By: Doron Levine  | 

An Inside Look at Upcoming Housing Changes on the Wilf Campus

Most YU students probably ignore most of the ystuds they receive. But if you’ve kept abreast of the constant tidal wave of announcements flooding your inbox, you might have noticed that, a few weeks ago, President Joel announced plans for a number of improvements to student housing on both undergraduate campuses.

These exciting changes have been in the works for some time now, and many of the ideas actually stem from student input. A group of RA’s and students who reside in the dormitories presented a list of possible improvements to Rabbi Brander and Dean Nissel who, together with Wilf Campus Associate Director of University Housing and Residence Life Jonathan Schwab, discussed the various suggestions and came up with a list of key renovations. Though this degree of student involvement in major decisions might seem unusual for YU, Mr. Schwab underscored the administration’s openness to students’ suggestions: “we are always open to ideas; if any students – residents or not – have any, we’d love to hear them.” In fact, students who live off-campus were also involved in the planning stages of these renovations – the administration assembled and questioned a focus group of students who live in local apartments to get a sense of what factors motivate students to live off campus and improve on-campus housing accordingly.

While none of the dormitory buildings will undergo major structural changes, some interior elements will be upgraded to facilitate a more enjoyable housing experience. Students who live in Rubin Hall have learned to dread the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the fall semester when the hot sun beats down on Rubin’s dark brick exterior and the building comes to resemble an oversized toaster, baking its unfortunate inhabitants to a crisp. To combat this oppressive heat, air conditioners will soon be installed in every room in Rubin Hall. This process will begin after students move out for the summer, and the air conditioning is expected to be installed and functional by the time students move in for the fall semester.

But even while temperatures drop in the newly air-conditioned Rubin dorms, its residents will have the opportunity to turn up the heat; in response to repeated requests from students, the university will be creating communal cooking spaces in the dormitory lounges for food preparation. Seven such facilities will be installed – three in Morg (floors 4, 6, and 8), two in Muss (floors 3 and 4), and two in Rubin (floors 3 and 6), though the specific layout of the cooking spaces will be different for each building. Each space will include tiled backsplash walls, stainless steel counters, additional electric wiring to support appliances, a sink to allow students to wash their dishes and appliances, and a table and chairs for eating. These specialized spaces will help to keep the rooms safe and clean even in the presence of generated heat, a serious concern in dormitories which lack safe spaces for cooking. Appliances (and, for that matter, ingredients) will not be provided by the university – students who wish to cook will need to bring their own electric heat-generating devices such as crockpots, Panini presses, electric grills, hot water heaters, and Shabbos hot plates, and use them to whip up Shabbos or weekday meals for themselves and their lucky friends.

In anticipation of a resultant uptick in food intake, the dormitories will also see upgrades at the other end of the digestive process; the bathrooms in Morg and Rubin will be receiving new lighting, cubbies for storage, and new shower curtains.

Through channels of student feedback, the administration has learned that students in the dormitories lack appropriate spaces to hang out and unwind. To fill this void, many dormitory lounges are being made more conducive to relaxation. The Burdick Lounge in the basement of Morg will be receiving a new TV, and a card reader will be installed on the door so that only dorm students can access this room (and, for that matter, only students who have traded in their old ID’s for a new one). The lounges on each floor in Rubin and Morg, which, as of now, are simply converted dorm rooms, will be made much more lounge-like – the closets have already been removed from these rooms and the sinks are being replaced with water fountains. In the coming months, new furniture, TV’s, and video game systems will be installed in the lounges on every floor in Morg and Rubin. Similar spaces will also be created in new floor lounges on Muss 3 and 4. A new TV will be installed in Muss Hall and water fountains will also be placed on every floor.

In addition to these projects, the university is also working on a handful of miscellaneous refurbishings. Hallways and stairwells in Rubin, Muss, and Morg, along with dorm-room doors in Morg, will be receiving a glossy coat of fresh paint. Carpeting will be removed from certain spaces in Rubin Hall to give it a crisp and less frizzled look. The Rubin Lobby will be refurbished and the laundry rooms in Morg and Muss will be redone. Weary-legged students will be glad to hear that the elevators in Rubin and Morg will be fixed – the elevators often require maintenance and it is expected that a significant overhaul will greatly reduce elevator downtime. This improvement alone is expected to cost around $30,000.

Of course, all of these enhancements come at a cost, most of which will come out of students’ pockets – the improvement in the quality of the dorm experience will see a concomitant increase in housing prices. Next year, the annual cost of living in Muss, Rubin, and Morg will be increasing by 300, 750, and 785 dollars respectively (for standard, two-person rooms). Small tuition increases are also helping to pay for the project. Aware that rising tuition and housing costs are a major concern for students, Rabbi Brander explained that the plans were formulated with an eye towards thrift and frugality. “We examined numerous factors to get the most gain for the lowest cost,” said Rabbi Brander. “Taken together, the entire package of coming to YU went up only 4%.” Though all housing prices are going up, Muss Hall’s prices will be increased only slightly, so Muss continues to be a feasible option for those seeking economical housing. Moreover, the university will, for the first time, be offering housing grants.

An adjustment to the housing rules will also help to fund the improvements. Students matriculating in fall 2016 have been informed that they will be required to live in university housing during their first year on campus. There will be a process for waiving this requirement for those who have specific reasons not to live in university housing, but these students will be the exception rather than the rule. At the Beren Campus town hall meeting, President Joel explained that this sort of policy is in place at most universities similar to ours, and that many universities even have two-year residency requirements and some even have three. However, this claim can be questioned given the fuzziness of the similarity criterion – Columbia University has a similar rule but NYU does not.

Many students have assumed that our university has a rule requiring first year students to live in the dorms, but recently more and more first year students have elected to live elsewhere – local apartments are often cheaper than the dorms and they allow students more space and freedom. In fact, this year approximately 20% of first year students lived off campus. But the administration firmly believes in the importance of living on campus, and this belief is a major factor motivating the dorm renovations. Rabbi Brander explained, “Student success is driving our decisions. From our experience, FTOCs who live on campus have a better transition to college life and take fuller advantage of campus activities.”

Meal plans will also be changing next year for students on both campuses to offer students with varying appetites a wider variety of alimentary options. The current plan compels students living in university housing to sign up for the standard $3400 meal plan, but many students require less than the allotted funds, forcing them to splurge on voluminous quantities of cookies, soda, and paper towels as the year winds down in order to balance their budget. To avoid this end-of-semester gluttony, the university will now offer two meal plans to first year students and three options to returning students, who will be able to put either 4,000, 3,500, or 2,800 dollars on their cafeteria cards. Though the university might lose revenue by offering a $2,800 plan, Rabbi Brander emphasized that “giving students choice is important and appropriate.”

Other YU campuses will also see changes to housing and residence life. Perhaps most notably, YU will be selling the Cardozo student residence on 11th Street called The Alabama. The building is in need of repairs, so rather than invest in this project and seek temporary housing for its law students, YU will instead sell The Alabama and move Cardozo student housing to 148 Lexington Avenue, adjacent to the Schottenstein Residence Hall on the Beren Campus. Some have expressed concern about housing undergraduate women next to a co-ed graduate student dorm, but the administration has insisted that the buildings will not be connected and that all facilities—including lounges, gyms, study rooms, and laundry rooms—will be separate. The two dormitories will have separate entrances and the buildings will have two different addresses. Rabbi Brander did not wish to speculate on the price tag of The Alabama, but he reiterated that renovations on both undergraduate campuses will be funded by the revenue generated by the increased housing prices.

There is also talk of other possible improvements around campus. The plaza on 185th Street is expected to be redone over the course of this coming year. There are no specific plans for Strenger Hall other than some cleaning to prepare it for students enrolled in the Post-Pesach Program, but Rabbi Brander confirmed that there has been talk of knocking it down in order to build new apartment residences (similar to what is offered on the Beren Campus) and a guesthouse for Shabbos.

When asked about the upcoming improvements to the dorms, Wilf Campus Associate Director of University Housing and Residence Life Jonathan Schwab emphasized that these physical improvements are only one aspect of the changes that are being implemented on the Wilf Campus in order to improve the student experience: “As the Commentator has already written, the Office of University Housing and Residence Life, in conjunction with the Office of Student Life, launched several programs this year focused on creating a warmer, more social, more supportive environment on campus. These include Escape the Dorm, Nerf Wars, Dorm Talks, and far more interactive floor parties, which will continue (even more strongly) next year.  The renovations and physical changes are not happening in isolation; they accompany additional programs and ideas that have the common goal of making sure students can succeed at YU – academically, socially, and personally.”

Rabbi Brander similarly explained that the university has been making a concerted effort to improve residence life on campus, and he pointed out that bringing Mr. Jonathan Schwab and Dr. Esty Rollhaus to the uptown campus was motivated by this impulse. “Dorm life is safer,” said Rabbi Brander, “it leads to student success but we need to make it warm, personable and attractive. Everything that we are trying to do both in the programming and the bricks and mortar is reflective of this goal.”