In the fall, I wrote an article about how universities have standardized the use of twin XL mattresses, which I compared to “glorified palliative care beds” and the same as a towel. bath. I’ve argued that universities should adopt sleeping devices that fit the size and needs of an adult instead of modeling beds after an airport bathroom changing table. Along the same lines, I would like to continue the discussion on outdated standards in university housing. My next target of frustration and mockery is the lack of privacy mechanisms.
Over the past few years, UChicago has moved to make campus life increasingly uncomfortable and inconvenient while marketing its policies as increasingly community-based and social. Not only are students randomly assigned to dorms and roommates in a process affectionately known as “blind housing,” but last year’s COVID-19 protocols have resulted in the influence of residence assignments and houses through humanities courses. While the University has sentimentalized the sociality of these learning communities, this thinking is not ripe for healthy social living. Now, in addition to having to share a room with a complete stranger, you have to file a hole in front of your classmate. One minute you’re sleeping in the same space shoebox, the next minute you’re discussing Foucault (ironically, very Foucauldian). If the University insists on adults sharing a room, they should at least invest in a privacy device in the bedroom, the most intimate space for any young adult.
The human right to privacy has become a battleground for public discourse, especially in recent weeks with the Supreme Court poised to strike down abortion rights. Since the 1960s, however, by judicial interpretation, the Supreme Court has found an implied right to privacy “derived from the penumbra of other explicitly stated constitutional protections.” The Third Amendment protects the privacy zone of the home; the Fourth Amendment protects the right to privacy against unreasonable searches; the fifth amendment justifies the protection of private information, etc.
The fundamental right to privacy has become all the more fluid in the digital age, especially given the changing relationships between us, our personal data and technology companies. Last month at the Global Privacy Summit (GPS), Apple CEO Tim Cook opened the conference by imploring companies “to confront the way they have used technological determinism to excuse bad behavior like data collection without proper privacy or data retention policies”. He called privacy “the most essential battle of our time”.
Why do we demand privacy from federal regulations and unregulated companies, but don’t hold our universities accountable for the privacy we deserve in the bedroom? I’m not just talking about the dissolution of personal space, which is a discussion for another day. I’m talking about the trivialization of the bedroom.
The bedroom, one of the most intimate spaces in a person’s life, should be a refuge from the chaos of a college campus. This realm of physical and emotional intimacy should feel comfortable, safe, and most importantly, private. That said, why is there no privacy mechanism in a shared room? According to this logic, why have doors on the bathroom cubicles?
We rarely problematize our lack of privacy in dormitories, but this passive acceptance surprises me. When you break the concept down, it’s scary: “You’ll be sleeping, changing, snoring, and having sex in front of, right next to, or at the very least in the bedroom of a complete stranger.” Not only that, but you’re bound to suffocate in this space until you’re twenty! With all the seriousness surrounding privacy, whether related to digital rights or bodily autonomy, I am shocked that universities have not considered room-sharing to be disruptive to privacy and can be uncomfortable and indecent for students who may not have grown up attending summer camp, sharing a room, or getting used to other communal living spaces. Not every student wants to huddle in the corner of their room to put on their underwear, using a towel much like Dobby uses his pillowcase to keep him from hanging his brains out.
I suspect universities have normalized twin beds, roommates, and awkward spaces in an effort to prioritize low cost. It’s easy to see, even just aesthetically, how new dorms like Woodlawn and North feature tacky furniture and smaller rooms arranged in an architecturally appealing shell. For example, a February op-ed offered a repudiation of the university’s newest dormitory, sharing that Woodlawn’s thin walls make the space “unlivable.” This sentiment is not unique to UChicago. Last year, the University of California, Santa Barbara faced nationwide criticism over a $200 million dormitory project that houses 4,500 students but leaves most living in windowless rooms. . Universities across the country need to better prioritize the comfort and privacy of their students rather than packing as many of us as possible into glorified cinder blocks.
To speculate on another point, we have an understanding of gender and sexuality that goes beyond that of the logic behind the housing system. By continuing to mandate shared sleeping spaces, universities are forcing a confusion between gender and comfort that may be inappropriate for cohabitation in 2022. An outdated perception of intimacy is emerging: what repels our generation today was once seen as “friendly” not so long ago. The logic that allows strangers to undress in front of each other in the dorm is the same that traumatizes us when we go to the gym and see old men frolicking in the fluorescent lighting. Our generation does not do that; instead, we hide in the toilet. The University should take into account the gender norms it applies in its assumptions of privacy. Just because we share a room with someone of the same anatomy doesn’t mean we feel safe being exposed and vulnerable in front of them.
Whether the inattention to privacy is a symptom of the University’s lack of resourcefulness or its complacency with ritualized practices, the University must understand the uncomfortable and awkward position it forces students into for two years. Rather than relying solely on flimsy treaties with our housemates to protect our right to privacy, we deserve something tangible and unwavering. Off the top of my head I would suggest some type of privacy screen, maybe a curtain across the room, a nifty partition or a divider. Honestly, anything to allow an adult to maintain some personal space and discretion, rather than making changing underwear a secret mission. These solutions are relatively inexpensive but necessary if the University continues to force us to share the most intimate part of our life with a stranger.
Although students have the option of requesting a single room or an apartment on the first year housing form, I wouldn’t bet on that. Most of us end up spending our freshman year sleeping just feet away from our classmates. And while returning students can select specific rooms in the housing lottery, students who receive subsequent time slots (in a process, again, randomly) are required to share their shoebox for at least one additional academic year.
I hope that shared rooms will join the archives of inappropriate standards produced not by rationalization, but as the fruit of an appetite for profitability rather than comfort. In the meantime, however, the University must invest in the fundamental right to privacy in the only space we can call our own.
Henry Cantor is a freshman in college.