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Nine-Month Contracts vs. Single-Semester Contracts
 [This was written in March 2004 when ICC-Austin was debating whether to require members to sign for both Fall & Spring semesters, rather than allowing them to sign for Fall-only if they wanted to.]

Frankly I'm a little disappointed with both sides in this debate, because it seems like many people on each side aren't listening to the other very much. I hope both sides see that no matter what's decided there are big, big pros and cons -- and therefore no single "correct" answer. I don't even have a firm position on academic-year contracts for that very reason. And since I'm not lobbying for either side in this debate, maybe I'm a good person to give an objective overview of the whole issue. My goal is to help each side understand the other's better, and to help members who are undecided form an opinion about how they should vote.



ICC is alone among co-op systems and most student housing in general in allowing members to sign for Fall only. Most others require students to sign for Fall and Spring together, which is called an Academic Year contract.

This year, and in 2002, lots of ICC members left after fall and weren't entirely replaced by new members so we had lots of vacancies for spring. Those vacancies cost us a lot of money. If the lost money were spread among the following year's members, it would cost everyone in ICC an extra $20/month. The board reasoned that requiring everyone to sign Academic Year contracts would prevent people from deserting ICC next spring, so we wouldn't have all those vacancies. Several members were upset with the decision (either with the decision itself or with the process), and filed a petition for referendum, which means that the members get to vote on the issue directly.

The last time this issue came up was in spring 1998, at one of the very first board meetings I attended. As I recall there was a staff proposal to assess a $50 fee to anyone who signed for fall-only. There was much support from the board but there was also some opposition. Staff ultimately withdrew the proposal so it was never formally considered.

Incidentally, the members can overturn *any* board decision by petitioning for referendum. This is the third referendum I can recall since 1998, though in both of the previous referendums the board voluntarily offered the vote directly to the membership without making the membership petition for referendum, because the board knew the issues were contentious and would best be decided by members. The first, in 1998, was a staff proposal to permanently close the pool at HoC. (Unfortunately staff really called the shots in those days.) After I threatened to petition for referendum (as HoC's board rep) the board put the issue to the members without requiring the petition, before the board had even voted on the proposal itself. Obviously, members chose to keep the pool. The other was in 2002 when the board decided to close New Guild for the summer for emergency maintenance and cosmetic improvements over the strenuous objections of several Guilders. It was clear that the only way to keep the proposal from being seen as a Board vs. New Guild issue was to put the decision into the hands of the membership.


Listening to Each Side

Many of the petitioners insist that ICC should continue to provide the flexibility of offering single-semester contracts because ICC exists to serve the needs of the membership in the first place. What they may not be acknowledging is that the board is trying to solve a very real crisis with low Spring occupancy, and that that crisis costs us money -- and when I say "us" I mean the members. Anarchists might enjoy the idea of "sticking it" to ICC, without realizing that they're really sticking it to themselves -- and their fellow co-opers.

On the other side, many board members insist that ICC has no choice but to implement Academic-Year contracts because otherwise Spring occupancy will be bad and we'll have to raise rates. What I haven't seen them acknowledge is that 2004 and 2002 were unusual because Spring occupancy is generally good, so it's not a given that we'll "have" to raise room rates if we keep Academic Year contracts. I'm also not sure they've spoken to the fact that if they raise rates as they're threatening to do if the referendum is successful, the higher rates could hurt occupancy for *the whole year*.


Reasons for Academic-Year Contracts

  • If people who signed for fall have to stay for spring, we won't have a spring occupancy crisis. The significance of a spring occupancy crisis can't be overstated: If we lose a ton of money on vacancies next year it could threaten our very survival. If we raised rates to compensate we could lose even more members and then ICC could go under. And if we didn't raise rates then it would be only a matter of time before all the lost money caught up with us and we went under.

  • It takes a semester to learn how the co-op system works. People who stay for only one semester don't really have the opportunity to learn how to get their grievances resolved, move the co-op in good directions, and be valuable members.

  • When members are short-term and have little experience that makes the co-op experience more difficult and stressful for other members, who have to constantly train and retrain all the constant new members. It's especially hard to have a competent, coherent board to lead the organization when members are coming and going all the time.

  • Longer-term members often make better candidates for boards and committees because longer experience in the co-ops provides valuable perspective.

  • Co-ops are about rights coupled with responsibilities. You get something out of being a co-oper, but you also owe something to your community. Conceivably one thing you should owe is a commitment to stay for at least nine months. Our current model has us marketing our services to people who don't have to commit to the co-op experience.

  • The board's policy provides for several generous exceptions to the Academic Year requirement (graduation, international students, study abroad, people with enough seniority points, etc.).

  • The board intends to raise room rates substantially if the referendum to repeal the academic contracts succeeds.


Reasons Against Academic-Year Contracts

  • The board has failed to demonstrate a need for Academic Year contracts. In particular the threat of "having" to raise rates if we don't have Academic Year contracts seems disingenuous. Presumably for the 30+ years ICC has operated housing it has offered single-semester contracts without drama so it is hard to swallow the idea that suddenly the sky is falling. We normally have good occupancy in the spring, why will we not have good spring occupancy again?

    Yes, UT's demographics have changed, but can that really completely explain our poor spring occupancy this year? Probably a better explanation is that we opened a brand-new house (Arrakis) in Spring, right in the middle of the academic year. We won't have that problem next year.

  • Requiring nine-month contracts means that we could lose some members who come to ICC only because they have the option of signing for fall only. In that case the nine-month contracts could backfire and we could have poor occupancy in BOTH fall and spring.

  • Academic-year contracts might not be effective at keeping members here who want to leave. If people are unhappy, they might just bail on us anyway, contracts be damned.

  • Single-semester contracts allow an easy way for unhappy co-opers to seek greener pastures. Forcing unhappy members to stay against their will is not a recipe for house harmony. Disgruntled co-opers rarely make the best housemates.

  • Members may feel disenfranchised if academic-year contracts are enforced over their wishes. Such members may become disgruntled and leave, or just as bad, may become disgruntled and stay.

  • If we have an exodus of people in the spring without a corresponding influx, we need to find out how we're not meeting people's needs and address that. If people are unhappy here do we solve the problem by making the co-op a more attractive place to live or do we solve it by simply forcing people to stay? Requiring longer contracts addresses the symptom of people leaving and not the cause. As such it could be seen to be a shirking of responsibility.

    When I was studying second-year Japanese at UT the quality of instruction in the department was very poor, and many of us stopped going to classes and instead just studied our textbooks. This was an embarrassment to the department, so they addressed the problem by instituting a mandatory attendance policy, with 2% off your final grade for every day you missed. This did not solve the problem of poor instruction or with students being unhappy with the quality of the instruction.

If you've read this far, thanks! This is a multi-faceted situation, and requires careful consideration. There is no clear-cut answer. Good luck deciding.


March 2004

 [Update: The referendum failed, and ICC implemented academic-year contracts.]

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