National Policy
• Published
June 23, 2023

Housing or Humanities: A Crossroad of Inequality at UW-Madison

Plans are in motion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to demolish the Zoe Bayliss Women’s Cooperative for a new Humanities building. With culture and diversity at the forefront of their mission, the Co-op has provided housing to students who cannot afford U.W.’s dorms or other campus area housing for the past 67 years. To begin construction, the Co-op must vacate its current space by the end of the Spring 2023 semester. While only 35 of the university’s 48,000 students must find a new place to live, the implications of the project stretch far beyond a concrete building or a mere number of residents. Zoe Bayliss is one of Wisconsin's last student housing cooperatives, but if the university does not “provide an adequate alternative...this community may cease to exist” (Tobin 2022, para 6).

While this tension between education and a sense of place indeed calls for resolution, proponents of the new building frame it as a trade-off. Acknowledging the “small loss of beds” (Lucas 2021, para 16), UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank claims that the new Irving and Dorothy Levy Hall is a reinvestment in the liberal arts coursework central to a UW-Madison education and will “play an integral role” in students’ learning for generations to come (Lucas 2021, para 11). The project is made possible by a $20 million donation from the class of 1972 and 1968 graduates Jeff and Marv Levy. “Our hope is that by honoring our family legacy of charitable giving with this gift, we can offer to future generations some of the opportunity that the U.W. has provided us,” Marv says (Lucas 2021, para 4).

But even in Levys’ case, an opportunity for one does not imply an opportunity for all. The U.S. designed its higher education system for a narrow demographic: a white, upper-class student body. Policies and practices within the system today reinforce this design to an alarming degree. Despite the apparent progress since America’s earliest institutions, when we take a step back, this unfortunate truth remains clear. In a system that simultaneously overlooks and operates against the voices of students from marginalized communities, housing is yet another element that has extended limited educational opportunities and continues to fuel inequality today.

For countless students, moving into residence halls marks one of the most pivotal college entry moments. This is notoriously considered a time and space where boundaries are broken down, teaching students to live harmoniously among those from backgrounds and lifestyles different from their own. The origins of student housing, however, reflect everything but this fantasy. While school administration and residence life specialists cannot seem to praise diversity enough, from the emergence of higher education in America to the early 20th century (and in less overt ways today), “anti-diversity was the norm” (Yanni 2019, para 4).

Institutions originally designed residence halls to keep groups of students apart. The Indian College at Harvard University––the U.S.’s first purpose-built student residence––set this precedent in the mid-17th century. Constructed by a British religious society, the college housed Native American students to establish physical separation from white students. Housing practice for centuries to come continued to introduce young men to others like themselves and ground young women in the domestic responsibilities they were expected to undertake later in life (Yanni 2019).

Even after legal barriers to admission based on race were overcome, students of color endured housing discrimination nonetheless. While two 1950 Supreme Court victories–– McLaurin v. Oklahoma and Sweatt v. Painter––offered a glimmer of hope, institutions quickly discovered the loophole. Though neither case addressed housing directly, they shed light on the notion that entry into the classroom alone was not a sufficient marker of acceptance, calling for substantive equality in all physical and experiential facilities (Sorber 2020). In the years following, the first students who “broke through admissions barriers” were assigned to segregated dorms or denied on-campus housing altogether (Sorber 2020, 230) and instead were prompted to explore non-university affiliated alternatives (Pollack 2019). The exclusion of Black students from particular housing and other outlets for social development was a strategic approach that abided by the Court’s rulings while simultaneously upholding racial order.

Institutions maintained these barriers by paying no heed to discriminatory policies of off-campus property management, claiming no legal authority over local community practices (Sorber 2020). The Hillel Foundation at the University of Wisconsin went so far as to maintain a directory of landlords willing to rent to Jewish students, sparing them the much-anticipated rejection (Pollack 2019). And in 1963, a survey at the University of Kansas revealed that roughly 61 percent of apartment landlords rented to international students and only 6.5 percent to Black students. In 1965, several Black students at the university reported that they had been refused housing by white landlords. Just as many did not even make requests, they already knew the answer.

Even after the so-called Fair Housing Act was passed in the 1970s, landlords continued to take advantage of the historical relationship between wealth and racial inequality (Taylor 2019) and profit from residential segregation (Stern 2022). Well aware of the select demographic to cater to, campus area landlords were free to charge significantly higher rent for properties closer to campus (which generate exceedingly more significant appeal and allow for greater access to school resources than properties located farther away) (Carmichael 2021). In turn, white students from families of wealth were more likely to reside near or within the boundaries of campus, while students of color were more likely to live on the periphery. This imagery alone is jarring, but even more so we still witness this phenomenon more than 50 years later.

Though often concealed and camouflaged in various other policies, housing discrimination and inequality permeate higher education today. A 2021 study by the University of Kansas Professor Zak Foste details how students, resident assistants, and housing administrators in predominantly white educational communities recognize particular housing as inaccessible to students of color. Foste discovered that racial and class segregation of residence halls and racialized perceptions of certain buildings (by students and staff alike) were fueled by seemingly “race-neutral” campus housing policies. At one particular university, for instance, administrators acknowledged how white students and students from more affluent families consistently submit housing deposits before students of color, virtually guaranteeing white students their first choice of housing. As a result, the most desirable dorms fill first and fill almost exclusively with white students.

Among nearly 70 individuals interviewed across all campuses, stereotypes and biased perceptions of residence halls were ever-present. While the newest and most expensive halls on each campus were coined the “white dorms,” the older halls and those in poorer shape were presumed to house students of color. Foste notes, “There were these racial meanings attached to particular buildings in ways that were seemingly natural and taken for granted” (Anderson 2021, para 4), paving the way for a highly stratified student housing system.

However, what is often neglected at a policy level is how the effects of student housing inequality cut far below the surface; the farther away, and the more racially and socioeconomically segregated, the greater the challenge in fostering a school community. In a system that not only operates around but benefits from the notion of whiteness, the racialization of these spaces works to normalize students of color as “other” (Ross 2020), sending both implicit and explicit messages about individuals’ value and belonging. This sense of place––or lack of place––governs nearly every element imaginable of schooling and education.

So even though UW-Madison views Zoe Bayliss as a trade-off between housing and education, it is not a trade-off. More importantly, it is not an anomaly. This “progress for the masses at the expense of few” mentality is reminiscent of the university’s not-so-distant past. Just a few blocks east of campus at the top of State Street stands Forward––a statue constructed in 1893 by American sculptor Jean Pond Miner named after the state’s motto, “Forward.” From its earliest history, this motto connotes progress for white settlers and the subordination of Black and Indigenous individuals––a sense of place and ownership for certain citizens and the exclusion of others.

Housing inequality has persisted since the origin of U.S. higher education, from Forward's unmistakable message about who has the right to reside in this community to the subtle––but just as powerful––outcomes and implications of Zoe Bayliss. The all-too-common belief that institutions opening doors to diverse student populations somehow negates the inequality embedded within them is just a fallacy. At the same time, structural diversity in higher education can interrupt precollege racial segregation patterns and effects (Saenz 2010), and housing policy functions to reproduce and normalize these traces (Foste 2021).

At the core of student housing lies a question of accountability: who is responsible for tackling its flaws? Admission is not synonymous with acceptance––where this work and liability fall is evidence of that. But institutions simply offering housing support is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg; the seemingly “hidden” policies and practices that warrant this inequality must be addressed.

“It’s a very unified community of people that you don’t get anywhere else,” says Ishita Arora, current Zoe Bayliss Vice President. “You feel a sense of agency...because you want to take care of your family” (Kachoria 2022, para 9). This is the other side of that story. Our perceptions of place and space change when looking from the outside in versus the inside out––in other words, what is being enacted versus what is being experienced. Falling into the outside in trap is easy––“it’s just 35 students.” But housing is deeply rooted in the complex network of university life, and to work towards practical solutions, we must look from both.

Additional Comments

Article Feedback

Suggested Reading