Michael He

February 20, 2022

The UCSB Dorm Controversy Is Overblown

Charlie Munger has been in the news lately. Media outlets are blasting Munger for bankrolling a dorm and shaping its architectural plan at UC Santa Barbara. The controversy (since fall 2021) centers around the lack of natural light for bedrooms.

While the story is sensational, it says less about Munger and billionaires at large and more about the media landscape and our public dialogue dysfunction. There are rationales behind the Munger plan that most journalists and online mob blatantly ignore. Ultimately, the Munger plan represents a battle of tradeoffs and constraints. 

Take a look at this op-ed, which sounds arrogant and more emotionally charged than factual. Calling a student dorm a prison is unprofessional when people can go in and out freely (even during the current COVID-impacted policy). It is also inappropriate and insensitive since there are real prisons that need serious reform. Words are cheap and these shots are cheap. It's definitely not journalism's best moments.

I wanted to write about this in October 2021, but I didn't have the time. A few months later, my thoughts have not changed in direction, though they are more solid. Rule of thumb: It's never too late to write about something when you are not paid for being timely.

First, the windowless room controversy.

The windowless room controversy is in essence about access to natural light. Studies show access to natural light is important to mental wellbeing. I agree with this fact, but there are several caveats no media outlet seems to mention.

First, the study's premise is inconsistent with this particular story. These academic studies are focused primarily on workplace, not residential areas. After all, you cannot measure productivity of a place you don't use mainly for productivity (in its narrowly-defined sense).

Focusing on natural sunlight implies that people should spend their waking hours in that space. But should we encourage students to be confined in a small bedroom for many non-sleeping hours in the first place? As pandemic lockdown shows, confinement to small living space invites many mental health issues. We have an obligation to do the exact opposite. 

While access to sunlight is beneficial to naturally awaken us, college students are not famously early-rising. Artificial light is just as good at waking students up, plus you can adjust the time (whereas sunlight doesn't care about when you fall asleep).

In a way, these windowless bedrooms are like cruise ships. That is a depressing analogy, but it's a shoddy analogy. You are stuck on a ship in the ocean, but at UCSD you live next to the ocean. You can just get out of your room to get more sunlight (in your common area), fresh air, etc. It's not the most convenient thing, but it's not that difficult either. Plus, how much are students paying to have prime ocean access versus how much others are paying in the local area?

Instead of windowless rooms, we should actually worry about ventilation and humidity control. Temperature and humidity affect productivity and mood so much more than light level. Everyone can feel humidity and heat. It is even more important to have good air filtration system as we move forward from COVID. And many dorm buildings across the country are seriously lacking in that regard. If Munger Hall can take care of this, it will provide a living experience consistently better than most.

Second, the design plan and its premises.  

In addition to the windowless bedroom, several aspects to the design plan muddy the water: the suite design, the layout plan, and ultimately, the implicit vision for residential life. Complaints are largely about the first two, but they are really focusing on the vision aspect. Framing things in detail and attacking the vision are classic bait-and-switch tactics, but let's break things down separately.

What are the options for student residential space? Single rooms with open-access restrooms and common area, double/triple rooms with a similar design, suites of single rooms with enclosed living space, and suites of double/triple rooms with enclosed living space.

The second and fourth options are inferior by definition. Even if you share a room with old friends, being in college exposes you to their living habits you don't always know. Hanging out and living together are completely different. Imagine doing that with complete strangers. There is no guarantee how things will work, so maximizing the number of single bedrooms is a sensible approach. Good roommate dynamics should not be expected as a given, but a blessing.

Anyone who has lived in crammed and high-density residential dorms can relate to the frustration and potential troubles. Isn't single bedroom the best way for college students to stay focused and emotionally ready for their four years?

So now let's compare single rooms in a suite versus standalone single rooms. The common argument is about the roommate matching process. There are only tradeoffs to each design. While standalone single rooms may lessen potential conflicts, they also minimize social contact of any sort. You are less likely to greet and get to know your neighbors. On the other hand, being in a suite of single rooms incentivizes you to choose your roommates carefully and at least give you people to interact with regularly (even during the worst lockdown times). Even with strangers, being stuck together forces you to get along to a certain extent. You also have the option to not participate. What we need to criticize is how universities address roommate pairing, not the design plan itself. Fix the software, don't blame the perfectly sensible hardware.

We know that single bedrooms of the standalone design are not functional. Doing work inside them isn't optimal. Having a communal area (important: with windows) is beneficial to social life and separating sleep from work. The dorm plan has plenty of functional space, common area, and amenities. Those are extremely underrated and often ignored.

In addition, Munger Hall will be at a prime location in the UCSB campus. People who have to commute thirty minutes to school by car would much rather prefer living in the middle of the campus and having to put up with newer but less-than-ideal window situation. Being near campus (instead of residential neighborhoods) also lets you engage with the campus and beyond. Who will say that's a bad thing? 
I find it odd that the attacks seem to address one specific issue, but the arguments are much broader in scope. If we want to talk about windowless rooms and the studies on that, then let's focus on that. Don't mix in implicit visions for student residential life. Let's have a proper conversation on that issue separately, or at least be honest with our premise.

Third, the lack of focus on costs, reality, and the bigger things.

One thing the media doesn't focus on is the cost of building dorms and all the challenges that follow.

It costs a lot to build college dorms. It takes a lot of political will to get such projects approved in the public university space. It is near impossible to secure funding for such projects from the government (and taxpayers in extension). Why are we not talking about that?

We are in a shortage of college housing across the nation, especially in California. It's an obvious fact we often forget. We have a supply shortage, but we are not doing all we can to increase that supply - give more funding, green light the approval process, build the dorms as fast as we can in a safe manner, etc. Why are we not talking about that? By extension, why are we not talking about the lack of housing in general?

When you think about it, to address this shortage, density and scale seems to be the only way. We have reality and constraints to consider, not just our beautiful vision for what college dorms "should" be. Look at all the ambitious plans out there. How many are working well in the end? If there are, why aren't they talked about everywhere? How much do they cost? Are they from public universities? Who are the people talking about these things anyways? Do parents really care about how meticulously designed the dorms are, or they just want to make sure their children can have a good enough residential space on campus? 

The focus blatantly reveals the ignorance of people shaping the conversation. They would rather talk about the abstract and unattainable ideals than fix the prescient problem that gets worse by the day. How is this different from NIMBY destroying the future of California cities? Because it's not up to my (near impossible to satisfy) standards, let's not do anything to resolve the issue and let future students suffer.

Last, how the media drive conversations and how we in turn perceive everything.

If Munger isn't behind this plan, the news will get much less coverage. After all, dorms are always getting built with little to no public scrutiny. Then the controversy is really an extension of people's hostility towards billionaires.

The fundamental flaw in that argument is assuming that billionaires are all the same. It's interesting that of hundreds of billionaires around the world, the one that has ran and donated to charities and non-profits all over Southern California is deemed as the eccentrically mad guy. Meanwhile other billionaires much wealthier who made their money from murky deals and questionable sources are running rampant, putting their names on museums and contributing much less to the public life. What double standards.

I may be biased towards Charlie Munger, but he shouldn't be treated like this by people in principle. Luckily he is ninety-seven and couldn't care less. Given his intelligence, the irony is he is probably right at the end of the day. Munger sees the pressing concerns and knows he has the resources to help. Meanwhile, people who have no skin in the game are driving the conversation so those with skin in the game (parents/students) follow blindly and cut off one of the rare opportunities they will get. Who else is giving money to UCSB? Is the state going to do anything? I don't think so.

Remember, it's not just about one billionaire. You nip one in the bud, many more will turn their backs and walk away from even more things. Is it fair to give money for a cause and have a say in the matter? All of these questions are up for debate, not settled courses since the dawn of time.

And lastly, there seems to be some dubious details about this entire incident. The plan was released in July 2021 and plenty of hearings (and transcripts) are public. Then how are confidential information about committee operations leaked? Who is running the show? Of course, the media loves to fixate on billionaires and how wrong they always are. Maybe at the end of the day, the journalists are the ignoramuses? 

And please, stop calling Munger Warren Buffett's sidekick. He is just as capable. If Buffett treats Munger with incredible respect, how little manner do the reporters have to call an elder man someone else's sidekick? 

This entire controversy is baffling.