University Takes Over Chi Theta Chi House Management

Safety and operational concerns prompted the co-op's lease termination.

November/December 2012

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University Takes Over Chi Theta Chi House Management

Photo: Linda A. Cicero

The Chi Theta Chi cooperative house, a largely self-governed student residence that lost its campus ground lease in a dispute over the safety of its living conditions, finances and long-term management, was transferred to University management September 1 after the co-op's supervising alumni withdrew from negotiations.

Chi Theta Chi Alumni Association leaders Abel Allison, '08, MS '09, and Madeleine Douglas, '09, MA '10, were in discussions with University administrators from February to August about a compromise that would have temporarily vacated the lease. The goal was to restore it after a transition period, along with the house's right to manage much of its operations independently. In late spring both sides said they were nearing an interim co-management arrangement that might result in a new lease as early as 2014.

In August, however, Allison and Douglas told Chi Theta Chi supporters that the University's draft of a future lease was unacceptable, in part because it lacked an "objective standard" for evaluating the association's performance. Further negotiations took place, but Chi Theta Chi withdrew from the process after concluding that the nonconformist culture of the house couldn't be preserved.

The University's decision in February to terminate the lease was prompted by concerns over health, safety and legal violations, including some that administrators say they tried to address with Chi Theta Chi for years. Greg Boardman, vice provost for student affairs, and Shirley Everett, senior associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprises, say the persistent or urgent nature of the problems required them to make any future lease contingent on gaining more confidence in Chi Theta Chi's organizational stability. One conspicuous problem they cite was the discovery that smoke detectors were disabled.

The alumni board and the student residents, plus Chi Theta Chi supporters on and off campus, argued that the University had exaggerated the level of some problems and delivered the lease cancellation by surprise. The focus of Chi Theta Chi's reaction was on protecting its singular culture ("Keep XOX Weird"). Among the most prominent elements besides maintenance of the property: large wall murals, communal showers and—of notable discomfort to the University—the practice of keeping the house's outer doors unlocked.

Financial worries were also a major consideration in Chi Theta Chi's decision to relinquish the house. Renovations during the interim period would have been paid for by the University, but the association said it faced potential bankruptcy from an accumulation of debts, including partial reimbursement for renovations, that it would be obligated to under a future lease. Allison and Douglas said that represented too large a risk without guarantees of regaining substantial operational autonomy.

Douglas said "a lot of miscommunication" affected the negotiations. She noted, for instance, that Chi Theta Chi believed it had been promised a decisive "set of criteria" for reacquiring a lease. But the University responded that it consistently let the association know that in order to transition management of the property back to the association, in addition to taking concrete steps—such as forming a new legal entity—the University would also need to have confidence in the newly established board's ability to provide and sustain reliable oversight.

Both sides expressed disappointment over the inability to finalize a compromise. Boardman said his preference had been to somehow keep Chi Theta Chi in the mix of housing options. "That's what we pride ourselves on," he said, "the plethora of choice." He added that efforts would be made to see how much of the Chi Theta Chi experience could be sustained.

Douglas said her biggest regret is that the house will be lost to students as "a safe space for people who otherwise don't feel at home at Stanford."

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