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Blue Penis Gate: Wellness Environment Investigation

January 17, 2018

A blue sticky note penis has left eight first-years fearing they will lose their housing in the Wellness Environment.

It was mid-September when the students sat in their new dorm watching a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the courtyard below.

They were messing around with sticky notes on the window and put them into the shape of a penis.

As quickly as they’d put it up, they took it down.

But they weren’t fast enough.

A resident adviser came upstairs and told the students to disband. One of the students in the room reported the names of the other students to Wellness Environment staff.

The next morning, the students got an email from WE directors summoning them to talk about what they would later call “Blue Penis Gate.”

First-year Helena Weisskopf and her friends received the email from Dr. Jeff Rettew, associate director of the Wellness Environment. The meeting the students were called to was officially called a WE Moment, a time for WE officials to address WE member misconduct.

Weisskopf ultimately had to attend 10 WE-sponsored events. She was told that if she missed an event she would be kicked out of her building.


The Wellness Environment

Dr. Jim Hudziak

MAX MCCURDY/The Vermont Cynic
WE founder Dr. Jim Hudziak sits in his office Oct. 4. He runs a unique disciplinary system in WE.

WE is the brainchild of Dr. Jim Hudziak, founder and director. He envisioned a living space free of drugs and alcohol, where student lives were focused around nutrition, mindfulness, fitness and mentorship.

According to the WE website, “the UVM Wellness Environment is a university-wide, neuroscience-based, behavior change program with a residential component.”

When students sign up for housing, they have the option to live in a Wellness Environment dorm.

WE students have free access to a gym; they get violin lessons, cooking demos and yoga classes that the rest of the student body doesn’t have access to. The newest dorm on campus, Central Campus Residence Hall — the site of Blue Penis Gate — is all WE-programmed housing.

The program has grown since it began in 2015. The number of students in WE housing has risen from 100 to 1,100, said Annie Stevens, vice provost for student affairs.

WE has brought UVM national attention. It’s been covered by the Associated Press, CBS, NBC and the Boston Globe.

Sophomore WE resident Jackie Kho said that many students joined WE exclusively for new, nicer dorms and access to amenities.

Weisskopf said she joined because she wanted to live somewhere with less of a party scene than other dorms.

To get access to new dorms and wellness amenities, students had to sign a special housing contract called the WE code.

When students join WE, they meet Hudziak. He asks them to shake his hand, look in his eyes and sign the WE code of conduct, said first-year WE resident Lindsay Hallowell.

WE Code

Wellness Environment Building

Wellness Environment students sit outside the Central Campus Residence Hall Sept. 15 for the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the new dorm.

Residents of WE dorms sign a code that states that they will follow WE rules in exchange for living in the Wellness Environment. In the code, students agree not bring drugs or alcohol into the dorm, to attend a class taught by Hudziak and participate in the WE-defined pillars of wellness.

Unlike in other dorms, WE students aren’t allowed to have paraphernalia such as shot glasses in their rooms because they’re considered neural triggers.

Hudziak said that the presence of a shot glass could be a neural trigger, a stimulus that could prompt others to want to take part in activities involving drugs and alcohol.

Students are asked to use their judgment in terms of what items they think could be a trigger, Hudziak said.

Some students are unclear on what is considered a neural trigger. Weisskopf said her resident adviser told her not to wear a Snoop Dogg t-shirt that said “gin and juice” on it in the dorm.

Weisskopf has a pair of socks with cannabis leaves on them, but doesn’t wear them outside of her room because she’s afraid she’ll get in more trouble.

The WE code states that students can’t have alcohol, drugs and paraphernalia — and “their influence” — in WE residence halls.

Weisskopf, Kho and senior and SGA President Chris Petrillo think the code is vague.

Banning posters and clothing that contain references to alcohol or drugs violates students free speech rights because it is restrictive on the basis of content and viewpoint, said Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE, an organization that defends individual rights at America’s colleges and universities, states that these bans, by virtue of their vague wording, can be used to control protected expression.

“You do sign a contract to live in the Environment. The agreement limits some of your actions,” Petrillo said. “It’s tricky because you’re part of WE, but you’re still a student as well.”

What happens when students break the WE code

Wellness Environment students take down a penis made out of sticky notes at the Central Campus Residence Hall Sept. 15. Some of the students received punishments that last through the end of this year.

If they fail to follow the code, students agree that they “may be removed from [the] program and/or relocated to another residence hall.”

WE has a different disciplinary process than other residence halls. Hudziak and Rettew determine on a case-by-case basis if residents have violated the code and what their punishment is, Weisskopf said.

If a student is accused of breaking WE code, they get an email that states they must attend a WE moment.

If it’s the student’s first violation — with the exception of having drugs or alcohol in the residence hall — WE staff creates a “wellness plan” for the student, Hudziak said.

In the case of Blue Penis Gate, Weisskopf’s wellness plan was to attend 10 WE-sponsored events. Another woman in her group has to attend a WE-sponsored event every week for the rest of the year.

If Weisskopf misses any of those events without a good reason, she risks losing her housing in WE residence halls, she said.

“They’re at super inconvenient times,” Weisskopf said. “Basically if I can’t make WE relate on Thursday, I have to go to a WE relate Friday at 7 a.m.

“They’re once a week, and not regularly scheduled.”

Others in the group were let off without punishment.

Kho was caught smoking marijuana by UVM Police. She was called to a meeting with Rettew, which she said she missed by accident.

When she eventually met with Rettew, she said he told her she was getting “one get out of jail free card.”

Next time, she’d lose her housing, she said.

Kho’s punishment was to attend five WE-sponsored events — or risk losing her housing.

The effect of WE discipline

In Blue Penis Gate, it was a fellow student who reported the group of eight to WE staff, Weisskopf said.

Weisskopf said this culture of peer reporting is popular in WE residence halls.

“Students should not feel uncomfortable around their peers,” Petrillo said. “They should be supporting one another in a positive way.

“That, to me, is an indicator of an unhealthy environment.”

After her experiences this year, Weisskopf is not sure if she will live in WE next year.

“There’s this constant fear that people are going to snitch on you,” she said. “I’ve been living in this heightened state.”



5 Responses to “Blue Penis Gate: Wellness Environment Investigation”

  1. Nadine Stram on January 18th, 2018 7:21 pm

    The atmosphere sounds like a research project the directive of which is toncreat followers rather than leaders. Is this funded perhaps by an outside corporation who has interests in WE ? Did Apple fund the Apple watches that all WE students get?
    This environment motivates peers reporting on their peers fornejst they consider outside WE CODE. How does this fit with an open and liberal minded school environment?
    One should be encouraging strength in the face of temptations. To hide behind a veil of the unreality of a perfect WE environment doesn’t build strength in the face of temptations that is all around the real world. The We environment creates division on campus and now even among WE SUDENTS.
    I am disappointed and disturbed.

  2. Lisa Paraday on January 18th, 2018 10:00 pm

    Informers, snitches, tattle tales. I see no positive associations here. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind are neighbors turning in undocumented neighbors so they are deported. Or petty Salem, Mass. residents claiming withcraft on their unsuspecting community members. While I’m inflating the negatives associated with narcs how about I throw collaboration and WWII in the mix. The outcome of encouraging such a policy within student housing will yield paranoid, frustrated students. An atmosphere of distrust.
    While creating a public post-it-note-penis is in poor taste, it is not a neural trigger. I doubt glancing at a paper penis resulted in lustful thoughts. The punishment is excessive. You are mearly driving these students underground. Young adults make mistakes. They need discussion, humor, acceptance, and encouragement and forgiveness.

  3. Jerry on January 19th, 2018 2:00 pm

    Neural triggers, yeah. Last time I saw a condom, got an immediate erection, then saw a box of matches and now I’m a raging arsonist

  4. Jan van Eck on January 21st, 2018 11:00 pm

    In all candor, that so-called “paper penis” looked to me like a clumsy picture of an ICBM on lift-off.
    Hey, could have been a Saturn V boosting out of Cape Canaveral, for all anybody knows.

    Readers might wish to reflect that Saddam ran Iraq on the snitch principle. Everybody was paid smallish sums of coin to go file “reports” on what their neighbors were up to. Then his security police kept these massive dossiers on anybody and everybody. If you irritated Saddam, he simply blew your brains out with that inlaid pistol he sported. Lovely fellow to emulate.

    This business of requiring students to take a compulsory “course” by Mr. Hudziak strikes me as self-adulatory narcissism, and that is on a good day. What makes him the hero of the hour? The he sits on top of some dorm building that someone else paid for? Please.

  5. Jake O'Keefe on November 17th, 2019 8:20 pm

    I was kicked out of the Wellness Environment about a month ago for allowing my friend to drink a beer in my room. The RAs, who are also students at UVM, saw him walk out of the room with a can and got us both kicked out of our dorms. I even invited the RAs into the room to show there was nothing in there but it didn’t matter. After being kicked out of the dorm I asked to meet with Associate Director of WE, Jeff Rettew to tell him how being removed from my dorm, and moved away from all of my friends this early in the year would have a major impact on my mental health. Jeff refused to meet with me again until I moved out of his environment. He even spoke to my mother on the phone, who tried to explain to him how she worried about how this move would impact me mentally, but he was rude and only continually referenced how I signed a contract stating I was responsible for the actions of my guests. The Wellness Environment cares more about upholding their image of a substance free dorms than helping a student who made a mistake.

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