Making the hard decisions for the Berkeley Student Cooperative

Katie Holmes/Staff

For 80 years, Berkeley Student Cooperative — a student-run, nonprofit housing organization — has successfully provided a “quality, low-cost, cooperative housing community to university students,” at times against what feels like insurmountable odds. Our ability to survive through financial, operational and liability hardships reflects a history of strong student leadership at all levels of our organization.

The recent multimillion dollar lawsuit against BSC is an example of one such hardship. The plaintiffs — John Gibson’s family — claimed the organization failed to stop or deter substance abuse at Cloyne Court. That lawsuit was recently settled out of court, thus putting BSC on public notice that there is a perceived drug-tolerant culture and trend of substance-related issues at Cloyne. Potential ramifications of failing to respond quickly and strongly to the liability threat included increased housing rates to members, lease terminations for our largest properties (which are owned by the university) and even organizational ineligibility for insurance and failure to continue operating.

This semester’s controversial proposal to convert Cloyne into a substance-free academic theme house was, in the opinion of the BSC cabinet (the executive committee of the board), BSC’s strongest and most feasible response to the allegations. The proposal was intentionally bold, because we firmly believe a drastic cultural shift at Cloyne is necessary. To ensure the new theme’s success, the proposal called for repainting of the walls and repopulation of Cloyne’s membership, thus limiting current Cloyne residents to summer-fall contract renewals at one of the other 19 BSC housing communities. We felt strongly that the house needed a fresh start with a clean slate so that a new culture can take root.

The proposal affected many members and alumni, and the response was overwhelming. I am incredibly proud of how well my fellow student executives responded to the harsh criticism and emotional outcry. We endured intense pressures from our friends, peers and housemates — ordeals all elected managers of BSC experience to some degree. We spent countless hours listening to the concerns of members and amending our proposal to best address those concerns while also firmly maintaining our proposal’s initial intentions.

I am also incredibly proud of how active the wider BSC community became. The involvement of the membership in this decision is another example in BSC’s long history of students’ commitment to engage in rigorous debate and passionate democratic governance. We are a member-controlled cooperative, and that individual ownership of the decision-making process was felt very clearly this semester.

Unfortunately, there were moments when members felt process and power were being abused — but all policies were upheld. Looking back, the BSC cabinet understands that the timeline was not perfect, and we regret that. But we remind everyone that the cabinet is composed of student leaders, and we were tasked with an enormous responsibility that inevitably was executed with some flaws. Regardless, we worked tirelessly to be available and responsive throughout the process.

After 10 hours of deliberation, the board and membership, in order to protect BSC’s mission statement, approved the cabinet’s proposal. Cloyne Court will close for summer, reopening in fall 2014 as a substance-free academic theme house.

The outlook is very positive. Many current members of BSC as well as students from outside communities have already expressed interest in the newly themed house. Additionally, recent membership census surveys have shown that the diversity of our houses can be greatly improved if we address our party-culture reputation, and this is an opportunity to highlight our diverse housing options. BSC has never provided a substance-free space, and with this house, we hope to appeal to students who seek such an environment.

We are a mission-driven organization. Above anything else, we strive to provide a housing community to students in financial need. By significantly decreasing our liability risk and increasing the variety of housing options we offer, BSC has further met its mission statement.

Here’s to 80 more years.

Michelle Nacouzi is the current BSC president.

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