Give me air conditioning or give me death

September 7, 2018

It has been so hot these past few weeks. I’m miserable. You’re miserable. The unfortunate souls sitting next to me in class that see me arrive drenched in sweat are miserable. It’s hot, and, unfortunately, the heat isn’t going away anytime soon.

I live in the Foster Mods, which, like most housing on campus, don’t get any air conditioning. It’s brutal. But I think that the swampiness of my Mod can tell us something about how Brandeis views its students.

The lack of air conditioning (and general maintenance) in the school’s aging residence halls is indicative of something far more systemic. On-campus housing is expensive and the lottery system is based purely on luck. If you’re not lucky enough to get a room in our flashy new distraction of a building, you’re going to end up paying a lot to live in a not-so-nice place. My old slum of an off-campus apartment (with three other roommates) cost significantly less, and was in much better repair than the Mod I’m currently living in. It’s not a stretch to say that on-campus housing is too expensive—so, we have to ask, why?

On its surface, the question, “Who is Brandeis for?” should be easy to answer. It should be automatic: the students. But I’m not so sure anymore.

We pay a lot to live on campus, and we’re rewarded by shoddy buildings that radiate heat. Oh, and I forgot to mention, we have to pay for a meal plan too, even if our housing comes with a kitchen.

As a senior, I’ve learned to temper my expectations when it comes to food. People here make fun of Sodexo’s “cooking” so much that it’s become normalized—the food being bad is expected, and so it becomes not so bad. But between the lackluster offerings, the fake points economy that reduces the value of our real dollars and the egregious contract mandating meal plans for all that live on campus, it’s obvious that the student body is not getting the value we pay for.

Sodexo—which operates 122 prisons across eight countries—is not here to serve us great food. Like most other companies, their main objective is to turn a profit, leveraging as much value out of the student body as possible. But they’re embedded into Brandeis, locked in by a long-term contract, with little hope of improvement on the horizon.

The total price of our tuition here, including housing and food, is deplorable. There is no reason the sticker price of our school should be over $70,000. We’re in Waltham, not Greenwich Village.

This problem, too, is pretty obvious. The cost of attendance is systematically creeping upward, and what’s there to show for it? In the last four years I’ve been here, I struggle to think of meaningful, positive ways life on campus has improved. The only thing that’s changed is that I’m paying more now than I did as a freshman.

I’m locked in now. I’ve sold my soul to Brandeis—I’ll be paying for my time here for many years to come. But what about the others, the new first-years coming here year after year? Should someone warn them that maybe they’re not going to get their money’s worth?  

I believe that exploitative housing and food practices, tuition hikes and an engorged administration are just symptoms of a larger problem; a slow shift in which Brandeis has moved away from being for the students.

I think a lot about the old revolutionary spirit that Brandeis had when it was founded. In the late 60s, Brandeis served as the National Student Strike Information Center. The loss of that collective, revolutionary zeal, the dearth of desire and energy to fight back against a system that isn’t working for us—would the students back then recognize the students now?

One solution is to work alongside our Student Union—to think about it in the organized labor sense. The students make Brandeis function. Without us—and, more importantly, our dollars—nothing would function on campus. But we’ve forgotten that. The collective doesn’t know its strength.

Perhaps a platform of basic student rights is in order: housing with heat and air conditioning, quality food from a company that doesn’t profit off the incarcerated and financial accountability—the ability for students to veto tuition increases.

To get there, it’s going to require action, organization and haranguing. Difficult conversations, protests, sit-ins, student strikes. But the overall goal is worth it: We want to build a school that works first and foremost for the students—not Sodexo or the administration.

Nearly 50 years ago, student movements across the country were able to occupy their universities and demand accountability and action for their platforms. Brandeis’ role and memory of that time has faded, but now, more than ever, we need to rally together to take back our institution, to fight collectively for economic justice.

It’s time to wake up and enjoy the air conditioning.

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