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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Is Room Draw fair? An ethicist examines Carleton’s system

<n: Under the current Carleton room draw system, some people are much better off than others. Is this fair?

Next week, almost every student at Carleton will participate in room draw, the process by which students select their rooms for next year in the order dictated by their randomly assigned room draw number. Residential Life staff are charged with the task of determining Carleton’s housing policy; the students of the Housing Selection Advising Committee (HSAC) run room draw and look over policies toward which Res Life directs their attention.

I spoke with one member of HSAC who told me that the committee does not actively present proposals to Res Life regarding the housing policy, though they could if they saw the need.

The way the system is set up, it is not likely that the committee will ever see the need. Consider: someone who applies for a housing advisory position is likely to be the sort of person who is already enthusiastic about on-campus housing. Moreover, most HSAC members are RAs now or will be next year (RAs get their choice of room on their floor). And, at least this year, none of them were unlucky enough to draw a number that cannot fetch a decent room. So, all the HSAC members are likely to be fairly happy with the housing system as it stands, and none of them would consider themselves to be among the least-advantaged.
Lest I appear harsh in my judgment, allow me to clarify: I have no intention of condemning the advising committee for maintaining a system in which they are well-off. In any system, there will necessarily be those most-advantaged and least-advantaged—so the real question is, how do we arrange these advantages?
20th-century American thinker John Rawls answers this question. In “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls exposited his account of a theoretical society created in such a way as to ensure that all participants would agree the society was just. Before entering the society, participants would begin in an original position, placed behind a “veil of ignorance”; they would not know anything of what their position was to be like in society. That is, they would have no knowledge of their class, race, gender, abilities, or preferences. From this original position, these participants would set up the rules for the society they were about to live in. Behind the veil of ignorance, participants would not allow for any particular group to be unduly disadvantaged, lest they end up in that group themselves; these participants would thus be led by self-interest to create a just society.

According to Rawls, a just society meant a society in which all participants had ample opportunity to secure their own well-being. This society would allow for inequality, but only insofar as this inequality benefited those worst-off; that means an inequality is just only if the elimination of the inequality would cause the worst-off to be in an even worse position. Or, more simply put, the least-advantaged must be as well-off as possible.

So, who are the least-advantaged under the current housing system?
The first answer has to do with preferences. Some people would very much prefer to live off campus. But Res Life aims to end or significantly reduce Northfield Option within five to seven years; so as the number of Northfield Option allowances decreases, the ability of these students to secure their own well-being likewise decreases.

The second answer has to do with luck. Most years, all the rooms are drawn before the end of the room draw list is reached. That means those with the very last room draw numbers do not choose rooms; instead, they are “placed” by Res Life. They get very little choice in where they end up, and they may very well live with someone they don’t know.

Let us hypothesize about a Rawlsian room draw system, one which would be created by participants behind the veil of ignorance. If Rawls is right, then these participants in the original position would not allow for the elimination of Northfield Option, because once the veil of ignorance was lifted, one of these participants might turn out to be the type of student who would prefer to live off-campus. Also, these participants would do their best to give decent options to the worst draw numbers, just in case they ended up in this position themselves. Though inequalities between housing choices would necessarily exist, the participants would create a system that they could agree was just.

So we can see that the room draw arrangement fails to yield fair results insofar as it was created under circumstances deviating from Rawls’ original position. The obvious solution, then, is to have housing policy evaluated by a group of students behind the veil of ignorance.

Unfortunately, this is quite impossible. Students cannot be kept from the knowledge of two important things: their year (and thus their general placement in room draw) and their preferences. This precludes the impartiality Rawls hoped for. Therefore, we must approximate a Rawlsian outcome by appealing directly to the least-advantaged.

Before Northfield Option is eliminated, HSAC must hear the arguments of those who would live off-campus, so that either off-campus living may continue or a suitable substitute can be found. Also, those at the bottom of the draw list who do not expect to be drawn in by someone higher ought to be invited into the discussion on housing, as they have the most incentive to find a feasible alternative to being “placed.”

In short, it is not enough that there be a system which works well for the majority. The Rawlsian goal is a worthy goal: the least-advantaged of the housing system must be made as well-off as possible.

Readers: send questions, answers, and objections to [email protected]

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