As visits for admitted prospective graduate students roll around this year, current students rally to convince prospective ones that, despite its isolation, life in Princeton really does have its benefits. It may not be New York or San Francisco, but it offers a uniquely cohesive, welcoming and incredibly supportive graduate community. This is largely because, unlike at other universities, social and intellectual interactions among graduate students are encouraged and enhanced by living together on campus.
Despite this, the University’s Housing Master Plan, currently being enacted by the Housing Office, mandates a decrease in the amount of on-campus housing available to grad students. We believe that this policy threatens the exceptional sense of community at Princeton, and we cannot understand why it is necessary.
On-campus apartments have long been available to almost every grad student who wished to live in one. The Housing Office has not publicized the difference between its new projected rate and the historical percentage of students accommodated, but before the demolition of the Hibben-Magie complex in summer 2012, it was extremely rare to meet a grad student who had been denied on-campus housing.
The Housing Office states that it will continue to house “a large majority of graduate students” under its new Master Plan, but it’s clear that the number will be significantly decreased. In recent emails, the Housing Office has said that, going forward, on-campus living will only be guaranteed for the first three years of grad school and described it as highly unlikely after the fourth.
The assumption, clearly stated on the Housing website, is that the local rental market will solve this housing shortage. However, Princeton doesn’t offer a typical college-town, or even big-city, rental market. There isn’t much affordable housing available in the township, let alone within walking distance of campus. A quick look on the off-campus housing website set up by the University shows only a few options in Princeton, priced far beyond the on-campus rates, with the remaining options being a substantial distance away.
One of the components of the Master Plan is that “apartments for low- and moderate-income families will be incorporated throughout Merwick and Stanworth [a site currently housing grad students]. The units will be available to the general public, with no preference for applicants who may be affiliated with the University.”
This is a laudable mandate of the University — one we strongly believe it should pursue. Yet it raises the question of why the University would decide to decrease graduate-student housing (and subject students to a market they recognize as inhospitable) rather than maintain graduate housing while increasing low-income housing for non-affiliates. A solution to this problem would be to allow graduate students to continue living in the low-budget Butler complex, but Housing has said that this will be demolished, with no replacement, in summer 2014.
No one graduates with a Ph.D. from Princeton in fewer than five years, and many students take six or seven years. The later years, when fellowships and stipends start to run out, are a particularly tough time to force students to move far and wide. Plus, a lengthy commute to campus on New Jersey Transit or along Route 1 would inevitably make preceptors less available to their students, and grad students would be less able to attend the conferences and guest lectures that enrich academic life at Princeton.
We were told that the Housing Master Plan (initiated in 2005) was developed through extensive consultation with members of the Princeton community and comparison with the policies of other universities. But Princeton is not like other universities, in terms of either its location or intellectual community. And the only consultation that current students have been asked to provide has focused on facility preferences (laundry, gyms, etc.) at the new Lakeside complex currently being built as a replacement for the Hibben-Magie Apartments.
Throughout all of these changes, the Housing Office has evinced a general lack of communication and a repeated dismissal of reasonable requests from students. For example, Housing only let graduate students know about the decision to kick students out of Butler Apartments in May of next year via an email sent two weeks before the deadline to submit housing preferences for 2013-14.
We’re not expecting privileged treatment; graduate students have happily chosen to live in run-down, 60-year-old temporary structures. We are only asking for clarity and an acknowledgment that the unique graduate community at Princeton is worth preserving. Given that it is well within the University’s ability, why not commit to accommodating all grad students who wish to live on campus? Grad school can be a time of deep isolation, and the benefits provided by a supportive community are, in the face of that, innumerable.
Meg Leja is a graduate student in the fourth year of the Ph.D. program in history. Alex Chase-Levenson is also a fourth-year graduate student in the history department. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.
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