Dave Glick ’02 and other writers did a masterful job of summarizing the history of housing at Williams in a series of Record articles in 2001. Dan’s summary opinion piece, “Community Does Not Come Cheap,” is marvelous.

The history teaches us that restoring the type of community so many of our alumni remember fondly will require substantial payments of both monies and freedoms. The house system they recall evolved into the system of lotteries and room draws because Williams collectively decided to stop “paying” for its maintenance. Any new system which could even offer the potentiality of true residential community would require all of us to pay a substantial price, and not just financially. Community does not thrive on temporal programming but instead requires the durable foundation of genuine sacrifice, especially the collective sacrifice of individual freedoms.

Exactly right. In many ways, money — barring a complete redesign of the College’s physical plant — is almost besides the point. There is a trade-off between freedom and community — or rather a certain kind of community, one in which the different sub-communities are both diverse and of similar status.

Glick goes one to write:

The lessons of this history are quite simple. If we decide that we truly want to have a sense of community and identity beyond small suite-size groups, which transcends class and activities, we have to return to forcing people to live and eat together.

You can’t go back. Judging from my experience at Williams from 1984–1988 and at Harvard (living with undergraduates) from 1993–1997, there is no plausible set of reforms that would meaningfully increase the sense of residential community even ignoring the costs in student choice that would inevitably accompany these reforms. Glick, and many others, dramatically overestimate the amount of community that actually existed in the mid-80’s.

The tradeoffs we all need to consider involve the freedom to pick where we live and eat when we want to eat rather than the differences between a cluster and an anchor house system. If we decide that this is a price worth paying for a chance at community, we then have to figure out how to make three year living commitments and house dining work with the contemporary realities.

Good luck. If a majority of students thought that this trade-off were worth making, I could understand them “forcing” the relunctant 25%, or whatever, to go along. But, in a world in which a large majority (60%?, 80%?, 90%?) would rather maintain their freedoms, I can’t see the big benefit to forcing them to make a different trade-off.

Glick notes that

I realize I’ve spent a lot of money and thrown away a lot of our freedoms in this column, but these are the costs of true community. I’d probably be willing to pay them to be able to really care about where I live and have venerable old seniors to look up to as a sophomore, and climb the ladder and become one of those house veterans with a really nice room this year. Sitting down to dinner with a room full of diverse “housemates” and taking pride in one’s house’s success at IM sports and throwing parties (these are benefits of residential community, not its source) may sound a little dated, but I believe there is a lot to be said for caring about little things and not just one’s classes and activities.

It doesn’t sound “dated”, it sounds delusional — or at least delusional in the post-1980 non-forced-dining-together era. Yes, you can create a community if you force people to do things together. Say what you will about the Marine Corps, but there are few closer communities on Earth. But, in a world with ever increasing choices, the amount of coercion you need to do is increasing. In other words, the relative cost of community, paid for in units of freedom, is increasing. The collective decision of the Williams student body to seek less community then it did 25 years ago is reasonable.

UPDATE: Dan Glick let me know that Mark Robertson, Ronit Stahl, Mayo Shattuck, Drew Newman, Sergio Espinosa, Mike Needham and Dan Elsea all played important roles in the reporting and writing of the Record series on housing at Williams. Kudos to all. This is the Record at its best.

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