Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Letter to President of WWU

On September 13th, the Bellingham Herald published an article based on an interview with the new President of WWU, Dr. Bruce Shepard (Click here to read the article and here to read the entire transcript). My letter below was sent to Dr. Shepard on September 16, 2008. The letter outlines my disappointment with some of the comments he made during the interview and some suggestions to him for improving relations with the citizens of the city whose taxes pay his salary and make WWU possible.

Dr. Bruce Shepard


Western Washington University
516 High Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

Dear Dr. Shepard,

This letter is in response to your interview with Scott Ayers of the Bellingham Herald which was published on 13 September last. I would like to register my disappointment with some of your comments but, first, I want to let you know that I am not an idle observer.

Western is not an insignificant part of my life. I work at the basketball, football and soccer games played at home. For four years I operated the scoreboard for the WWU women’s softball team. I am a member of the Campus Community Coalition (CCC) and serve on its Enforcement Committee. For the past several years, since its inception, I have taken part in almost every Let’s Talk forum sponsored by the CCC. My wife and I regularly entertain groups of students at our home for barbeques and dinners.

That being said, for the past year I have authored a blog entitled Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. The reason I started the blog was to call attention to the failure of the city to enforce its own zoning codes relating to single family dwellings. The city’s code limits the number of unrelated persons in a single family dwelling to three. If there are more than three, the dwelling becomes an illegal rooming house. We had been told for years that the code was unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable. This proved to be patently erroneous as zoning codes such as Bellingham’s were upheld as early as 1974 by the US Supreme Court (William O. Douglas writing for the majority).

As awareness of the issue spread, there began a confusion between the enforcement of the code against illegal rooming houses and nuisance issues such as loud parties, drunkenness, underage drinking, parking, litter, public urination, etc. Not unreasonably, students were primarily blamed for much of these nuisances, although young single wage earners and some families were also culpable. Nuisances can arise from any household, my having said as much in my blog on many occasions. Furthermore, I had brought up the issue of illegal rooming houses mainly because these uncontrolled, unlicensed and unregulated rentals were undermining zoning densities in single family neighborhoods, creating, in effect, a clandestine infill in areas that were never meant to contain multi-family dwellings, i.e., illegal rooming houses.

You said during your interview with the Herald, “I have received some e-mail from people who say the problem with off-campus behavior of students is because the university isn't providing housing. That just doesn't stand up to any sort of critical thinking or logic.” Put that way, you are correct. The problem is, however, the “hands-off” stance of the university on both student off-campus behavior and creation of illegal rooming houses, which are separate issues. You need go no further than your own Viking Union building to find a university sponsored bulletin board with home rental advertisements of a scofflaw nature, inviting 4, 5, 6 or more students to occupy a single home. (Click here to see attachment 1 for a more thorough explanation.) What kind of a message is this sending to the students? Or if, as you say, “Our students are free and independent human beings and they should be treated as such.”, then for what reason the outrage from the students and the university when dozens of cars (mostly those of students) were ticketed for illegal parking near the university months ago? Should they not, as “free and independent persons”, accept responsibility for their infractions? Where is the critical thinking or logic here?

The Campus Community Coalition (CCC) was created “to prevent and address problems related to student alcohol misuse”; however, it has not been adequately funded and has been buried in the university’s administration in the office of Prevention and Wellness. (One might also ask, if, as you say that the university does not operate in loco parentis, the reason for which the university is interested in student alcohol use off-campus.) Unfortunately, I have seen the attendance at CCC meetings dwindle as the representation from various organizations has migrated downward, through the chains of command, from the chiefs, directors and senior managers, to staff and other rank-and-file workers whose decision making powers, if any, are limited. Meanwhile, the citizens have the impression that the CCC was created for a larger purpose, that of providing a broad forum for resolution of campus/citizen issues. In order for this organization to be effective, it ought to be part of the highest levels of university administration and have in attendance those who have decision making powers.

I also understand that the university cannot house all of its students. However, WWU has not built a dorm in several decades, even in the face of increasing enrollment, but has planned furiously for Huxley-on-the-Bay, which, by the university’s own estimate, will attract an additional 500 students. There is not one mention in the university’s planning documents of the manner in which these 500 newcomers will be housed. The much vaunted public-private partnership so vigorously sought after by the university in its desire to move to the port is, sadly, forgotten in the case of providing some creative (public-private) off-campus housing options for students who now have to forage in a “wild west” rental market. Instead, the neighborhoods become unwilling sponges as 8,000 students from WWU compete with students from Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and local singles of modest or low income for a place to live.

Although you say, “For those directly affected by the problems, I understand their concern and their anger and their passion, but we do have to keep it in context.”, I am afraid that our neighborhoods have been the “context” for decades for an insidious infill caused by a shortage of affordable housing fueled in great part by university students seeking lodging. I personally have lived in the “context” of four illegal rooming houses on my street of 12 homes, hence my “concern and passion” about my retirement home for which I worked 40 years to obtain. Unfortunately, after years of not being heard by the city government and the university, Bellingham homeowners have become enured to the point of numbness since complaints are not addressed or, if addressed, are treated in a perfunctory and ineffective manner.

Your arrival here provided a glimmer of possibility for a new vision which was, regrettably, not reinforced by your comments to the Herald. This disappointment can be reversed by your taking action now to demonstrate a commitment to the community. You can:

>Plan for additional off-campus student housing through public-private partnerships with a zeal equal to that shown in seeking the same partnerships for the university’s waterfront projects.

>Raise the Campus Community Coalition to the level of your office, rework and broaden its stated mission and provide it adequate funding.

>Stop the university’s advertising and support of rentals which violate the Bellingham City Code and warn students that to enter into such rental agreements might bring legal action.

>Work vigorously with the city for a landlord licensing program which will protect the health and welfare of students living off-campus. (Click here and here to see attachments 2 & 3)

>Amend the code of student behavior to include sanctions of illegal, off-campus behavior.

I see an opportunity here for a university to totally transform its relationship with the local government and its citizens and to be a model for such transformation across the country. You have the advantage of many great minds at the university to assist in this endeavor. Otherwise, as they saying goes, “If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting.” If the status quo is the goal, then carry on.

Since I am not content with the status quo, I am willing to meet with you at your convenience to discuss the subjects above.




Anonymous said...

There was a Welcome Back Student's Picnic in the York Neighborhood last weekend, but the students planned their own welcome back by vandalizing Columbia, Eldridge and York Neighborhoods instead. They're back, and they show their hatred for the community more obviously every year. If the President of WWU wants to continue this abuse of the community as status quo, then he might as well tell the Foundation to forget trying to get money from the community.

zonemaven said...

I have seen no reports indicating that the vandalism was the result of student activity. If you can point me to such reports, I would be glad to notify my readers.

Ian said...

This is regarding the comment by Anonymous on Sept. 23rd 9:35 AM
: We are not stupid, Zonemaven, and neither are you.

zonemaven said...

Dear Ian,

Are you suggesting that I and my readers should assume that the vandalism was perpetrated by students?

Ian said...

Yes, indeed. I've lived in Bellingham for 31 years and watched the students steal and vandalize after parties and it's a common ritual. This was their weekend back and the only other people that people like to blame (In the York neighborhood especially ) is the homelesss people and they don't bother to do that .Plus don't you think that the timing is a little suspect too?

zonemaven said...

Although it may be a possibility that this wave of vandalism was the result of a student rampage, there is still no proof whatsoever. To assume so is to fall into the logical fallacy of "post hoc ergo propter hoc", essentially saying that since one event follows another (i.e. vandalism follows arrival of students) that the second event is caused by the first. That neither rules out students as a cause nor does it condemn them.

Ian said...

Western claims that they are not using in locus parentis, but ,in fact, they are actually modern parentis. Their parenting consists of over inflating their student's self esteem and covering for them when they do anything wrong. Therefore their guilt is irrelevant because Western won't do anything about it anyway. How's that for logic ?