Despite all the positive signs throughout the 2008-2009 academic year, this semester will now likely end without any change to the three-person housing rule in the City of Williamsburg. This is extremely unfortunate, especially for the students who have committed a significant portion of their time this year to finding a solution for the benefit of future students.
But the saddest thing of all is that now, all responsibility rests with the city, and their defense of their position has been disingenuous and reprehensible. Consider a recent editorial, “Now you tell us,” in the Virginia Gazette, a Williamsburg newspaper that hasn’t reported an accurate story since the Battle of Yorktown.
The editorial’s author makes a number of comical assertions, including one that claims that students only move off campus because they are underage and want to drink — most people I know who live off campus are over 21. He also argues that since students put their infomation on MySpace and Facebook anyway, the College of William and Mary should not be hesitant about giving off-campus student addresses to the city.
The last point he makes is that at Christopher Newport University, the administration is willing to “box the ears of the bad boys” who act up in surrounding neighborhoods, and he argues that “unlike here, CNU requires students to behave like grown-ups.”
I’m not even sure where to start here. Something gives me the feeling that trying to convince the College’s administration to become more like CNU’s is a losing effort, but that’s just a wild guess. The Facebook argument doesn’t hold any merit because, regardless of what someone chooses to include on social-networking websites, the College can withhold this information from the city in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law designed to protect the private and educational information of students.
What this editorial does reveal, however, is how the City and the students have approached this issue from exactly opposite directions. City residents see this as an opportunity to guilt-trip the College administration into creating an office that will monitor off-campus addresses and student behavior, while students are trying to negotiate a slight change to a policy that only affects them, and is, in the final analysis, legalized discrimination. The City blames the College for the fact that its students refuse to adhere to an ordinance that makes it more difficult for students to live in the Williamsburg community. Even for Williamsburg, this is pretty low.
If the ignorant author of the Virginia Gazette editorial is reflective of the majority of the residents of Williamsburg, then I don’t have much hope at all. But assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some residents who understand how immoral the law is and who aren’t firmly against students living among them, how would a solution be reached now?
The only reason that this focus group was created was because students spooked the city during the last City Council election with high numbers of registered student-voters. If Matt Beato ’09 had not come so close to winning a seat on City Council — he lost by three percentage points in the popular vote — it is unlikely the city would take the clout of student voters seriously. But over the past few years, they have had to do so.
The most significant shift in the status quo would occur if a student could be elected to City Council. This will require a massive get-out-the-vote effort to ensure that there are enough students to get the candidate elected. While it makes sense in principle to knock on doors and present one’s case to city residents, Beato, despite being incredibly knowledgeable about community issues, was unable to gain much traction in precincts without student voters.
Why would any student be able to attract a large percentage of city votes? A more effective strategy would give priority to rallying student voters — hosting events, planning massive election-day activities and publicity, etc.
Students involved in the town-gown work over the past few years should be incredibly proud, despite the lack of material results. Showing the moral cowardice of the city and several of its residents through attempted negotiations, the students have sent a reminder to all concerned of where the blame for these issues lies.
E-mail Alexander Ely at firstname.lastname@example.org.