Rebecca Changes Her College
It’s probably hard for young people in 2016 to imagine, but in the early 1980s when Rebecca is in college, many institutions of higher learning still protect their female students with a policy known as house closing.
At Rebecca’s school, girls have to be in their dorms by 11:00pm on weeknights, 12:00 midnight on Friday and 1:00am on Saturday (Sunday morning). A lot of girls don’t mind this. They don’t want to stay out later than that anyway, and it’s a good way to get rid of guys before the witching hour. But in the 80s what nearly all girls cannot handle at all is the fact that the boys’ dorms never close. Boys can stay out all night. It’s only girls who have to be in at a certain time.
When Rebecca takes over as president, student council meetings are spending an enormous amount of time on this issue. The students themselves disagree about whether to fight house closing, how important it is to fight house closing, and how to fight house closing.
“I move we launch a campaign,” says Jane—again. “Some of us make signs and sit in front of Gandolf Hall. Others go around campus recruiting folks to join us. We should be able to get at least half of the women out there, that would be about 2000.”
“Oh come on,” resists Tom. “These things never accomplish anything. Let’s concentrate on buses to the soccer game in Dunwoody.”
“House closing’s a drag, but the main thing is all the money we have to spend to be here living in these dorms.”
“If we’re going to fight the school, we ought to be talking about how the workers here get paid only minimum wage.”
“So many leaders with no followers,” thinks Rebecca. “They all want to make this place better, but they’re all so focused on their own ideas they can’t cooperate enough to get anything done.” Rebecca begins concentrating intently and exclusively on the mantra she uses to meditate. Soon, she’s practically in a meditative state. Jack notices.
“Rebecca, you haven’t said a thing. You’re the president. Just tell us what you want to do.”
“Thank you, Jack,” Rebecca begins. “All your ideas are so good and important, I really don’t know what to do. I know that none of us can make any of the rest of us do anything, and if we all just do our own thing, none of us will have the power to get anything done. Somehow we have to come up with a plan we all agree on. Any ideas how we can do that?”
Silence. Rebecca waits.
After a minute or so, Jack can’t stand it anymore. “I don’t think we can do it. You should decide. I’ll follow whatever plan you come up with.”
“Do you all feel that way?” Rebecca asks. Silence. Rebecca continues. “It’s almost 5. We’re not going to get ourselves together in fifteen minutes, and I don’t think we can do it in any two-hour meeting. I’m ready to spend all next weekend on this. Who’ll join me?” Slowly, most hands go up. “I know it’s short notice, but we need to get started. Come if you can. If you can’t, you can catch up next time. We won’t make any final decisions without you, but we’ll come up with a proposal or two.
One more thing. Let’s take this beyond the council. Please come if you can. If you can’t, feel free to send a proxy. And bring anyone you think should be there. You know who we need—folks with a following, people others listen to. In particular, invite the ones who hate student government. If we’re going to take up a fight of any kind, and if we’re going to make a change, we need to get all of us together. Jane, can we meet at your house? We might want to stay all night. Would that be cool?”
“Sure, come on over. Bring your own blankets. What time?”
“What time do you and Rose get up?”
“Any time after nine would be good.”
“Ok, how about 9:30, Saturday morning, at Jane’s house?” Agreement. A start.
When Rebecca gets to Jane’s at 9:25, the house is already full and folks are still arriving. “What's this!? a meeting or a riot?” Smiling, she finds a place on the floor.
“We saved this for you,” Jack says, indicating the arm chair near the fireplace.
“Thank you, Jack, I appreciate it, but I’m not that kind of president. I’m your servant, literally. To prove that, I’ll sit on the floor. I’ll be grateful if you would sit in that chair.” Jack hesitates a minute, then takes a place on the floor next to Rebecca. Everyone settles in. Three girls sit in or on the chair Jack saved for Rebecca.
Rebecca starts the discussion. “I’m really not sure how to do this. I’ll make some suggestions, but if anyone has a better idea, say so. Anyway, I suggest we go around the room, say our names, something to identify ourselves, then what we hope will come out of this meeting.” Jack, sitting to Rebecca’s left, goes first.
After the first round, it’s already clear that house closing is the most popular issue, by far. Rebecca sums it up. “Sounds to me like most of us want to abolish house closing. I know some of you don’t think it’s a big deal, but is there anyone here who really wants house closing to continue?” Silence. “Let me tell you what I think. It seems to me we have a consensus that house closing needs to go. Since we have a consensus, I’m happy to start there. However, in order to keep everyone involved, I think we should agree right now that after we abolish house closing, we’ll get together for another meeting like this and talk about taking up another issue. If we can agree to that, I think I can sell a house closing campaign to the folks who aren’t here today. I promised them we wouldn’t make a final decision without them, so I need to talk to them and get them onboard. Can we agree that this is just the start of us working together?” Agreement.
“OK, now let’s go around the room and everyone say what they think we should do to get rid of house closing.”
After the second round, Rebecca makes a proposal based on the best, most popular ideas that emerged. “OK, let me try to sum this up. First, we need to display our determination and our strength. For the next two weeks, we tell everyone what we’re going to do. We don’t mind if the administration finds out, but we don’t tell them.
“Then, on Friday night two Fridays from now, no one goes into their dorms. Everyone of all genders sits out in front of Copley House all night. The security guards will come by. They may get some teachers or administrators out. They’ll tell us to go into the dorms. They may take names and threaten us with suspension or other punishments, but no matter what they say, we do not talk back, we act respectful and friendly, but no one goes into the dorms until dawn. So far so good?” Agreement.
“Saturday and Sunday nights we obey house closing as usual. On Monday, all the student council reps and I will go in to see Dean Docket and start negotiating for an end to house closing. We’ll do as much as we can during the week, and on Saturday, we get as many students as possible to a meeting in Dendy McNair, where we report the situation and plan our next steps. Is this OK?” Agreement.
The targeted Friday night arrives and 80% of the students who live on campus sit out in front of the dorms all night long. There’s drumming, guitars and singing, then hilarious hijinks like chaining people to the dorm gates, just for fun. The security guards come by, see they’re vastly outnumbered and just keep patrolling all night without saying or doing anything. At dawn, everyone goes into their dorms and into their beds.
On Monday, Rebecca and the student council visit Dean Docket, who starts the conversation with a smile. “That was an impressive demonstration you pulled off last Friday. Seems like you students want to get rid of house closing. Am I right?”
Rebecca returns her smile and says, “Yup, I think you’ve picked up our subtle message.”
“It’s almost November. Give me until January, and I promise you, house closing will end next semester or I will resign.” The students are stunned. Maybe they shouldn’t have been. Dean Docket is a woman. She hated house closing herself when she was in school, and she has no desire to defend it. She’ll do everything she can to change the policy, and she believes she can.
“Thank you, Ms. Docket. We’ll gladly give you until January, and we’re delighted and grateful to have you on our side. We’re going to have a meeting on Saturday where I’m supposed to report on this difficult negotiation. Would you like to come and report for yourself?”
“No thanks, I think you’ll do a better job. Just get them to let the issue go and be peaceful until January.”
“We’ll let this issue go, but I can’t guarantee we’ll be peaceful. We might move on to another issue.”
“Do what you have to do. I’m sure whatever it is will be good for our school.”
At the meeting on Saturday, Rebecca reports the conversation with Dean Docket and asks if the students can wait until January. The grapevine has been working overtime; everyone already knows what she’s going to ask. As soon as she puts the question, a cheer goes up that Dean Docket can hear in her office. That was the happy ending of house closing and the start of democracy at Anycollege, Anothertown, USA.