Helen Lowry in spotlight for questionable management practices
Salient has received a huge amount of feedback about Helen Lowry Hall since the publication of a story a month ago about a disgruntled resident who alleged a breach of confidence by the Hall’s management.
The student told Salient that management had entered a room he had moved out of but was storing possessions in and was paying for, found ‘dark’ creative writing, and subsequently questioned him over his mental state.
The complaints allege poor living conditions, including mould, overly-strict rules and the behavior of hostel manager Janine Arcus.
The students who came forward all requested to remain anonymous, and all expressed the urgency to “get some sort of investigation into Janine and the running of Helen Lowry Hall.”
A past student believes Helen Lowry is “failing to provide a reasonable standard of living for some students.” Salient has received complaints from several students about the presence of mould spores and the growth of mushrooms in their rooms.
One student described the worst room during his time at Helen Lowry: “The carpet and floor were mouldy and disintegrating, the smell was unbearable.” All students who contacted Salient about mould problems at Helen Lowry alleged Arcus either told them to take care of the mould themselves or promised to take care of it before an extensive delay.
A current resident told Salient she complained to hostel management about mouldy carpet at the beginning of the year, but it wasn’t seen to until the end of August. She also complained of mushrooms growing on the floor, and has provided Salient with photographic evidence.
Arcus defended the hall’s actions, and says that if students have extra pieces of furniture in their room it hinders the air circulation and causes mould. She also believes students should be able to wipe away mould and maintain their units to a certain extent, as it is “all part of growing up.”
Acting Manager of the University’s Accommodation Service Lesley O’Caine agrees that students should be able to “clean up a bit” but admits that Helen Lowry “is very old” and that the mould and mushrooms may be a structural problem.
Most complaints to Salient claimed the management favours Christian students, has overly-strict morals surrounding alcohol, and that Arcus interferes with residents’ lives and invades their privacy.
A past student says there is no denying that Christianity is important at Helen Lowry. Upon arriving to Helen Lowry there is a Bible waiting in every person’s room, she says. A 2006 resident who is of a different faith felt this was presumptuous and described it as “an invasion greeting you at your bedside.”
VUWSA Welfare Vice President Paul Brown says he is “very surprised by this” because “if a student wants a Bible in their room they can bring their own.” Brown says “this could be particularly offensive”, given the diverse range of students who attend Vic.
A 2006 resident with no religious beliefs has said that “in most years, all, if not most, Residential Assistants are Christian,” and “if you’re Christian, you’re treated a whole lot nicer.”
In response, Arcus told Salient, “Christianity is as important at Helen Lowry as it is at any other hall”, and that she has never spoken publicly about her own religious beliefs.
However, the students who have complaints about the hostel’s religious stance say it is the Bibles, the visits from The City Church and the “obvious favouritism” of Christian residents that makes them uncomfortable.
VUWSA also has had run-ins with Helen Lowry in the past because of the Hall’s refusal of condoms included in first year Orientation packs. VUWSA Activities Coordinator Dusty McLoughlin says the students at Helen Lowry are “adults and should be able to be exposed and informed” about condoms.
Brown says the hostel’s stance is irresponsible, and asks if students are therefore expected to give themselves abortions with the coathangers Helen Lowry provides residents, quoting the University’s marketing campaign: “It makes you think.”
Another major concern of residents is the vague rules about students’ privacy. A current resident told Salient she only became aware of management entering her room when she was awoken by Arcus, who informed her that her room was too messy.
A 2006 resident says he awoke one morning “to a complete stranger in his bedroom” who had been allowed to enter the room for maintenance reasons. “I was angry about not being informed,” he told Salient.
Helen Lowry’s privacy practices were highlighted in Salient’s August 13 issue, in a story about a former resident whose creative writing was discovered and read by a Residential Assistant.
Arcus justifies this, saying management sometimes have to enter rooms for “maintenance and health and safety reasons.”
Residents have also told Salient that management has searched through wardrobes and drawers for contraband personal heaters. Arcus admits searching rooms for these, but denies ever looking in draws or wardrobes, saying the residents’ “privacy is very important.”
Four past residents told Salient of finding things out of place in their rooms, and believing that management had been in their rooms.
Helen Lowry residential agreements do not include any specifications for warning students before a room inspection or before management enters a room.
University Tenancy Law lecturer David Brown outlined to Salient that Halls of Residence are largely exempt from property law, but that invasions of privacy could be covered by harassment. He was unable to comment specifically due to his employment relationship with the University.
Brown recommended Salient contact University Counsel Victoria Healy, but attempts to reach her before time of press failed.
Complaints to Salient regarding Arcus’ interference in students’ lives include demands to see residents’ grades and interfering in friendships, including telling residents that their associates are ‘bad influences’. Arcus denies both claims.
However, residents from 2005 and 2006 described Janine as “an expert manipulator” who “pushes people she doesn’t like around.”
Arcus says “Salient is not the appropriate channel for student complaints”, and that most complaints Salient has enquired about have been resolved through the Hall and Accommodation Office – which suggests that the complaints may be well-based.
Arcus also says one of the former residents Salient enquired about was “extremely disrespectful” and was ‘stood down’ after nine warnings, the final warning coming after the student smoked in a non-smoking area.
The student stayed a week in Unicomm at the University’s expense whilst the University attempted to resolve the issue, before the student was returned to Helen Lowry. Arcus says the former resident was allowed back because “we wanted to help her.”
The former resident says she was ‘kicked out’, rather than ‘stood down’, whilst “[the University] tried to convince Janine to take [me] back.”
The student says the nine warnings she received included accusations of being too noisy and leaving a lounge messy during dates when she was out of town.
When Salient recently visited Helen Lowry, a group of current residents were asked for their thoughts on the hostel. Some said the rules were “too strict” and they “weren’t getting treated like adults.” Others said that “there were problems” but “had been mostly over exaggerated.”
“I love it here, I love Helen Lowry,” said one resident, whilst another said that “anyone who loves Helen Lowry obviously hasn’t been in Janine’s crossfire.”
Arcus told Salient surveys taken during the first semester of each year showed most residents were happy, and that she has received awards for her services at Helen Lowry.
Paul Brown believes that further investigation needs to be undertaken into the allegations against the Hall, and says he will personally be looking into conditions and residents’ rights.
O’Caine told Salient the Accommodation Service will “investigate any complaint that is brought to them.”
Salient encourages residents with any issues about any Hall of Residence to share their stories, and to get in touch with either VUWSA or the University’s Accommodation Service.