Earlier this month, The Varsity published an investigative story about Loretto College, a private, all-female, religious residence on campus associated with St. Michael’s College (SMC). The piece (“Christian residence only option for some,” October 7) sheds some light on an otherwise little-known residence on campus and the significant problems its policies are causing for some students. Most alarmingly, U of T’s policies seem to be forcing some students to choose between living in an actively Christian residence and not living in residence at all.
To live in Loretto, students must agree to follow policies that “foster participation and involvement in a supportive Christian academic community,” the mandate set out in the “philosophy statement” of Loretto College’s residence agreement. The agreement goes on to specify a number of policies that are explicitly intended to create a religiously-oriented community.
Former Loretto residents told The Varsity that college staff promoted what one student described as, “a type of conservative personal decorum.” While the residence agreement also prohibits discrimination, it is not surprising that many students were uncomfortable living in an overtly religious residence.
Loretto is owned and staffed in part by the Loretto Sisters, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. U of T has yet to clarify the arrangement between the sisters, SMC, and the university. In its response to the details in the story, the university characterized Loretto as having “religious roots,” a point reiterated in subsequent comments from the administration. This is an accurate way to describe several of U of T’s college residences, but unacceptably understates the role of religion at Loretto. SMC, for example, has religious roots — it was founded as a religious institution and retains some religious affiliation and traditions.
Loretto College, on the other hand, is owned and operated by a religious order. Its students must agree to “adhere” to Christian values. Residents must follow policies that are overtly intended to promote a religious lifestyle, if not the actual practice of religion. Loretto does not simply have “religious roots,” it is an actively religious institution, making it very different from every other residence affiliated with U of T. Accordingly, U of T’s residence policies should not treat it like any other residence, especially when this places students in very difficult situations.
U of T widely advertises its residence guarantee program, and many students accept offers of enrolment at the university on the understanding that they will be able to live in residence in their first year. U of T does not, of course, guarantee students a place in their preferred residence. Students can be placed in Loretto, as they can be placed in any residence, without requesting to live there. Under the program, students who turn down their first offer are not guaranteed a second one.
It is understandable that U of T cannot accommodate every incoming student’s personal preferences about residences. There is, however, a difference between preferences based on location or style and an aversion to living in a religious institution. The Varsity spoke to several students who faced a choice between living in a religious residence they were uncomfortable with and trying to find off-campus housing in a new city months before the start of term. It is unacceptable that U of T would put incoming students, many of whom are living on their own for the first time, in such a dilemma.
Information about Loretto’s strict and unusual residence policies is not easy to find. While many other residences on campus make their rules clear on their website, Loretto does not. Where a comprehensive description of expected behaviour should be, Loretto only describes itself as an all-female residence, with no mention of its religious character.
While it is perhaps unfair to criticize Loretto’s residence policies for trying to establish and protect a religious community on campus, the grievances raised by students who were not aware of the extra requirements to living there must be addressed. All the residences at U of T have policies and agreements that students are required to follow. These account for things like the presence of hotplates and other dangerous items in rooms, quiet hours for study, and, in some buildings and colleges, mandatory meal plans and hours. The difference in Loretto’s case is that the residence’s policies are not transparent and that they are religiously inspired.
The Varsity does not question whether or not Loretto — or any other institution on campus — should be free to express its religious affiliation or enforce rules that are informed by its philosophy. Rather, we question whether or not university administrators are doing all that they can to accommodate incoming students looking for residence placements.
The residence guarantee policy is undoubtedly a good one; it provides for students coming from outside the city who would otherwise be forced to find a place to live off-campus. However, it is obvious that U of T should reexamine the program in light of the fact that some students are being placed in environments in which they are not comfortable, without the opportunity to make informed choices. Many students interviewed for our story indicated that Loretto was the only option offered to them, and many said that they were largely unaware of what living there entailed. It is also disconcerting that the university was either unable or unwilling to relocate students with substantive concerns about their treatment at Loretto. It is clear that in many ways Loretto is fundamentally different than other residence options on campus; so far, the university has refused to see this difference.
Does Loretto need to reexamine its policies? No; as a private residence, administrators are entitled to foster any community they like based on whatever philosophical mandate they choose. Does U of T need to do more to help the students relying on the residence guarantee when they find themselves in a difficult situation? Absolutely. U of T must acknowledge that many students may be deeply uncomfortable in a residence run according to Christian values. It must be forthcoming with incoming students about the unusual aspects of Loretto, or any other residence with unusual policies, and it must offer residence alternatives to students who do not want to live in a religious community.
Of course, many of Loretto College’s residents are happy to be there and are thriving in the unique community the residence offers. Loretto accommodates female students of all faiths and backgrounds quite happily and with mostly positive reviews, as was clear in The Varsity’s original article. For the small, unhappy, minority of students, however, more needs to be done.