Editorial: Swarthmore Should Restore Universal Dorm Access to Students

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Among the litany of policies and changes that the administration implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic was the revocation of universal OneCard access to all dorms, previously afforded to every enrolled student. We, The Phoenix, believe that the withdrawal of this ability has been detrimental to students’ safety and quality of life, and as such argue vehemently that the administration should revert to its pre-pandemic policy regarding universal dorm access. Confusingly, different members of the administration have given various (often unrelated) explanations to justify this policy throughout the last four semesters in which students have not had universal access. In this editorial, we will list and rebut some of the administration’s most commonly cited reasons for denying this ability and will highlight the grave consequences (and nonexistent benefits) of maintaining such a nonsensical policy.

The revocation of universal access had its genesis in the Fall 2021 Garnet pledge, which first announced that student OneCard access to dorms other than their own would be discontinued. In this early stage of the pandemic, when vaccines were not yet available and the science of the disease was still not well known, the administration sought to limit the spread of the virus by limiting the amount of indoor interaction that students would have with each other. By revoking universal OneCard access, the administration hoped to prevent large indoor gatherings from occurring and generally contain any outbreaks to just a small group of people.

This reasoning is understandable and makes sense considering the time it originates in. However, the present pandemic circumstances are quite different from those times. Socializing in a friend’s dorm is an everyday occurrence now; nobody would think twice about it. Every day, hundreds of students eat maskless in Sharples in close proximity to each other. There are even parties in Paces where hordes of maskless students dance in cramped conditions. Considering how much the administration has loosened COVID regulations in these contexts, why have they maintained the same level of stringency when it comes to dorm entrance, an activity infinitesimally less significant transmission-wise than eating in Sharples or partying in Paces? The notion of a dorm as a “cluster,” popular early in the pandemic as a way of limiting contact so as to prevent the spread of the virus, is now laughably unrealistic. It is far past the time for the college to update this outdated policy.

More than just being ineffective towards preventing the spread of the virus, lack of universal access is actively detrimental to the student experience. Swarthmore’s campus famously lacks a student center for people to hang out and relax in. Students looking to de-stress and socialize in a location that isn’t a library or a dining hall have no choice but to sit in a dorm room or lounge. As such, dorm life is an integral part of Swarthmore’s social scene. Restricting these locations to the vast majority of students who don’t live in the given dorm cuts off one of the few options available to students looking to relax. Virtually every student on campus has experienced the inconvenience of needing to text their friend to be let into a dorm, loitering outside in the cold until the door finally opens.

Additionally, many spaces which were designed to host events accessible to all students across campus, such as Mephisto’s, AP lounge, the Danawell multipurpose room, etc. are located inside dorms and are such OneCarded, so that students from other dorms hoping to attend events in these locations must go through the aforementioned hassle of texting their friends for entrance. This makes events exclusive, artificially gatekeeping them to people who live in the dorm when they ought to be equally open to everyone across campus. Hosting and attending social events is hard enough at a school like Swarthmore without the added difficulty of getting around limited OneCard access. The anti universal access policy actively discourages hosting such events and prevents people from attending the few that do occur. 

Since the lack of universal access limits one’s ability to interact with students in other dorms, it raises the importance of being placed in a dorm with your friends. If you end up sequestered from your friends in a different dorm, the inability to enter their dorm causes this separation to be much more significant than it otherwise would be. This places an undue burden on the already overworked OSE, which is faced with the herculean task of satisfying the dorm placement desires of 1600 students simultaneously. Without universal access, dissatisfaction with dorm placement due to distance from friends very well might increase, leading to more room change requests from an office that cannot afford to deal with such a volume.

What do we gain from such a constant inconvenience to normal daily life? The pandemic has already negatively disrupted so many aspects of life, forcing us to adapt to new policies and lifestyles that, while unideal, are necessary to keep our community safe. Why should we add on to these justified anti-spread policies a further disruption of our lives that doesn’t at all help to prevent the spread of the virus? The price we pay for such useless, ineffectual policies is not only the burden of inconvenience. The much more egregious price is that they decrease public confidence in COVID regulations in general. Inconsistent policies without any justification cast doubt on the relevant policies that genuinely keep us safe.

In the fall of 2021, as the administration began to undo some of the strictest measures implemented to protect students from the spread of the virus, the policy against universal access remained conspicuously unchanged. When pressed to provide a reason for this, representatives of the administration began to offer justifications for the lack of universal access that are not related to COVID. For example, members of Public Safety, speaking at RA training in August 2021, reframed the revocation of universal access as a matter of student safety irrespective of the pandemic. They argued that revoking universal access keeps students safe by keeping out of dorms those who should not be in dorms. Ironically though, not granting universal access to students is precisely what makes this campus more unsafe and only increases the danger of unauthorized entrance into dorms.

Since the revocation of universal access, at any given dorm entrance there will often be someone standing around waiting to be let in so that they can visit a friend. As such, it has become normalized to ask other students for access to their dorms and to accept requests for access from pretty much anyone who asks. This poses a grave security risk; it would be all too easy to let in an intruder or a dangerous person into student residential buildings – as long as a person standing outside a dorm appears to be in their late teens or early twenties, most students will just let them into the dorm without thinking twice. 

When students had universal access, it was easy to ensure that only students were able to enter dorms; if you have a OneCard you can enter a dorm, otherwise you cannot. If every student can enter any dorm, then nobody would loiter outside dorms waiting to be let in, and anyone doing so would immediately arouse warranted suspicion. Unauthorized intruders from off-campus attempting to gain access to dorms would clearly stick out as potential dangers.

This extremely dangerous flaw in the anti universal access policy was unfortunately laid bare at 3:05 p.m. on April 18, 2021 when an unauthorized non-campus individual successfully entered Mertz by following another student through the front door before it closed. After entering the hall, the man attempted to enter a student’s room. Thankfully the student was able to lock the door so that the intruder was not able to enter, and he left at 3:29 p.m. In an Awareness Bulletin email to the campus community warning about this incident, director of Public Safety Mike Hill included a few points to ensure safety on campus. Among these points was “Never allow strangers to enter buildings without using their OneCard.” This is good advice, and campus would be safer if everyone abided by this adage. But it is precisely the revocation of universal access which undermines this advice and prevents people from following it. Letting people into buildings without using their OneCard is such an everyday occurrence that people don’t think twice about doing it. As long as students lack universal access, the practice of letting non OneCarded individuals into dorms will continue, and students will continue to live in constant jeopardy of dangerous strangers intruding into dorms.

Another point brought up by representatives of Public Safety during fall RA training in August 2021 is that without universal access they can ensure a student’s safety from another particular student. They offered as an example a scenario where a student’s abuser is prevented from entering the survivor’s hall because only the student themselves has access to their hall. This argument is flawed. First, as just argued, letting people into dorms without OneCards is so common that an abuser would have no problem entering a dorm in such a way. Second, it is alarming that a person who poses such an imminent danger to another student would even be allowed to remain in proximity to them on campus in the first place. Third, a student’s abuser might very well live in the same dorm as them, a dangerous situation which would not be remedied by revoking universal access – it could only be remedied through direct targeted action of removing the abuser from the area. 

In the dead of night, Swarthmore’s campus is a cold and dark place. A drunk student who lives in Mary Lyon leaving a Paces party alone at 2 a.m. would not be able to access Parrish to sit in the parlors and rest. They would be stuck outside in the cold, in an incredibly vulnerable and unsafe situation. Denying universal access to all students under the pretense of helping survivors, when such a policy would not at all help to alleviate dangerous situations and might actually exacerbate them, is irresponsible and unacceptable.

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