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Lottery versus Affiliation

Now that we have settled the preliminaries of the history of housing at Williams (the Record has an excellent three part series on the topic), we can move onto the main question. Would the breadth, depth and variety of the community of students at Williams be better if the College switched from the current housing lottery to a house affiliation system, as during the mid 1980’s?

No. All these aspects of the Eph community on campus are better today than they were in the 1980’s. Of course, I have very little good evidence of what the community is like now, so I look forward to Mike and Scott chiming in.

In the 80’s a typical graduate might know 50 to 150 members of her class. Whether this is a lot or a little, depends on your point of view. The campus was much more segmented over time. Most people (leaving aside JA and overseas time) lived in their housing area for all three years. Greylock people knew lots of Greylock people, but very few Mission people. Separation in first year housing was not ameliorated much over the next three years.

My sense is that the typical senior this year knows more like 125 to 225 (perhaps more) members of her class. I would wager that the campus community has a very different feel because of this. Having so many sophomores live in Mission and so many juniors in Greylock — with each year featuring lots of turnover in terms of housemates — changes the dynamic significantly. (Of course, it is not just the housing lottery alone that causes this. You need both a campus wide lottery and an area (Mission) that is widely regarded as the least desirable.)

Of course, what we really need is good data on this topic. Again, a Zimmerman supervised thesis would be a great place to start.

Nothing accomplishes the goal of nurturing deeper and longer-lasting relationships among students than living in small housing units with like-minded souls. This is one of the reasons for the popularity and success of off-campus housing in general and the co-op system in particular. The problem with co-ops in the 80’s at least was that there was much more demand than supply. A benefit of the current system is that many row houses become (I think) co-ops in all but name, dominated by groups of seniors who really want to live together. My wife lived with 8 other women her senior year (all of whom will be back for their 15th year reunion in a few months) and it was one of the formative experiences of her time at Williams.

To examine this empirically you might want to know things like: How many seniors live with other Ephs in the year after graduation? How many continue dating/marrying fellow Ephs? How many come back for their 5th and 10th year reunions? How many select fellow Ephs for important roles in their lives? (Both my daughters have Eph godmothers.)

Again, I realize that we lack the data to see how these things have changed over time and, therefore, the ability to ascribe (some of) those changes to the housing system, but the College really ought to at least think along these lines.

This is the one criteria by which the old affiliation system might do better than the current lottery, especially if there are a lot of examples of all swimmers (and no one but swimmers) living in Carter House. Yet even here, I think that current practice is better. You are much more likely to have a substantive relationship with someone who is both different than you (on whatever dimension you care to name) and who lives in your house if the two of you are in the same class. Moreover, in the lottery system, you spend a year in Armstrong, say, and then a year in Carter and, each year, have a largely non-overlapping set of students to interact with. The amount of “turnover” — for lack of a better word — was much less in the affiliation system.

That is surely enough of my views on the topic. I would wager that the institution of a housing lottery was the single best thing to happen at Williams in the 1990’s. I would hate to see it end completely. (Of course, improvements on the margin — especially to prevent large units like Carter House from being taken over — are often needed.) But, as always, contrary opinions are welcome in this space.