Students Take Over Dormitories

Graphic by Leslie Leland

© 1988 by Lee Altenberg

Published in The Missing Link, Duke University

One of the common bonds that college students of all generations and all localities have is the experience of the campus dormitory, which almost universally includes cramped quarters, bureaucratic control of residential life, and institutionalized food. Some students see these aspects of dorm living as just one of the facts of college life. Others have tried all sorts of ways to change dorm life -- writing letters, voting on resolutions, or just moving off campus.

But students at a hundred campuses across the country have done something completely different: they have created their own housing systems. They have organized their effort and financial resources and created cooperative housing systems, run by students, for students. They have leased or bought their own housing. They have built their own housing -- from a ten-person solar house in Davis, California, to a 22 story apartment complex in Toronto. They have taken over the management of on-campus dormitories. And in the process they have created their own food services, scholarship programs, internships and jobs for their members.

The idea of students creating their own housing system is not the first thing that generally pops into a student's mind. And no wonder. There is little today in the American education system that orients students toward taking the kind of initiative required for such an enterprise, and the emphasis on competition, in the schools and in the entire culture, makes it unlikely that students will conceive of an enterprise that utilizes the cooperation of many students working together.

The source of inspiration that has motivated students at numerous campuses to organize their own housing system is the "cooperative movement". The cooperative movement began in the 1800's as an idea: that workers and consumers can become the owners of the businesses that serve or employ them, by cooperatively organizing the businesses themselves. By being the owners, they keep the profits, they set the policies of the company, and since they have organized the company for their own benefit, they won't be subject to exploitation.

Today, some 60 million Americans are members of cooperatives. The most well known would be credit unions; farmers' marketing co-ops, such as Sunkist Oranges and Ocean Spray Cranberries; rural co-op electric companies; steel plants the workers have bought to prevent their closing; natural food co-ops and some co-op supermarket chains; and even airlines -- America West Airlines is worker owned company, and recently, the United Airlines pilots have been working to buy ownership of their company.

The first student co-ops began in Gainesville, Florida and Austin, Texas in the 1890's, as eating clubs. Co-op student housing began to develop in earnest during the Great Depression, when economic necessity forced students to become inventive. The spark that started them was a speaking tour of Japanese co-op activist and religious leader Toyohiko Kagawa, organized by the student Christian movement. Kagawa spoke on "Brotherhood Economics" -- how cooperatives could help create a more socially, politically, and economically just society. Each of his stops at the state universities in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, and Toronto inspired students to start co-op housing organizations, and each of these have expanded to house hundreds of students today.

Campus co-ops continued to spawn during the '40s and '50s, but the largest growth occurred during the '60s and '70s. Campuses where these "new wave" co-ops developed include Stanford, Purdue, Cornell, Brown, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, U. Oregon Eugene, U. Iowa, U. Minnesota, U. Wisconsin, Ohio State, and elsewhere.

Below is a closer look at four campuses which represent a cross section of student co-op life today.


The scene: an office building on the north side of the Berkeley campus. Inside, twenty students have taken a break from studying and are sitting around a table for one of their weekly meetings. On their agenda: they have to consider final details on the $1 million loan they are getting from HUD to build their second apartment complex; a committee chair will report on the progress of the fund raising drive for their scholarship program; they will review a proposal submitted by the residents of one of their 17 houses for building a new kitchen.

These twenty college students comprise the Board of Directors of the University Students Cooperative Association, a corporation that houses and provides food service for 1500 students at the University of California. How did these students come to attain such positions? They were each elected to the Board by their housemates, who are the shareholders in this corporation.

The USCA was started during the height of the Great Depression by 14 students inspired by Kagawa's visit. With the help of the campus YMCA, these students first leased and then bought a boarding house. In succeeding years, they built up enough capital and managerial expertise to continue acquiring houses. By the 1960's they housed several hundred students, and obtained federal loans to build an apartment complex and their own central offices.

Fifty years later, this cooperative association operates 18 houses, owns $16 million in assets, and offers its 1500 members scholarships, office and maintenance jobs, and very low room and board rates. When you get a housing contract, the first thing you're handed is an "Owner's Manual" which explains how the co-op system works.

When you move in, you sign up for different house jobs such as cleaning, cooking, and management. Each member puts in about 4 hours a week toward operation of their house. Every night you are served dinner by a different team of your housemates. If there is some special entree you would like cooked, you can just ask one of your friends to cook it on their night.

The kitchens are open 24 hours for munching, and no meal cards are needed, since everyone knows everyone else. House policies are decided democratically by each house, and system-wide policies are decided by the Board of Directors or by referendum of the entire membership. Being member controlled, the co-op can go a long way in meeting individual's needs and incorporating individual's ideas. There were enough vegetarian members that the co-op established a 57 person vegetarian house, Lothlorien. Since students have control over their room and board revenues, they can spend it to suit themselves. Lothlorien, for example, has built itself a sauna and a hot tub. With many members interested in energy conservation, the co-op converted many houses to solar water heating systems.

The home-style atmosphere and experience of working together has social consequences that for many students is the main attraction of co-op life. It tends to foster friendships on a more basic level, deemphasizing "popularity", gender, and cultural subgroup as primary determinants of social interaction.

Since the co-op has a $3 million annual income, it can provide financial aid for its members. These include short term loans and scholarships. House financial, maintenance, food and kitchen managers receive compensation, and there are jobs in the central office as well.


At Oberlin College in Ohio, instead of creating their own cooperative housing system off-campus, students took over the operation of existing on- campus dormitories. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the expensive but low quality food service and repressive housing policies, and in 1950 a group of upperclass women proposed the creation of a co-op house to the administration, which complied with their request. They took over operation of Pyle Inn, with 28 female roomers and 28 male boarders.

With control over their food and kitchen, immediate savings of 40% on board rates were achieved, and the quality and diversity of the cooking improved. They also saw the experience in cooperative self-reliance as an embodiment of Oberlin College's motto of "Learning and Labor", in creating "productive, resourceful members of a democratic society."

After a second and third houses were added to the co-op system, the students incorporated OSCA, the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, to manage them. New houses have been added about every five years since the first opened, and now 600 students -- 20% of the student body -- are members, and another 20% are usually on the waiting list to get in.

OSCA has not only given students control over their room and board, but has launched and financed other cooperative student businesses, including a grocery store, darkroom and crafts studio, recycling center, and contraceptive center. In 1986 OSCA began a Scholar In Residence Program which brings scholars to Oberlin to do research on the cooperative movement. This is perhaps one of the few places in the country where students are using their combined economic power to create their own academic research position.


In the late 1960's, students at Ryerson College in Toronto got fed up with the lack of student housing and the inertia of the college administration in acting to solve the problem. But they didn't take over any administration buildings. Instead, they built themselves a 22 story apartment complex in the heart of downtown Toronto. A group of students got together, formed the Neill-Wycik cooperative corporation, obtained a loan from the government, found a site and a contractor and began building.

It took them three years from laying out the concept to laying the cornerstone. During the year before the building was completed, the student Board of Directors moved 100 students into the major training ground, Rochdale College, where they began to learn about administering a co-op. In 1970, 700 students moved in to their completed tower.

The co-op is also something of a self-contained Student Union. It has a pottery studio, weight room, pool room, library, photo lab, sewing room, cafeteria, sauna, carpentry shop, and lounges for partying. The offices are on the top floor of the 22 story building. The co-op is governed much like the Berkeley co-op system, with the general membership electing the 12 member Board of Directors, which manages the co-op through several committees. In the summer, when most students leave, the student co-op runs their building as a hotel, making use of the demand for summer conference housing in downtown Toronto. This helps keep student rents low during the academic year.

Just this year, Neill-Wycik built a $5 million addition to their building, with nine stories of apartment suites and two stories of parking, bringing the number housed to 870 students, each equal co-owners of the complex.

Those '60s entrepreneurs have left a legacy that generations of Ryerson College students should enjoy: the most inexpensive housing available downtown, office and maintenance jobs they provide themselves, and the pleasure of democratically owning and operating their own housing.


At Stanford University, student co-ops took a unique and innovative path of development. They were born out of one of the elements of the 1960's student movement. The campus had been rocked by several years of violent protest by 1970, which motivated the subculture of students who believed in Gandhian nonviolence to become more effective. During a fast to get the ROTC off campus (an effort that succeeded) they conceived the idea of creating a co-op house for experimenting in nonviolence. Thus, Columbae House was formed, and moved into a former fraternity house. The next year two other co- op theme houses were created, Hammarskjold, an international house, and Ecology House. During this time, the activist community began to realize that endless protest was burning out the community, and that for the long haul, social change required creativity -- the creation of new alternative institutions. Thus a fourth co-op, Synergy House, opened in 1972 as a place to explore alternatives.

With their explicitly educational goals, these co-ops were able to foster a great amount of innovative activity, opening up new career paths for many of the students who participated in these communities. The contributions these co-ops made to the campus include the campus wide recycling system, the rape education project, solar energy in the dorms, and numerous alternative publications. Columbae House started the South Africa divestment movement on the West Coast in 1976, and its members went on to help form the Abalone Alliance to stop the growth of nuclear energy in California.

Members of Synergy have gone on to diverse careers, including founding Working Assets, one of the new "socially responsible" money funds, and PeaceNet, a national computer network for peace activists, and have taken jobs in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Peace Corp, environmental law, and recycling and environmental engineering firms.

Synergy has also offered numerous house courses, in which Stanford students have earned credit for studying: sustainable agriculture, environmental ethics, solid waste management, and political theater. Every night, residents gather in the kitchen as a dozen loaves of freshly baked bread come out of Synergy's oven, and every morning members of the "chicken brigade" gather a dozen eggs from Synergy's chickens in the back yard -- right on campus, one block away from the University President's house.


In 1968, student co-ops from across the U.S. and Canada got together and decided to create a national student co-op organization, NASCO, the North America Students of Cooperation, to foster the burgeoning co-op movement. NASCO helped to create a multi-million dollar federal loan program for student co-ops, and helped create the 8 year old National Cooperative Bank. NASCO offers co-opers internships and job placement in cooperative businesses in the larger economy.

Each year NASCO holds a student co-op conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which several hundred students from co-ops throughout the country attend, for workshops on management, democratic decision making, prejudice reduction training, courses on the political economics of cooperatives, and brainstorming on ideas for the future.

NASCO would like to make it possible for students on any campus in the country to be able to start their own co-op housing system. To this end, NASCO has created the Campus Co-op Development Corporation to provide capital and organizational support to students who want to create cooperative housing.

What would be the prospects for starting a student housing co-op at Duke? That of course depends on two things, the degree of bliss that students have with current housing conditions, and the level of entrepreneurial spirit among those who would like to see an alternative. But if Duke University can own student housing, and various real estate investors can own student housing, why shouldn't students?

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