Friday, October 22, 2010

Letter to Duke Administration

[I wrote the following email to Duke administration--which will probably wind up in the hands of their parking department--to express my opposition to a proposed parking regulation that may prohibit students from living in their vehicles in the future. While I realize my letter will not deter them for making their proposed changes, I thought it would have been remiss of me to do nothing. Allegedly, they were going to change their regulations as soon as a couple nights ago, so I only had a few hours to write this sucker. I'd like to polish it up some because I have plans to do something "bigger" with it. So please--if I've left out any arguments that you think may help me make a stronger case--do share!]

To Whom It May Concern:

It has come to my attention that Duke intends to change its parking regulations. I’m specifically referring to a regulation that will prohibit students from living in their vehicles in the future. If this is the case, then I courteously request that this letter be considered before such a change is made.

I’ve been living in my van at Duke for close to two years now, and it is difficult for me to understand why such a regulation is necessary. I could go on for hours about the many benefits of living in my van, or “vandwelling,” as we vandwellers call it.

I could share with you how having a quiet, solitary hermitage has allowed me to focus on my studies. I could tell you about the simple joys of feeling more in touch with the natural world, experiencing changes in temperature, falling asleep to serenading insects, and waking up to cheerful birdsong. I could tell you about how living minimally has been an education in itself and how I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life. I could tell you how I have a much stronger purchase on what I think my few wants and even fewer needs are. I could also tell you about how much money I’ve saved. In fact, I will tell you about this one.

Just before I came to Duke, I had $4,000 in the bank and no possessions of any significant value. I bought my van—a 1994 Ford Econoline—ten miles south of Raleigh for $1,500. Between tuition and fees, I’d pay about $2,500 that semester. That is $4,000 spent on those two purchases alone. Thankfully, I was able to pay my tuition that semester in installments--convenient for me because I would have otherwise been broke from the get-go. But, needless to say, I was strapped for cash. And when I factored in other necessary expenditures (food, gas, car insurance, cell phone), I knew I’d never be able to afford rent for an apartment or some other conventional mode of housing. Yes, I could have taken out loans like most students. And yes, I could have postponed my entrance into graduate school, electing instead to continue to work and save, so that--when I did finally came to Duke--I could afford conventional housing. But I’d been out of school for 2.5 years and was dying to get back into the classroom. And going back into debt simply wasn’t an option. That’s because I just paid off $32,000 in student loans from my undergraduate education. While I was able to pay that debt off relatively quickly, it was something I never wanted to be obliged to do ever again.

These past two years at Duke I’ve saved thousands of dollars in apartment rent alone. It seems like the going rate for a modestly priced apartment in the area is about $450 a month. According to my calculations, by the time I graduate (May of 2011), I will have saved $11,250 ($450 x 25 months). Any student at Duke—either from a wealthy or poor background—would agree that that is a lot of money. And when I think that I’d be in five-digits of debt again if it wasn’t for the van, whatever “sacrifices” I’ve made are negligible. Living in a van and saving this money has been worth it, and I say that without the slightest hesitation.

Debt, I’ve learned, is part of the university experience. We students are taught that debt is not something to be avoided, but that it’s normal; that it’s expected; and that it’s “how things are done.” To buy something, the university experience doesn’t teach students to save and then pay for it; it teaches us to buy it now and pay for it later. My point is that universities teach their students—whether they intend to or not—to be financially irresponsible.

Not only will this way of thinking plunge thousands of students deeper into debt, but it impacts the way they will handle their money for the rest of their lives. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors at our university are prohibited from seeking off campus housing and are forced to pay for exorbitantly priced meal plans. And now that students may soon be barred from living in vehicles, another cost-saving alternative will be eliminated, and the university takes yet another action that needlessly forces its students to make irresponsible financial decisions.

I realize that no one in the university administration actually desires that Duke students go into debt. And I’m sure that the people involved in creating this new regulation are merely looking out for the safety and best interests of my fellow students.

I suspect that the powers that be think living in your van makes you a more vulnerable target; that burglars might be more tempted to break into a vehicle crammed with stuff. While I’ve heard fellow classmates complain about break-ins and stolen items, no one, as far as I know, has laid a finger on my van. Think about it: No one wants to break into a vehicle if there’s the slightest chance that someone’s in there. Theft, anyway, was never a worry for me because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. I carry my few valuables—camera, laptop, and cell phone—with me everywhere. If someone were to break into my van when I was away from it, I wouldn’t be too worried about someone lifting my sleeping bag, backpacking stove, or suitcase filled with old, faded clothes. Sure, I will acknowledge that a vehicle may be a more appealing target for burglars than, say, an apartment or dorm, but I strongly doubt that a larger presence of vandwellers would increase the rate of car theft.

Perhaps you’re concerned that the cold or heat creates unsafe living conditions. Again, I can confirm through my own experience that this is not an issue, at least in Durham it’s not. Hundreds of students in K-Ville live in similar conditions during the coldest time of the year, yet few would say that they’re in jeopardy of anything more than mild discomfort. The spring and fall heat can make things uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but never did I consider it a threat to my health. In fact, over the course of my four semesters at Duke, I can only think of one day when I felt sick.

I presume that you’re also worried about some freak accident that may result in a crippling lawsuit that would devastate the university. I view such a concern with sympathy, but it seems like this can be avoided. Why not have students who desire to reside in their vehicles sign a release and assumption of risk contract?—the sort that I just signed, which will ensure that Duke is not liable to compensate its vehicle-dwelling students if something unexpected and undesired were to happen.

I write all this knowing full well that I’m probably the only person on campus living in his vehicle, and that there’s a reasonable chance that no one may even think about it for decades. So why am I writing this plea—you may be wondering—when the change will affect just a few prospective students, if any? I hope that you will reconsider your new regulation because I think such a change has unwanted symbolic consequences that may undermine what the university stands, or should stand for.

It shows that the university is not doing all it can to give their students options to cut back and save money in difficult economic times. It shows that the university is intolerant of styles of living that may "go against the grain" or fall outside the status quo. It shows that the university is not committed to supporting students who experiment with new ways of thinking and living. How is such a change at all in accordance with Duke's mission to "promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential?"

Living in the van, these past two years, has been a wonderful experience. I’ve excelled in my courses, I’ve been in superb health, I’ve saved (literally) tons of money, and I’ve been extremely happy. What is it about living in the van that is so objectionable that you intend to create a new rule prohibiting students from having similar experiences?

I have received hundreds of emails, messages, and comments in person about my vandwelling experiment. Many students have told me that they, too, plan on doing the same thing on their campuses. It is foresighted of you to consider what your long-term position on this issue should be, but I do not think barring students from living in their vehicles is the right course of action.

Ken Ilgunas


Anonymous said...

It's "as we vandwellers call it" not us. (yes i'm the grammar police ;-)

Good letter. I would add something about regulations against littering, excessive noise, or soiling the parking lot would be reasonable but not prohibiting sleeping in a vehicle. Isn't making a mess of the area the real concern to having people camping in unconventional places? If all you do is park leaving no trace of your time there, there is no harm. If you leave a mess or make it stink, then there is harm. So address the real harm that could be done by the irresponsible.

Glad they are letting you stay, indicating that it is potential problems from obnoxious people that has them nervous, not anything you have done.


Ken said...

Mary--All fixed. Please feel free to be my grammar police anytime ;) I really don't know what the real issues is, and I don't see why they'd think litter would be a problem. While my van was messy, the area around my van was as clean as a parking lot can be.

Anonymous said...

That's the point. If the area around the vehicle is kept clean, then no one is harmed. Most people don't like the "homeless" because of the nasty mess associated with them. It is evident that you don't impact the area & take care of yourself as well as anybody. So the Uni's real concern is only a potential mess made by others who might choose to live in a vehicle.

Better for them to target the real issue then ban living in a vehicle when there is a demonstrated successful vandwelling (i.e. you). They seem to be trying to avert a fear with a sledge hammer when all they need is a nail punch. There are people who are obnoxious and inconsideret of others. That is what they fear. Not the people like you who quietly take care.


Anonymous said...

Sheesh I made a bunch of typos! Always easier to edit someone else than oneself.


Ben said...

I agree with Mary. The reason they want to regulate living in a vehicle is because they know everyone isn't as responsible and down to earth as you. They don't want everyone and their brother, as the expression goes, living in their vehicle for fear of being portrayed negatively in the public. Granted the reasons you listed are good ones, but what happens when some news reporter starts reporting that students are living in the vehicles at Duke and they aren't all being 100% responsible or if one person does something stupid? It's hard to judge how the public would react and I don't think Duke wants to have to answer to the media. It's just unconventional and I think that spooks Duke a bit. Your argument could be that you have publicly gotten attention and that nobody has of yet denounced that van-dwelling is a bad thing or has had any negative impact.

Anonymous said...

Duke's fears are the 'almost orgies' in the parking lot; lonely vandwellers' pet rats name Ben bringing back the plague; and not to mention, "Every breath you take" playing on the minds of female coeds walking back to their cars at night, who are probably envisioning “I'm-going-to-be-raped-if-I-walk-pass-your-van”. Betcha this line of thinking is behind the letter that got Ilgunas evicted in the first place.

I'm predicting that Ilgunas is thinking of using the media if he is serious about advocating for future students. BTW, an impressive job with the letter writing, it would have taken me days to compose something like that. The only other thing I can think of is to negotiate with them - suggest future vandwellers to act like parking lot RAs. Duties to include neighbourhood parking lot watch plus be available if someone needs a jump start, that sort of thing. It's a wacky and premature idea but I would try to find a niche to get both the media and Duke interested.

Thanks for the great read, laugh out loud anecdotes and most of all, your youthful brilliance plus the colour of your tanless skin frightens me.

Anonymous said...

PS: I wished I could delete my previous post. A parking lot RA?! WTF!? I can picture it now, Ken will use one of his coathangers to break into some kid's car- to help out a 'student' who has locked his/her keys in their car. That act might be seen by passerbys as grand theft auto! People would be calling the cops on 'RAs' for 'helping out'.

Grace said...

I agree with the other commentators: I think they are worried about 1. the mess (trash/human waste, since cleanliness depends on the student packing in/out everything in a responsible manner) and 2. creepy sexual predator people living in vans (ie safety issues for the other students). You should address these issues because everyone will be thinking about them.

Also, if Duke has a lot of students living in vans in its parking lots, it makes the university look 1. uncaring (they allow their students to be homeless); 2. overpriced (students can't even afford housing!) and dirty and low class (see the first paragraph). This will severely hurt the university's reputation (and bottom line, since a lot of their funding depends on wealthy (generally older, conservative) donors).

I don't think there is even a small chance that you will win this one.

Ken said...

Mary--Regarding the mess issue, I see where you're coming from, but I just don't think that that's what they're thinking. It would be a random concern, and I doubt they're linking the mess created during the messy football tailgate parties with people living in their vans. You may be right, but I think it's something else.

Ben--I think negative publicity is more than likely a concern. Though I strongly doubt that there's going to be a sudden inundation of students living in parking lots--at least enough to capture the media's attention to the point where it would actually hurt Duke's image. If any, it would just be a few intrepid and cash-strapped souls. So I don't think it would escalate into a vandwelling "village" so to speak, even though I'd argue, that that wouldn't be a terrible thing either.

Anon--well put, and a nice summary of some of my embarrassing phrasings. I like your creativity. I'm thinking that for each vandweller to get his/her parking lot privilege, they'd have to be trained to work as parking lot watches. I think "parking warden" has a nice ring to it. I know, it's unrealistic, but it's good to think outside of the box. Or what about a little vandwelling village in a remote parking lot. They could put a garbage bin out there, a fire pit, an outhouse, and a street lamp. No one would even think about breaking into a van if there was a half-dozen people parked there. Again, just another outside the box idea.

Grace--I hear ya. It may look low class, but so does K-Ville, where students sleep in tents on a mud caked lawn for a month, hoping to get tickets for a basketball game. K-Ville is, however, widely perceived to be a charming idiosyncrasy of campus life. I don't see how a few frugal vandwellers living in their vans would be much different--in fact it may bring about positive press since it would show the dedicated, independent, frugal-minded spirit of Duke students. Many people think of Duke as institution fraught with privileged rich kids. Just last year, we were ranked as the second "douchiest" school behind Brown.

And yes, it would advertise the school's high cost, but, hell, it is too high, and Duke, like most schools, isn't doing enough to reduce debt.

I think for schools to get more gov't support and to adopt debt-reducing policies, a group of vandwellers might turn some heads.

Of course I realize how Duke, and any big institution is obsessed with their image, and that a bunch of debt-ridden vandwellers might be harmful to it, but I think, in the long run, it would be good for everybody, the school included.

BTW--I think everyone is right on. But I guess the point I want to underline is that there's nothing wrong with vandwelling. And that it should be allowed. They're reacting to unfounded fears and prejudicial, pre-conceived notions. I'd much rather have been told that they were going to conduct a "study" on it before rashly coming to a this decision.

Grace said...

Hey Ken, I really appreciate your willingness to think outside the box (it's why I read your blog).

I think though when trying to explain behavior it's helpful to follow the money. Here ( you can see Duke's income sources and how they spend that money. Tuition only covers 16% of their costs. The rest of the money comes to Duke largely because of their reputation (25% is from the endowment/donations: ie rich people). That means anything which damages that reputation is a very big deal.

Also, tuition may be high but in reality it is heavily subsidized already (you are getting a good deal in a sense, as your education costs much more to provide than you pay). I do agree that convincing (via donations) or forcing (via taxes) the wealthy to pony up more money for education would be a great idea though.

Ken said...

Grace—Nice comment. I’ve done a bit of research on why school costs so much, and the authors I’ve read have more or less come to the conclusion that “we just don’t know.” That’s not exactly true; the problem is that there are just so many reasons. A couple include the rise of the “neo-liberal” state in which government programs, including education, tend to receive far less funding. There’s also intense competition between schools that inflates tuition. Many schools aspire to lure elite students in order to rise on widely-viewed ranking lists (which of course increases their number of applicants), and they do so, for one, by assembling a prestigious cadre of professors (NYU’s philosophy program, for instance). They also attract students with cutting edge facilities, like lavish gyms, enticing architecture, etc. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is to the high cost of education. I think schools could use more gov’t support, though I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea of adopting the model a lot of European nations embrace, where education is free, or hugely subsidized, for all. Competition has in fact improved many colleges. I think schools need to spend less on ridiculous expenditures (climbing walls and random flat-screen televisions that line all the halls here) and more on lowering tuition. Again, it’s an awfully complex topic and I feel uncomfortable making suggestions as simple as these.

If Duke administration is imagining a 100 vandwellers having wild orgies out on campus lawns while covered in body paint—then I think they’ve let their imaginations run wild. A good chunk of Duke kids come from very wealthy backgrounds; I doubt that hardly any of them will consider pursuing a style of living far different than what they’ve been accustomed to. If students are allowed to live in lots, I think it’ll be just a few, and they’ll be widely dispersed—I really don’t think they’ll have to worry about their image being tarnished. I could be wrong, but why not wait and see?

CT_Bob said...

Ken Said: "They also attract students with cutting edge facilities, like lavish gyms, enticing architecture, etc. "

I wonder if this is an example of the cost of something that is free. It seems that often times, a company or group or what have you will donate all or part of a building like a gym. As I understand it, it is up to the university to maintain, heat etc these buildings. I wonder how often these "Free" donations end up increasing costs?

Ken said...

Bob--interesting thought. This is what I gathered from a NY times article

A study by the Delta Cost Project on “Trends in College Spending 1998-2008” reports that universities have increased their spending 22 percent on instruction compared to 36 percent to student services (gyms, dining halls, etc.) and 36 percent for institutional support—“a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations.”

Kevin M said...

You articulate your points well, Ken, but in the end money will rule. I don't think it is about the messes. Duke doesn't care if Johnny Undergrad has to go into debt to afford room/board. It is a business.

A secondary concern might be (unfounded) damage to their rep as an almost-Ivy-League school should a huge number of vandwellers draw the attention of the media.

Probably too late, but I wonder if they would consider instituting some sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy for vandwelling instead of an outright ban. Sorry for the crude reference, it was the best I could come up with.

Ken said...

Kevin M--I'm not sure what they're going to do. Can't say they've been eagerly responding to my inquiries. I think--like many commentators--you're right on. But I'm still somewhat clueless. You'd think that a college would want to give its students the opportunity to lessen their debt loads... But many of their policies seem to do the exact opposite. Don't ask, don't tell is a better policy than outlawing vandwellers altogether, but it's still far from ideal. Living in secret, after a while, was no fun.

Sharon in San Francisco said...

Hi Ken! I'm late to the party, but I found your blog cause I'm reading Walden on Wheels. It's a great read, and I like your approach to money. You are a reminder that we can all live on less! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

How did you manage to only spend $2500 per semester for tuition? Every thing I read indicated tuition consider ably higher.

Anonymous said...

How did you manage to only spend $2500 per semester for tuition? Every thing I read indicated tuition consider ably higher.