Res Life privacy policies are fundamentally flawed

Ryan Kushner, Opinion editor

As Mercyhurst begins to slowly shift toward requiring all students to live on campus, it is important to recognize that Residence Life’s policies regarding student housing privacy are considerably flawed.

According to the rules outlined at the bottom of the online Student Handbook, Residence Life employees currently reserve the right to “enter and search a residence any time it is deemed necessary.”

It’s a rule strikingly similar to the contract between myself and my mother back home, except here I have to pay $600 a month, and instead of my mother, it is a bearded university staff member who comes in to kiss me goodnight (though occasionally a song will be sung).

The vagueness of Residence Life’s privacy policies are critical, as they allow the reason for an employee (whom you may have never met) to key in and enter into your living space to be completely subjective.

Now, it is of course impossible to list every possible scenario for needing to key into a student’s living space. However, the utter lack of clarity found in this seemingly thrown-together contract allows for far too much leeway when it comes to violating a resident’s right to a certain amount of privacy in the living space they are paying for (and will soon be required to pay for if they wish to attend the fine institution of Mercyhurst).

The University’s semiannual “Health and Safety” inspections are perhaps the inevitable result of this contractual and habitual violation of student privacy.

For those unfamiliar with this practice, twice a year Residence Life and Maintenance staff members go around to every student dorm or apartment, knock three times, enter, and proceed to look around at what is immediately visible in the space, searching for issues of health and safety.

This occurs whether those who live there are present or not. No notification that the inspection has been performed is left for residents who are absent when it took place (unless of course they are found to be in violation of University policies, in which case they are sent an email).

The official reason for these surprise little visits seems to be that they provide students an opportunity to report a problem or concern regarding their living area. However, because students are given no prior warning as to when exactly their inspection will take place, there is a decent chance that they will not be there to voice any concerns.

Secondly, if students were experiencing an issue, why would they sit in their apartment waiting for the surprise inspections to come around twice a year instead of contacting maintenance directly?

Well, the answer to these questions is becoming obvious: The University would much rather attempt to catch students with their pants down (sometimes quite literally) than treat them as actual residents in any kind of professional manner.

This current structure cannot be conducive to particularly pleasant working conditions for maintenance employees either. I would imagine that students in the bathroom or shower can make the unscheduled visit rather uncomfortable. I know that I personally lounge around my apartment in extremely revealing clothing and am often doing stretches. No one should have to walk in and see such a horrific sight.

That being said, I do not have anything in particular to hide in terms of belongings. I consider myself an open book. My record is clean (not counting the time I illegally downloaded Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion online).

However, it is like my grandfather always used to tell me: “Ryan, never give up on your rights to privacy, and never trust anyone. Now get me some cranberry juice, I’ve got a bladder infection.”

During my three years at Mercyhurst, I have already seen housing privacy policies misused on multiple occasions.

In one instance, after a cell phone was reported stolen last fall, Residence Life and Police and Safety tracked the WiFi signal to a building in which a friend of mine was living.

My friend’s apartment was keyed into and she was told to wait outside while they searched through her room for the missing phone.

The phone was of course not there, and they left without another word (apparently finding the phone later in an apartment on a different floor). After accusing my friend of theft and violating her and her roommate’s personal belongings, no apology was issued for the mistake, and the procedure was deemed to have been performed properly by the University.

What was to stop a Residence Life employee from planting a cell phone in the room and claiming it was stolen? My friend was told to leave the room, so how could she prove otherwise? Why should students afford Residence Life the trust that they clearly refuse to give to students?

I do not accept the argument that “this is a private school and they can do what they want with their housing.” This holds no water for me, or even soda for that matter.

Even if a private institution can get away with something legally (though, as I understand it, they are still situated in the U.S.), it does not mean that it should. Legal ability does not give them the right to disregard the dignity of the innocent students trying to make their way through four years of education.

This of course does not mean that certain students have not been a part, if not the cause, of the problem. They have been, and some still are. There are students for which policies such as Residence Life’s are created. But does this mean that all students should be treated as guilty until proven innocent due to the behavior of a few?

If Mercyhurst wants to integrate all students onto its campus, it needs to address these fundamental flaws in its understanding of student privacy, so that all of its students can live here with the comfortable and contractual certainty that they will be treated with both dignity and respect.