The most annoying aspect of the anchor housing debate is not that:

  1. The College is engaging in social engineering. The College, by its very nature, engineers life at Williams, both inside and outside the classroom. Competent social engineering is necessary and desirable.
  2. The College is ignoring students’ rights. Students do not have the right to live wherever they want. Even thinking about issues like housing policy in terms of rights is not very helpful.
  3. The College is restricting students’ choices. Some of the choices that students would make in the absence of any rules — like choosing to live in fraternities — are harmful. If College policy is that there will be no theme or “special-interest” houses, then the College needs ensure that this happens. Now there are smart ways and stupid ways of ensuring this result, but student choice will be restricted somehow.
  4. The College is ignoring student opinion. Even if 90% of the students are against policy X, policy X may still be in the interest of students as a group (perhaps X is extremely important to the other 10%) as well as those students against it. Students do not always know what is best for the College. (Although my personal bias is that very few policy changes opposed by large, intensity-weighted majorities are likely to be good ideas.)

The most annoying aspect of the process is that the College — mainly in the body of the CUL — is failing to conduct itself in a scholarly manner. What does it mean to conduct scholarly social engineering?

  1. Specify the things you want to change. What are the goals of your engineering?
  2. Measure those things. If you claim that you want to increase interaction among different classes, then the first thing that you need to do is to measure that interaction. How much, for example, do sophomores and seniors interact today?
  3. Specify the range of options that you have and the likely effects of those options.
  4. Publically provide evidence for these claims. That evidence might be in terms of case studies of other schools or more statistical types of analysis.
  5. Given the options that you have outlined and the likely effects of those options, provide an overview of how you balance out the competing goals.
  6. Given that balancing scheme, recommend an option.
  7. Return, several years later, and see what happened. Measure again those things that you care about. (Of course, you should be measuring those things every year.) Determine whether or not they changed in the direction that you predicted. Explain what you got right and what you got wrong.
  8. Provide a set of “lessons learned” so that future policy-makers can derive some benefit from your experience.

Most large, successful organizations — think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, the United States Marine Corps — are interested in social engineering. Most of them should and will try to specify goals, measure outcomes and the like. For competitive reasons, they will often decline to make these efforts public. McKinsey is in no rush to educate Bain about the optimal structure of a consulting team. But there is no good reason for a non-profit academic institution like Williams not to engage in all the steps listed above publically.

When Williams fails to do so, there are only a handful of plausible explanations.

  1. Stupidity. Not everyone knows how to make policy.
  2. Laziness. Perhaps a nice word here might be “busyness.” Even though smart people know that, in theory, the above stepts are useful, there are only so many hours in the day. If you already know for a fact that anchor housing is a good idea, then the above might strike you as overkill.
  3. Slyness. It might very well be that the goals that you want to achieve would be compromised by revealing the fact that you seek to achieve them. If your goal is, for example, to ensure that each housing unit at Williams is a perfect little microcosm of Ephdom, then you may not want to reveal that goal to the student body — not because the goal is unworthy, but because the very act of revealing the goal makes it more difficult to achieve because of student opposition.

Jonathan Landsman ’04 demonstrates conclusively [updated link] that the CUL failed to do this in regard to its last major set of reforms 3 years ago.

Why has CUL refused to do so this time around, at least to date? I wish that I knew. My guess would be busyness. Will Dudley and the other members of the CUL have, in their own view, already spent too much time on this topic. They have already, in their own minds and meetings, gone through the above steps. They see no need to actually make the process public to the larger community and they certainly have others things to work on.

Which is why we need trustees. When presented with a proposal for the most fundamental change in student life in more than a decade, the board of trustees should have demanded to see a written report that covered the above topics. The fact that they failed to ask for one, and the fact that the College hasn’t produced it, is an indictment against all involved.

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