would an ordinary suite.

In their email to Schellberg, ResEd did not specify the reason for the decision. They did not notify Resident Assistants (RAs) directly.

Schellberg, Outdoor House staff and the Outdoor Center are all in support of Outdoor House retaining its theme. During the staff’s in-person announcement, RA Daniel Chan ’19 told residents they “would do what it takes to reverse this decision.”

The staff found this out last night, and we were just as blindsided as you likely are now,” wrote Pablo Haake ’19, the house’s community manager, in an email on behalf of staff sent shortly after the house-wide announcement. “We have been scrambling to set up meeting[s] with folks in the administration, find answers, and prepare our response along with all of you.”

Staff have also begun to circulate a document titled “Save ODH Plan” with actionable items for residents to complete. The document includes a form for testimonials of the positive impact Outdoor House has had on residents’ lives. Staff members appeared hopeful that they can convince ResEd to preserve the theme if they demonstrate the significance of Outdoor House’s community.

“I’m pretty optimistic,” said Holly Francis ’19, an Academic Theme Associate for the house.

Outdoor House staff speculate that the decision to remove their theme is connected to their partnership with the Outdoor Center. The partnership and theme were part of a three-year pilot program that is now in its fourth year. The staff also suggested that the decision could relate to the end of Schellberg’s four-year term as an RF.

“Outdoor Center … as far as we know, [was] supposed to send reports to ResEd about how great this community is and it’s unclear whether they’ve been doing that or not,” said Shahpar Mirza ’19, an RA, during the staff announcement to residents. “The [former] head of the Outdoor Center just left, and Melissa is unfortunately leaving us after this year. So, it’s just basically convenient for them to have this year on hiatus.”

Mirza later clarified that the Outdoor Center was unaware they were supposed to be submitting any such reports.

Early Wednesday morning, house staff sent an email to Vice Provost of Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole advocating for the continuation of Outdoor House’s theme. Staff members emphasized their surprise at the news and asked that students be a part of similar decision-making processes in the future.

We feel like Outdoor House is one of the most successful models for a community at Stanford, and we hope to be in conversation about this decision on the existence of our house next year, following the model of ‘nothing for the students without the students’ which we really appreciate from staff training,” RA Chan wrote in the email to Brubaker-Cole.

Mirza and other staff went to ResEd’s offices on Wednesday morning, but there were no representatives in the office, according to Mirza. Student staff ultimately scheduled a meeting with Brubaker-Cole for Friday.

ResEd declined Wednesday evening to clarify the rationale behind the decision.

“We are still working through many considerations with respect to Outdoor House and would like the opportunity to discuss the situation with its residents first,” Pat Harris, the spokesperson for Student Affairs, wrote in an email to The Daily.

When The Daily first reached out to Student Affairs on Wednesday evening, Harris said she had not yet been notified of the decision.

Sue Lowley, the director of the Outdoor Center, is also set to meet with ResEd on Monday, where she hopes to “learn more” about the decision, as she has no details as of now.

“What I can say is that Outdoor House has been successful in providing a residential community that embraces students who wish to learn more about and participate in outdoor adventure based activities,” Lowley said. “Getting outside and disconnecting with technology to engage with the natural world has tremendous benefits for health and well being. I am hoping that we can find a solution that supports the community’s needs for healthy living spaces such as Outdoor House.”

Meanwhile, residents and staff are expressing their appreciation for Outdoor House.

“I’m fully supportive of Outdoor House,” RF Schellberg said. “I think they’ve added so much to our community.”

Students emphasized that Outdoor House’s community stretches beyond its residents.

“I have a lot of friends outside of Outdoor House,” said Christina Beck ’19, a resident and former RA. “When they’re here, they tell me they wish they knew about Outdoor House earlier on because they totally would’ve joined the community as well — because they see how amazing the community is.”

Residents voiced concern that removing Outdoor House’s preassign option would threaten continuity in house culture. Luke Muller ’19, who drew into Outdoor House his junior year and applied to live in the residence again his senior year, said many pre-assignees were returning students “committed to adding to the community.”

Hannah Williams ’19 wondered about the timing of ResEd’s announcement, noting that the University’s controversial decision to suspend the Stanford Band in 2016 came at a similar time in the quarter system.

“I was just observing that the University tends to drop big decisions like this at the ends of quarters when students are super overloaded,” Williams said, calling the Outdoor House changes “a very weirdly unilateral and non-communicative decision.”

This is not the first time this year that this year that ResEd has drawn substantial criticism for sudden policy changes. In late July, Brubaker-Cole announced the departure of longtime ResEd Dean Deborah Golder, replacing her with Koren Bakkegard and saying she would be taking ResEd in “some different directions.”

This administrative change was concerning to some individuals close to Student Affairs. A former employee told The Daily at the time that Golder’s departure — perceived by some as a dismissal, though administrators never confirmed or refuted this speculation — was a surprise to everyone in the division.

Of Golder’s departure, the former employee wrote, “Many people feel as though they can’t trust Susie Brubaker-Cole now, because if she can fire the Dean of ResEd, how can they feel secure?”

In September, ResEd announced a set of updated guidelines for RAs to monitor “high-risk” behaviors concerning the use of alcohol and other substances in their residences, including submitting weekly incidence reports to ResEd through an online survey. Many RAs said they were confused by the guidelines.

Back in September, Bakkegard pledged to more effectively incorporate stakeholder input into future policy decisions.

“I apologize for that lack of clarity and input, and we will seek to remedy that going forward,” Bakkegard wrote to incoming staff members in September.

This report has been updated to reflect that the Outdoor Center was not aware they were supposed to be submitting reports to Residential Education on the success of Outdoor House’s theme.

 

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu and Zora Ilunga-Reed at zora814 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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