How not to help households
by Kathleen van Schaijik
Over the summer I became convinced that the time had come to call attention to a problem I think is threatening the welfare of the FUS household system. This is not pleasant to do, because it involves criticizing the efforts of people whose good intentions, personal commitment and Christian zeal are beyond question. Nevertheless, I will do it, because I love the household system at Franciscan University (I owe it, among other things, some of my happiest memories and some of my closest friends), and I hate to see it suffering.
The gist of my concern is this: that the inner life of households is being gradually suffocated and demoralized by the inordinate heaviness and paternalism of the Student Life Office’s well-meant efforts to strengthen it. Let me try to explain.
As I understand and experienced it, the “genius” of the household system lies in its being a structured way for students to help each other mature as Christians, through their commitment to meet and pray together regularly, to build friendships, to share each other’s lives, bear each other’s burdens, and otherwise support each other in deepening their faith and drawing nearer to God. In otherwords, it is, essentially, a grassroots thing. As I see it, nothing could be more fatal to such a system than for it to be “taken over” by a centralized authority, so that the formation it aims at bringing about is being imposed “from above” rather than cultivated “from within.” Yet I’m afraid this is exactly what’s happening.
Households are being treated, not as free associations of students, but as arms of the Student Life Office; vehicles of their influence among the student body. Of course, this isn’t anywhere (that I know of) said right out; there is nothing in the official documents stating that households are the principal means through which the Student Life Office affects the formation of Franciscan University students. Nevertheless, this is the impression that comes across; the whole tenor of their efforts toward households proclaims it. Consider the following facts:
1) The Student Life Office now has a “Coordinator of Household Support,” who, among many other duties, “is responsible for the overall organization and training of household coordinators”—as if household coordinators were not elected heads of student organizations, but employees, whom the SLO is “responsible” to “train.”
2) Much of this training is done through the Residence Directors, who are instructed by SL to “enrich” coordinators “by monthly in-hall trainings on topics compiled by the Coordinator of Household Support.” Further, RDs are required to meet twice monthly with all the coordinators on their floors, and at least twice monthly with individual coordinators, “to provide training, support, and guidance for these leaders.” These four-times-per-month (at least) meetings with Residents Directors are not optional for coordinators. And, to enforce attendance, at least one RD last year would impose punishments on those who didn’t show—for instance, locking the household common room for a week.
Many coordinators have told me that these mandatory meetings, on top of the regular meeings with their households, plus those with the Coordinator of Household Support, those with their adviser, those with RAs, and others that pop up throughout the semester, are an immense practical burden. One woman said she was chosen to be coordinator mainly because she was the only one in her household whose schedule was free enough to handle the time-consuming position; and even she was forced to drop her other extra-curricular activities and allow her schoolwork to suffer. She also told me that her biggest regret, in looking back on the year, was that her household had been so preoccupied with meeting all their official obligations, that they had had little time to just relax and get to know each other as friends.
But, to my mind, even worse than the practical burden of all these mandatory meetings is the official interference with the inner workings of individual households that they represent. (Though clearly not of the same magnitude, it reminds me very much of the interference of so many “pastoral leaders” in marriages and families under their care, which did so much damage over the years in covenant communities.) The households are not allowed to just be; to work out their identity, their priorities, their aims and their difficulties on their own, in a way that would naturally encourage their maturity and self-standing as a group. Instead, they are constantly subjected to SLO “support;” pressed to discuss the status and progress of their association with university officials; obliged to submit to training and guidance—whether or not they find it helpful.
Though the benefit (to them) of having such direct and frequent access to the households and such a handy way to become familiar with student leaders is apparent,1 I wonder whether SL officials have any sense of the chilling effect such demands must inevitably have on household life. The fact that coordinators must meet one-on-one with RDs twice a month, or even once a week, can’t help but give households a sense of being monitored, evaluated and unfree. More than one alum has said to me: “I would never have joined household if I had suspected our coordinator was reporting regularly to the RD!” (and the RD, in turn, weekly to the SLO.) None of the many alumni to whom I have spoken about this thought such meetings were a good idea; several of them were very disturbed to hear they are occurring.
Furthermore, the top-down management of coordinator-training and household support, though no doubt designed for the sake of efficiency and completeness, is bound to stifle independent initiative and bring about a depressing uniformity among households. Rather than the rich diversity to be looked for from a set of free student associations as loosely defined as households are, a “system” too closely “cared for” by officials, will tend never to break out of the narrow range of official conceptions of what households should be. It will be further impoverished when the students who are most insecure and eager for the approval of the officials they admire, and therefore most ready to carry out their directives and promote their policies, are for that reason taken to be exceptionally mature, and put by into positions of leadership they are not really equipped to handle well. Meanwhile, the more independent-minded, true-leader-types among the students, prone (as they are) to be disgusted or unmoved by official heavy-handedness, will be written off as “rebellious,” and left to wield their not-necessarily-wholesome influence outside the mainstream of campus culture.2
3) Last Spring, Student Life made known its goal to get all new students into households. At a meeting with advisers and staff members, various strategies were discussed for how this goal might be met, including making participation in household mandatory again (as it briefly was twenty years ago) or giving each coordinator a list of new students on his or her floor whom the household would be required to invite to at least one household function. In the end, neither of these policies was adopted, but I find the fact that they were seriously discussed at all very telling. It is as if Student Life saw it as its job to put as many students as possible through a set “process of evangelization,” rather than simply to foster a culture that is conducive to the kind of “gospelization” and personal maturation that happens naturally at a good Catholic university—through its sacramental life, its academic life and its social life.
So adjusted to this way of conceiving things have we become at FUS, that, as far as I have been able to gather (from talking to several people who were there) no one present at this meeting raised objections in principle to these suggestions (though more than one protested the “unworkableness” of making households mandatory). No one questioned openly whether the Student Life Office has any right to impose such obligations on individuals or on households. Moreover, no one, it seems, wondered out loud about the legitimacy of the goal itself. No one seemed to find it strange that University officials would make it their objective to get all new students, or even a certain percentage of students, into households. No one asked: “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to make it our goal to do what we can to support households, and leave the rest to the individual students and to God? Wouldn’t that better suit the mystery of the way He works in minds and hearts and in our midst? And wouldn’t that show more respect to the students themselves?”
Besides that such a goal is, as I see it, plainly inappropriate, it is obviously also bound to backfire. I have oftentimes heard former and current students declare themselves proud of the fact that they have never joined a household. Why proud—unless it is because they had come under unwelcome pressure to conform to others’ idea of what is good for them? People feel strong and independent when they resist pressure to conform. It stands to reason that the more students sense that they are being too strongly urged by Student Life, or their peers, to join a household, the more they will naturally incline the other way.3 I know some at FUS automatically impute this inclination to rebelliousness pure and simple, but I for one think this unjust. Rebellion is a sinful refusal to accept legitimate authority; resistance to encroachments on our rights or privileges as free individuals is something else altogether. Bad tendencies toward paternalism in Student Life tangle the two up together, and make it very difficult to say which is uppermost in particular students.
In addition to households being treated as if they belonged to the Student Life Office, and the burdensome, interfering load of official mandates that entails, I find official expectations of households also too heavy, and more than likely to stifle the spiritual growth they aim at encouraging. For instance, I think it is worth asking ourselves as a community whether the very concept of “covenant” is not rather too much for households. Certainly it is a term usually reserved in our vocabulary for the relation between God and His people and the analogously indissoluble bond of love in the sacrament of marriage. Is it fitting to apply such a term to a temporary agreement among friends in college? Will it not encourage households to take themselves way too seriously?
Part of Student Life’s official description of the role of household coordinator says “ultimately you need to see that your brothers or sisters are keeping the commitments of the household.” It is easy to imagine how this must encourage young coordinators to pose as authorities in the lives of their household brothers or sisters.4 Many students have told me that members wielding the covenant over each other’s heads is a common problem in households. Students will gravely “call each other on” for failure to attend a gathering or two—as if it were sinful. Others have told me that they were made to feel as if they had betrayed deep personal and religious obligations when they decided to leave household, even when they did so under a prayerful sense that it was God’s will for them to leave. I realize very well that if households are to thrive, they have to be able to insist on a basic display of commitment from their members; I also know that college students are notorious for laziness and irresponsibility. Still, I think many will agree with me when I say that stress on household commitments very often goes too far at FUS, making students (especially those who take their studies seriously) feel almost as if “they were made for households and not households for them.”
The significance of all these things comes into sharper focus when we examine the history of households at FUS. For example, few students today are aware that the idea of having covenants is relatively new. They are surprised to hear that I was deeply and happily ensconced in household for four years in the ‘80s without ever signing a covenant. For the first two years at least, I think I never even heard the term. Neither did we have all those mandatory meetings. In comparison with what there is today, there was virtually no organized support of households back then. If a group of students wanted to become a household, they simply did so, and informed Student Life, so their name could go on the official list. There was no formal procedure to go through, no permission to be gotten, no checklist of expectations to be met. If they had questions about what they should do, they generally went to an older student in an established household, or to a friar or an adviser. The members decided together at the beginning of each semester what their commitments would be; if they proved too many or too few, they could be adjusted at any time. The focus was clearly on developing friendships, for the sake of supporting one another in striving for holiness. I think coordinators were seldom if ever required to meet with SL officials. If there was a meeting called, it was perhaps once a year, and then for the sake of providing information about resources and upcoming events. There was no formal “training;” coordinators learned what to do in their position from observing others before them. The RD communicated with the students in his dorm, not through the coordinators, but through elected representatives from various groups, who met once or twice a month, to discuss business, not to be pastored.
I do not mean to idolize the household life of the early to mid-eighties. Even then, I think there was an unwholesome heaviness and “over-spiritualization” about the whole system which could have stood correcting. But it was certainly a lot freer than it is now, and households were thriving.
The big change came somewhere around 1987, when Keith Fournier, who was then a head coordinator in the local covenant community, became Dean of Students. In a sweeping effort to strengthen households (and bring them into closer conformity with the community way of life) his office handed down a whole series of new mandates: from now on all households would draw up and sign covenants; households would, like the Greek organizations, have a formal date and procedure for inducting new members; households would make banners; households would participate in Household Olympics; coordinators would be required to meet regularly with RDs; they would be encouraged to place themselves under the “pastoral leadership” of their RDs (who would now be full-time religious, instead of part-time grad students); RDs would give regular “dorm teachings,” which all households would be “strongly encouraged” to attend; dorms would no longer be called dorms but “residence halls;” Student Life would sponsor an annual “Leaders Retreat Weekend” and monthly gatherings and teachings for all coordinators; the advisers would all come from the community and would be much more involved with the life of the household; everything would be much better, stronger, more organized than before.
In my opinion it would be hard to exaggerate the damage these measures did to households at the time. And though some of them have since been rolled back, others have been added, and the general trend of more official sponsorship of household life has continued, to the point where students and officials alike today seem virtually unable to conceive households surviving without it. I think they won’t long survive with it. They’ll gradually collapse in on themselves from lack of inner strength and from dependence on outside support, which is in turn bound to “burn out” from the constantly burgeoning drain on its resources.
By the example of the disaster of “big government” policies in civil life, by the experience of what went wrong in covenant communities, by the lessons to be learned from our own institutional history, we ought by now to know better than to violate the principle of subsidiarity in our approach to households. We ought to have more trust in the Holy Spirit, more respect for our students, and more confidence in the genius of the household system than to be so anxious about it falling to pieces unless constantly propped up, monitored and overseen by University officials.
I leave the practical implications of these criticisms for subsequent discussions. My hope here was only to raise a red flag; to try persuade the community at large that some kind of reform is called for; and to invite others to share their experiences and insights on a matter so close to the welfare of Franciscan University.
Kathleen (Healy) van Schaijik graduated from FUS in 1988. She served as coordinator of Little Ones household during her senior year, and assistant coordinator during her junior year. Freshman year she and several other new students on her floor founded a new household, which later dissolved. She and her husband Jules were co-directors of Student Life on the Austrian campus from 1991-1993, the first two years of the Austrian Program. They now live in The Netherlands, from which they edit and publish the Concourse. Their fourth child is due October 8th.
- though, since the communication is forced and not natural, we might ask whether even the apparent benefits are not rather deceptive. Forced communications are seldom perfectly honest ones—there is too much psychological pressure to give the other what he or she expects to hear, leading to (perhaps entirely unconscious) distortions of real situations. Only think how just wanting to have something to say at all these meetings, might make a coordinator dwell on insignificant “problems” in the household. After all, who can spend an hour a week saying, “Everything’s fine.”? ↑
- I am very far from meaning to imply that everyone in a position of leadership in the household system is a sap, while every one who scoffs at households is a hero of maturity and independence. Certainly there are true leaders in households who rose to positions of responsibility because of their natural talent and dedication, just as there real rebels and mere sheep among the scoffers. I only want to say that in a set up like the one we have now, things become confused. ↑
- It would be interesting, in another place, to discuss whether the Management-By-Objective style of operating endorsed by University officials belongs in Student Life at all. Certainly it seems ill-suited to evangelization, where the appeal to personal freedom and a profound reverence for the sovereignty of individual consciences is of such central importance. ↑
- That this is a problem at FUS may be gathered from a list of “things to keep in mind” attached to an official Student Life description of the role of coordinator: “Don’t be domineering; Don’t feel you must make all the decisions; Don’t do everything yourself; Don’t assume that you are perfect; Resist any feeling of superiority; don’t feel as if you need to solve everyone’s problems; You are not the Messiah.” Clearly Student Life means to discourage what must be a common tendency among coordinators, but they don’t seem to realize how much their own treatment of the coordinators contributes to (if it doesn’t cause) their typically exaggerated sense of self-importance ↑