Customs Program Changes Attract Student Criticism

For most Haverford students, the summer is a time for some much needed rest and relaxation. But for those students who volunteer in Haverford’s Customs Program, it means anxiously awaiting an influx of 300 newly minted college freshmen who will be entrusted to their care.

The Customs Program has been a hallmark of Haverford’s first year experience for decades, providing each freshman hall with a close-knit group of upperclassmen who live and work with the freshmen throughout the year. The procedures and practices of Customs have drawn greater scrutiny as of late, however, which prompted the formation of the Customs Working Group (CWG) earlier this year. Established with a mission to propose and implement corrections to perceived Customs issues, the CWG has been derided by a wide range of students involved in Customs, many of whom have voiced concerns over the handling of integral matters from this year and proposed changes to future ones.

Compositional Changes

One issue that has raised particular concern is the new method of choosing Customs Teams, which consist of Customs Persons (CPs), Peer Awareness Facilitators (PAFs), Honor Code Orienteers (HCOs), one Upperclassmen Advisor (UCA), and one Ambassador for Multicultural Awareness (AMA). Students may apply for these positions individually or in pairs, depending on the position. Selected applicants for each position are then matched with other Customs roles to form their Customs Team, a process which is traditionally based on the preferences of the applicants. Team composition is seen as critical component to Customs, given that it can have such lasting effects on the freshman hall dynamic.

The first change of the new choosing method, as Director of Student Activities Lilly Lavner noted, was a different logistical pairing method.

“Normally, you get paired piece by piece,” Lavner said. “Whereas this time, because [the PAFs, HCOs, and AMAs] were unmatched, and we had given them the same number of bottoms, it created an n-to-the-whateverith number of combinations.”

Essentially, the process shifted from pairing two different subteams together—CPs and UCAs with a group of PAFs, AMAs, and HCOs—to having each CP-UCA pair choose and rank individual partners. While this allowed for more flexibility, it also allowed for more variations.

What ensued was a statistical nightmare in which there were so many possible combinations that it was impossible to accommodate each member’s preferences.

“The pairing process itself was really disorganized,” said Hanna Yoon ’18, a CP for the Class of 2019.

Yoon and other students involved with Customs reported that they did not have the opportunity to conduct “mixers” with students of other positions, in which they have the opportunity to meet and rank the possible options. Lavner also acknowledged that the compositional process could have been implemented better.

Such a system was necessary this year, however, to meet the new requirements proposed by the CWG. Each Customs applicant was required to submit a questionnaire to the Customs Composition Committee—a group composed of anonymous students whose identities are protected from disclosure to protect against harassment, according to Lavner. The Composition Committee subsequently matched Customs Teams according not only to their preferences, but also with regard to demographic information including gender, ethnicity, major, activities, lifestyle, and personality.

Records of discussions made available by Lavner support this, noting that “guidelines for pairing should be based on making a balance.”

“[The CWG] wanted to introduce other variables into the process besides who liked whom,” said Cecily van Buren-Freedman ’16, a current HCO, HCO committee member and future AMA for the Class of 2019.

“In effect, this was a diversity quota,” added Damon Motz-Storey ‘16, who will be serving his third year in Customs.

“Bottoming”

What resulted from new procedural changes was a large number of Customs members receiving matches that were not in line with their preferences. Even more concerning to many students were the instances of “bottoming” that occurred throughout the process. Customs applicants are permitted to request that they not be paired with (or “bottom”) certain students due to personal reasons that would inhibit their ability to work together. Yet multiple Customs Teams reported that they were matched with with students whom they had bottomed.

“There are people who got paired together who said that they absolutely could not work with each other for any of a number of very legitimate reasons,” said Motz-Storey, who expressed gratitude that he himself was not in such a situation. “There are already stories coming from all fronts that dysfunctions are popping up all over the place.”

Mozt-Storey’s sentiments were confirmed by other sources, all of whom asked not to be publicly named to avoid damaging their team relationships.

“We gave them impossible parameters because we hadn’t really thought through that difference,” Lavner stated. “At a certain point, it was like ‘Alright, someone’s going to get a bottom—how do we minimize that?’”

Other students did not receive their bottomed candidates, but also did not match with students they had “topped” or requested to be paired with. CP Co-Heads Jin Yoon and Daniel Vasquez ’16 noted that Michael Martinez did his best to try to resolve all these circumstances after the process had concluded.

“We recognize that people received their bottoms. But bear in mind, this was a prototype; there were kinks, and kinks were to be expected,” said Yoon.

Committee Transparency

Much of the recent Customs criticism has also related to the nature of the Composition Committee. Lavner, Yoon, and Vasquez all expressed their support for protecting the identities of the committee’s members, citing the fact that previously public committees had experienced external pressure from the student body.

Other students, however, have taken issue with the concept of a secretive committee—including Customs veterans Motz-Storey and van Buren-Freedman.

“It doesn’t really fall in line with the Honor Code,” said Motz-Storey. “It goes against our process of open dialogue and open communication, because you can’t really voice your grievances against this anonymous body.”

“I think that’s the big issue,” echoed van Buren-Freedman. “When I think about the biggest changes that have happened, it’s the lack of transparency. It’s not about the changes, it’s about the process.”

Students who were “bottomed” expressed displeasure at being unable to confront the individuals who were responsible for their predicaments—something that nonetheless supports the concerns voiced by the Customs leadership. However, sizable streaks of criticism remain in response to the lack of transparency of the Compositional Committee. Vasquez and Yoon stated their intention to increase communication and dialogue with the student body for future years in response to such sentiments.

Wider Issues

Not all changes drawn up by the CWG have been implemented just yet, however. One of the most drastic but yet to be implemented proposals is to shrink the HCO and PAF positions to one individual, in response to concerns over both functionality and funding.

Lavner stated that a reduction in PAF and HCO personnel would allow for more involved training, as there would be a better ratio of trainers to trainees. She also indicated that it would save the program money that could be used on other Customs expenses.  PAFs and HCOs, however, are highly skeptical.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Eli Cain ’18, a PAF for the Class of 2019. “Not only will it undoubtedly have negative ramifications on the dynamics of the customs team, but PAF applications will plummet as a result. Furthermore, this proposed action has dire implications for the relationship of supposedly ‘student-run’ organizations with the administration.”

Motz-Storey, also a PAF, said that it would reduce the PAF position’s ability to monitor and lead sensitive hall discussions.

“It’s very hard to keep an eye on how a discussion is going and keep a sense on whether somebody is feeling uncomfortable. It’s a very bad idea for the integrity of the program to have such difficult conversations only moderated by one person.”

Miranda Bucky, an HCO for the Class of 2019, expressed her concern that such a reduction would also reduce the position’s efficacy.

“HCO and PAF partners are able to collaborate and bounce ideas off of each other when planning and leading sessions, which is one of the things that makes [those] customs positions effective.”

Meanwhile, other Customs members felt that the program had other issues that were missed by the Customs Working Group. Miriam Perez-Putnam ’16, a UCA, stated that she had not applied for a UCA position for the Class of 2019 due to her own broader concerns about the teaching of consensus during Customs Week. Perez-Putnam has found that those with minority opinions often are not prepared to be outside consensus, an issue that the CWG did not address in its proposals.

“When freshmen are taught about respecting their own and others’ points of view, they get the concept of consensus really engrained in their heads as ‘the way that Haverford operates’, which I think is actually detrimental to those who may have minority opinions,” Perez-Putnam said.

Other students were worried that some of the focus of Customs is too coddling. Ricky Sanchez ’18, an upcoming CP, said he was wary of continuing aspects that “infantilize” first years and fail to prepare them for the challenges they will face in their college experiences.

“We need to be more transparent about what is going to happen sophomore year when those individuals don’t have their Customs teams around them,” seconded Perez-Putnam. “Embracing difficulty is important.”

All parties, however, remain optimistic that future Customs years can improve from constructive criticism.

“It’s been a very good experience in that a lot of the feedback I have given has been taken seriously,” said Motz-Storey.

Lavner agreed, saying that she and her colleagues were actively trying to facilitate more input from students to fix the mistakes that were made during this current year. Nonetheless, the newly revamped Customs Program will almost certainly prove to be a continued source of debate for the foreseeable future.

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2 Responses

  1. Alison M says:

    Those who criticize the change of HCOs and PAFs to single positions should make sure they are considering the AMA program and its relationship to the rest of the team. The challenges quoted in this article regarding single positions, like leading difficult discussions alone, are challenges that AMAs already face and have been facing for years (on top of being solo while the other off-hall members are paired). We have no evidence about how exactly the changes will affect Customs, but the established existence of AMAs as a single position, plus the fact that the CWG put a lot of thought and effort into these recommendations (basing their conclusions on both community feedback and on their many combined years of experience with Customs), merit at least giving things a try before drawing exaggerated conclusions about what the effects will be. Everyone likes being on Customs teams with their friends, but the priority should be figuring out what creates the best freshman experience, and I think the changes are a big step in that direction.

  2. Old-Timer says:

    Y’know, if you take a step back, it’s pretty hard to separate this article from satire of a small, liberal arts college, and how the folks therein can get worked up about stuff that will stop mattering ONE SECOND post-graduation.

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