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Colleges to close for break

By Hallie Jordan     10/8/09 7:00pm

In an effort to cut costs and reduce its carbon footprint, the university has elected to close all 11 residential colleges this winter break. International students and athletes who cannot go home during the holidays have the option of staying across Main Street at the Holiday Inn and Suites Houston Medical Center.

The residential colleges, though accessible via students' Rice identification cards, will have electricity and water turned off from Dec. 17 to Jan. 9. The last day of final exams is Dec. 16.

By closing the colleges for the 23-day break, Rice will save an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 on utility bills. From July 1, 2008, to June 30 of this year, Housing and Dining spent approximately $12 million to operate nine residential colleges, before Duncan College and McMurtry College opened.

Most colleges are built to hold 230 students, with about six students remaining at each during winter break. Most of the maintenance costs are energy-related, but some money is also budgeted to Rice University Police Department officers and maintenance staff who put in the extra time.

Associate Vice President of Housing and Dining Mark Ditman anticipates about 80 students will stay at the hotel this winter. They will either be international students who cannot go home or athletes whose teams will compete over the break. Other students who need to stay must fill out an application by Oct. 30.

The benefits of closing the colleges go beyond saving money and ensuring safety, Ditman said. With the students living close together, the university hopes to form a closer-knit community environment, he said.

The Office of International Students and Scholars is planning activities for students staying at the hotel. Proposed events include going to a basketball game and a museum, among others, Executive Director of OISS Adria Baker said.

"We're hoping to do something to build more community this year," Baker said. "There will be more of an intentional outreach for programming or building community."

Students who wish to stay at Holiday Inn must pay $275, which averages out to about $12 a day. The university is subsidizing the rest of the hotel costs.

"I am shocked we were able to arrange the deal at that cost," Dean of Undergraduates Robin Forman said. "For safety issues alone, it is a bargain. The dramatically increased quality of life the students will have living together instead of alone at their college is worth far more than the cost of the program."

Holiday Inn provides a shuttle that will take students to campus and Rice Village. The rooms booked are in suite form with kitchenettes so students can cook for themselves if they choose.

According to one international student, this arrangement would be suitable.

"I think it's pretty good, at least so far," Duncan College freshman Weiran Yan, who is from China, said. "The cost is really cheap compared to the flight tickets back home. Besides, the suite has a kitchen, so we can cook if we want, and there will be shuttles to Rice and the Village. So, it seems perfect to me."

Aside from saving money and reducing its carbon footprint, the university is also concerned about the safety of those students who normally spend the holiday in a virtually empty college, Ditman said.

With less RUPD staff, potentially no masters or resident associates and very few students, ensuring the safety of the remaining students becomes a problem, Ditman said.

"There is an awful lot of square footage out there," he said. "The students are kind of the first line of defense against any kind of threat to the colleges. [Closing the colleges for break] will reduce the risk of having something tragic happen and finding out about it days or weeks later."

Closing the colleges also allows Housing and Dining to perform maintenance work they normally cannot during the school year. For example, the electricity may need to be shut off during specific construction projects, an act which would be impossible when classes are in session.

The H&D staff also intends to cover as many work orders as possible during the break, Ditman said. The money normally spent on the cost of keeping the colleges running at full capacity will be instead used to make improvements.

Rice hopes to form a good relationship with Holiday Inn during this process so that if the program is successful it can continue in the future, Ditman said.

"The two managers we've met are the two most hospitable, service-oriented folks I've met in a long time," he said. "I think they could be Rice people if they wanted to be.

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