When visiting prospective students wander into the WestCo courtyard on Saturday afternoon, they will most likely be confused when they see an event called “Ze Who Must Not Be Named Day.” Unless they regularly read the blog Wesleying or check the Argus website, they will have little idea that only two months ago the event was called “Zonker Harris Day,” a decades old name alluding to the “Doonesbury” comic strip character that functions as a not-so-subtle reference to the pervasive drug use so characteristic of the festival.
Several weeks ago, however, Residential Life (ResLife) threatened to cut funding for the much-heralded festival unless the name was changed. The alteration, according to ResLife administrators, was meant to clean up the University’s stoner image for the parent-heavy WesFest weekend. More broadly, it was also part of a larger effort to overhaul the culturally and ethnically homogenous image of WestCo, a community-based dorm that has been erroneously mislabeled in the national press as “the naked dorm,” and which has evolved over time from the stereotypically “hippie” dorm of the past to the “hipster” dorm of the present.
“There’s a problem with the stereotype of WestCo—the hippie-druggie stereotype that goes back for decades,” said Director of ResLife Fran Koerting in a Feb. 27 interview. “There’s no value added to the program by calling it Zonker Harris day. If anything it perpetuates the whole hippie-druggie stereotype that WestCo is trying to get away from.”
The notion that WestCo is trying to get away from its “hippie-druggie” stereotype—whether that is true or not—is news to most of the student body. Koerting is likely referring to a series of meetings over the course of this year between ResLife administrators and the five WestCo presidents, in which they discussed, among other things, the names of Zonker Harris Day and Duke Day (which will now be changed as well). In these meetings they also drew up a new mission statement stressing “diversity,” and flirted with the possibility of downsizing WestCo from four to three buildings—a proposal rejected by the Wesleyan Student Assembly last semester.
While the dorm’s presidents railed against the efforts to change the festival names and the number of buildings, they were receptive to the idea that WestCo needs to diversify. That being said, however, it begs several questions: How diverse is WestCo? What does ResLife mean by “diversity”? And what exactly is a “druggie-hippie”?
WestCo President Donovan Arthen ’11, doesn’t think there’s much of a question about WestCo’s ethnic makeup.
“The majority of the people at WestCo are white, honestly,” he said. “I would love to have a more racially diverse population at WestCo. At the same time, we do have wonderful people right now.”
Ivan Maulana ’11, another WestCo President, says that ResLife has consistently stressed WestCo’s lack of “students of color.” As a half-Indonesian, half-Chinese student, Maulana cringes at the term, which he says is unnecessarily vague and makes him feel arbitrarily categorized.
“ResLife is throwing all these unpacked terms such as ’druggie-hippie’ and ’student of color’ at us,” Maulana said. “They’re saying students of color but they really mean African-Americans.”
The question for presidents is why students of color, or more specifically African-American and Hispanic students, are hesitant to live in WestCo. The answer, they think, may lie in whatever cultural-ethnic niche the ambiguous term “hippie-druggie” may point to.
The “druggie” aspect of the name may not be unique to WestCo in the first place, says former WestCo resident Galen DeGraf ’09.
“It seems like WestCo’s being targeted because they have this reputation, but I think living in Nicolson my freshman year I probably smelled more weed than in WestCo my sophomore year,” DeGraf said.
Former WestCo President Ben Seretan ’10, who was involved in similar talks with ResLife last semester, thinks that the term, which most likely refers foundationally to a 1960s counterculture largely composed of the white suburban class, points to specific connotations of white people.
“When I think of the term ’hippie-druggie,’ I definitely think of upper-class white people,” Seretan said. “There’s a lot of class privilege in not showering and doing a lot of drugs. I think when Fran [Koerting] uses the term it has more to do with counterculture in general—loser-pride, slacker-pride, DIY, the punk ethic.”
Maulana agrees that, in the ResLife paradigm, drug use and psychedelic culture are synonymous with white culture.
“ResLife tells me, ’There are students of color who come to us and say that they have problems with the druggie image,’” Maulana said. “Are you trying to say students of color don’t do drugs?”
While WestCo’s presidents overall don’t have any easy answers to their diversity problem, they did not neglect to mention that campus “safe spaces” such as Malcolm X House, which is primarily meant to house African-American students, make it difficult to create a more heterogeneous ethnic community.
“I do think that having safe space dorms is a great thing, but it does reduce the pool of racially diverse applicants,” Arthen said.
Seretan, who currently works at the front desk in the Admissions Office, added that this is only one component of the Roth administration’s new marketing strategy.
“I’ve noticed with the new administration a re-branding paradigm shift that’s happening,” Seretan said. “It’s all about academic excellence and ’excellence’ in general as opposed to uniqueness and idiosyncrasy. I don’t even know what excellence means.”
Such expectations, Seretan hypothesized, may have something to do with ResLife’s interest in WestCo’s image and make-up.
“I feel like a lot of organizations seem nervous about changes going on here,” he said. “As a result, ResLife seems to be trying to become more ’excellent’ in the vision of Michael Roth.”