This past week, students across campus could be spotted un-decking the halls after a decree from the Jackson Fire Department that all Christmas lights be removed from dormitories and common areas following a recent inspection.
Melissa Duncan, inspector for the department, said the reason behind the seemingly Grinch-like policy wasn’t that the department’s shoes were too tight or its heart two sizes too small.
The fire codes have been updated since the last inspection more than eight years ago, she said, and now LED lights previously deemed safe have been ruled a fire hazard. They aren’t meant to be used for more than a couple weeks at a time, and the flexible cord is prone to ripping and could cause a short.
“I really don’t think there has been a good inspection process after the tornado,” she said. “But our goal is to make people safe, ensure fire prevention and ensure safety of all the residents.”
Duncan’s coworker Tina Curtis was the investigator who wrote the report, but Curtis couldn’t be reached for comment. Her report also included several other deficiencies that need to be corrected, including putting fire extinguishers outside the quads and removing anything blocking wall outlets.
The department is investigating every existing building on campus and is also currently investigating Lane College. Duncan said part of the reason for the long gap between inspections was a lack of manpower.
During that long gap, however, Christmas lights became somewhat of an informal tradition on campus for residents to decorate with and augment the often poor dormitory lighting. Removing them puts the Residence Life team in a position they’re used too but don’t enjoy: enforcing rules for policies they don’t create.
“It’s not us, it’s not like the fire marshal came through and said you all should really have some policy about Christmas lights and we just decided they all needed to come down,” said Ken Litscher, director of residence life. “It’s a tough spot to be in, but it wasn’t my decision. My hands are tied.”
He broke the news to the resident assistants during training. They would have to go to each of their resident’s rooms and ask them to remove the lights. He said he tried to negotiate with the department, but the only concession they made was to allow battery-powered lights.
Litscher’s understanding is that an inspector will return at some point unannounced to see if the requested changes have been made. If not, according to Duncan, the consequences for the university will be environmental court and potential fines.
Resident adviser Gabe Hilliard, junior public relations major, said it’s often hard for residents to make the distinction between who created unpopular policies and who is just enforcing them, especially when they are upset. Ultimately though, he hopes an RA can balance being a friend and authority figure to their residents.
“I don’t think they view us as the bad guys, I just think they view the whole situation as bad,” he said.
Senior nursing major Laina Willoughby, an RA in Grace 2, said she had to ask students in approximately seven out of her 10 rooms to remove lights, but they took the news in stride.
“My girls were really great and understanding that it wasn’t Res Life’s policy, you know, Res Life was just as disappointed as everyone else,” she said. “We understand why everyone is upset. I was upset that I had to take down my own lights.”
She said she thought empathy was key to enforcing policies, because it reminds residents that the policy affects the resident advisers as much as the residents.
Litscher said he realizes the tension inherent in the job of resident adviser sometimes creates a fine line for his team to walk, but ultimately they are learning beneficial life lessons and interpersonal skills.
“Learning how to confront someone in a loving way is a skill we all need to have,” he said.