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A Vision for Williams Housing

UPDATE Feb 2008: See at the bottom for modifications caused by the switch in freshmen housing to Mission.

I have been bombarded with requests to provide my own vision of housing for Williams. Well, perhaps “bombarded” isn’t the mot juste. In any event, if I were CUL, here’s how I would think about housing . . .

  1. Assumption: The first year entry system with Junior Advisers works well and should be left alone. First years should be engineered in to entries that are as diverse as the admissions office can make them.
  2. Assumption: Co-op housing for seniors works well and should be expanded. There is something magical about the opportunity to live communally with your closest friends senior year. It is a good thing that Williams has exposed you to a wide diversity of Ephs in your first three years. Senior year is the time to enhance and solidify the very special bonds that, if you are lucky, will last a lifetime. Co-ops do that.
  3. Assumption: Senior-only housing is special and should be encouraged and facilitated, even for those who do not want to live as co-ops. All the good aspects of co-ops apply here as well, but there is no reason to prevent those who want to eat in the dining hall from enjoying an intimate housing experience with close friends during senior year.
  4. Assumption: During sophomore and junior year, it is good to live with both close friends in your suite and Ephs different from and/or unknown to you in your house. The time for the extreme social engineering of first year is over, but the importance being exposed to a diverse group of Ephs remains. It is best that the serendipitous relationships that will arise from these interactions have as many years as possible to develop and deepen.
  5. Assumption: There shall be no theme or special interest housing.
  6. Assumption: It is hard to know ahead of time who your friends will be or where your most meaningful Eph connections will occur. It is just as likely as not that your relationships will be with people who came to Williams from very different backgrounds. If anything, the opposite is true. The more different you are from your fellow Eph, the more likely you both are to get something out of the relationship. But those relationships take time to develop and flower.
  7. Assumption: The flexibility and possibilities of junior year should be retained. It is a good thing that more than 50% of juniors do something different — from being a JA to Williams-in-Oxford — that takes them away from upperclass housing.
  8. Assumption: In the short term, the physical infrastructure of Williams must be taken as a given. No major student construction projects are on the horizon. None are needed. To the extent that there is money for housing, it should be spent on increasing the number of senior co-ops and decreasing the number of doubles.
  9. Assumption: The spaces on campus — Dodd, Spencer, Currier and so on — capable of supporting large parties are held in common for all students. The College plans on holding a certain number of parties in those spaces each year, even if the residents of those houses are not a part of the party. Students who do not like living in such houses should not pick into them.
  10. Assumption: No housing system is perfect. There will always be students who are dissatisfied. But misery should be decreased whenever possible. A housing system in which 30% are very happy and 3% are miserable is much better than a system in which the breakdown is 50% to 10%.
  11. Assumption: Student choice in housing is a good thing. It is not the most important thing but, as long as the other goals of housing policy are met, it is best to let students choose where to live.

Now, any of these assumptions might be challenged. Reasonable people may disagree. But it certainly seems like the vast majority of Ephs, including current and past CUL’s, agree with almost all of them. If anything, I have stacked the deck in favor of the use of social engineering. My argument is that, once these assumptions are accepted, the optimal housing arrangement for Williams follows quite naturally.

The Davis Conjecture: The fundamental unit of social life at Williams should be the academic class, not the physical house. Students from the same class who want to live together should be allowed and encouraged to do so. The more that students interact with a wide variety of fellow Ephs, and the more years that this interaction is allowed to occur, the better off everyone will be.

Note that the Davis Conjecture asserts nothing negative about, say, the interaction between seniors and sophomores. Plenty of such cross-class interaction will continue to occur, especially within the student organizations — sports teams, singing groups, literary publications, student governments and so on — that transcend academic class. But the reality is that a given Eph will only have the opportunity to make X number of friends, have Y number of meaningful conversations in her four years. One of the goals of Williams housing polciy is that these friends and conversations represent a fair cross-section of Williams students. The more time that a student spends with others in her class, the more likely the most (stereotypically) unlikely of relationships are to develop. Senior/sophomore interaction is not a bad thing in itself. It is a bad thing because it takes the place of greater sophomore/sophomore interaction.

How would this work in practice?

We want the 3/4’s of the sophomore class who want to live together to, in fact, live together. We are happy to let them have large pick groups and for those pick groups to congregate to some extent, especially if that congregation is along the pary/quiet dimension. Mission is the solution.

We want the 2/3’s of the junior class who want to live together to, in fact, live together. The same reasoning for sophomores applies here. Greylock is the solution.

The marvelous convenience of Greylock and Mission is that all the houses are large enough that — if classes are segregated and gender balance is kept roughly equal in each house — it is almost impossible for any house to not be diverse, regardless of pick group size. That is, it is highly unlikely that any Mission or Greylock house, under this regime, could develop into anything that looked like theme housing. Because most sorts of theme housing involve, by definition, gathering a specific subset of Ephs together, any successful attempt at theme housing requires cross class housing. Prevent/discourage that and theme housing largely disappears.

Not all sophomores will want to live in Mission, not all juniors will seek Greylock, not all seniors desire a co-op/row house for them and their friends. A select group of students will gravitate toward the Berkshire Quad, the traditional location for Williams students who see themselves, correctly or not, as very different from the mainstream and who celebrate that difference. Forcing such students to live in Mission/Greylock can only harm them.

Because of Dodd and other houses, students who actively seek out a mixed class environment will have that option as well.

In other words, the Davis Conjecture leads to a system not-dissimilar from what free agency naturally evolved into, but it grounds that outcome in a coherent theory of why class-based interaction is better than house-based interaction. If Eph A and Eph B, from very different backgrounds, meet and become friendly, we want to provide that friendship with years to flourish. If both are in the same class, this happens naturally. If they are in different classes, it may still happen, but not as often and not as deeply.

Recommended Policies

  1. No senior may pick into Greylock.
  2. No senior or junior may pick into Mission.
  3. The co-op room draw should go first, as now.
  4. Seniors uninvolved in co-op housing should be encouraged and/or have the opportunity to form groups large enough to pick entire (small) houses. A system not-dissimilar to the co-op process might be employed. Such special “house picks” would be restricted to seniors only.
  5. No doubles for upperclassmen. All housing after First Year should consist of singles. This won’t be achievable immediately, but should be part of any 5 year plan. All students need, from time to time, a private place to call their own.
  6. The stock of co-op housing should be doubled. Houses like Hubbell and Dodd Annex are natural targets. Conversion should focus on the more distant, less desirable and smaller campus houses.
  7. Room draw should be more spread out, perhaps with one week per class. Co-op housing for seniors would go first, as now, followed by senior whole-house picks (which might involve several rounds), followed by other senior picks.
  8. WSO Plans should be reinstated.
  9. No squatting. Each year is a new year.

There are, obviously, a great many details to work. No doubt my distance from campus means that some of this is quite unrealistic. But, once you accept the assumptions above, it becomes clear that no system like anchor housing will work because — with first years and seniors largely cut-off from the clusters, a housing infrastructure without close housing/food connections, and a junior class missing more than 50% of its members over the course of the year — there is no way that meaningful cluster identity will ever develop. The system outlined by CUL will never achieve that worthy goals that it lays out. It just will not happen.

As always, this is just one Eph’s view. It is up to the members of Anchors Away to decide what they want to fight for, or if they want to fight at all.

UPDATE: Thanks to comments, I have modified the above slightly.

UDPATE II: Having freshmen housing in Mission requires a few changes in the above. Sophomores would now live, as a class, in the Berkshire Quad and Morgan (about 400 odd spots) plus a few other houses. Perhaps adding in Dodd would make the numbers come out just right? No non-sophomore should be allowed in these houses. The nice thing about having 7 largish buildings for the class is that it still leads to extensive student mixing. Students have already met scores of their classmates in Mission. Now they will meet scores more. In an ideal world, you would want every sophomore to know the name of every student in her house. They might not be best buddies, but if they had shared a meal at least once during the year, that would be a nice thing. It would be nice if the class could be more geographical centered, but the infrastructure of Williams does not allow for that.

How much freedom should sophomores have in their room draw? More than they had as first years, but less than juniors and seniors have. There is nothing wrong with the administration insisting on the 7 houses having fair mix of all sorts of students even if the student groups themselves are self-selected.

The major missing piece is the lack of an Odd Quad. Fewer students were miserable a few years ago because those out of the mainstream of campus social life had a place to call their own. Williams should provide such a place. The obvious location is Tyler. Details on how to fix the rules to make that happen another day.

UPDATE III: Fall 2009 version of the plan (pdf).

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#1 Comment By Noah Smith-Drelich ’07 On February 23, 2005 @ 10:42 am

You have some interesting ideas in here, and overall I like your proposal. One of your most base assumptions (the Davis conjecture) I disagree with. I value the importance of intra-class interactions, but I value the importance of inter-class interactions just as much. I believe that just as there is much to be gained by living next to a diverse group of people within your class year, there is much to be gained by living next to a diverse group of people who aren’t in your class year. The current system doesn’t facilitate inter-class interactions, and your system works actively to discourage them.

I’m not sure how your steps 4, 5, and 8 aid you in your goals (4 seems counter-productive, 5 probably not feasible, and 8 entirely unrelated).

I also disagree with your assumptions for why you believe cluster housing won’t work. You say first years and seniors will be “largely cut-off from the clusters.” First years will be socially affiliated, and seniors will be probably living in each cluster’s anchor, so I don’t see how this is a true assertion. You also express your skepticism that cluster identity can form “without close housing/food connections.” Thankfully, the proposed clusters will have close housing and food connections.

#2 Comment By Loweeel On February 23, 2005 @ 11:04 am

David also raises an interesting point, regarding study abroad, williams-oxford, and the JA program.

What if 50% members of Cluster/Anchor/Whatever A decide to go abroad/be JA’s and only 5% of Cluster B do?

In the current situation, with just one housing draw, this isn’t a problem.

However, when you limit students’ housing choices, you’ll have overcrowding in some clusters, empty rooms in others — and that’s just assuming that people go away for a full year.

The problems are exacerbated when students go away for a semester, though as Williams has seen in recent years, it’s worse when juniors are gone in the fall and return in the spring.

As one quite probable example, imagine a cluster where 33% of juniors go abroad, for one of any number of reasons, such as law school applications/LSAT class, MCAT class, etc., while very few juniors go abroad in the spring who were there in the fall. In the cluster system, it’s not just possible but overwhelmingly probable that 2 random returing juniors who live in the same cluster and don’t get along might be crammed into a small double that even the sophmores didn’t want. (But I guess this fits into the CUL goal of making everybody miserable and uncomfortable for the goal of forcing relationships…)

How would the cluster system deal with the “problems” of unequal out-of-cluster junior obligations and choices?

I’m honestly curious, as I have yet to see an acknowledgement that this is a major problem, let alone a proposal to deal with this small current problem that will be greatly exacerbated in the cluster system.

#3 Comment By David On February 23, 2005 @ 11:08 am

Just to be clear, the Davis Conjecture is not an assumption. It is a conjecture. I wouldn’t necessarily expect CUL or anyone else to agree with it. It might be wrong.

But do we have progress here of a sort? That is, if Noah and/or CUL along with Anchors Away could both agree on the 10 assumptions listed at the top, then the range of things that needs to be addressed as the debate goes forward is much more limitted.

When I make the claim that seniors will be “largely cut-off”, I mean that at least 200 seniors will not be dining with their cluster. [100 co-ops and 100 off-campus.] I also think that this number will grow with time as more co-ops are opened. Quick quiz: How many new sophomores has the typical co-op senior met this year outside of teams and other extra-curriculars? I suspect very few. No matter how many wine-cheese receptions the clusters throw, I don’t believe that this will change. Moreover, I think that the same applies to senior dominated row houses. How many new sophomores has the typical senior resident of, say, Wood met? Again, I bet that it is very few.

This — so many seniors outside the mean plan and/or living in senior-only housing — is one thing that makes cluster housing at Williams very different then cluster housing at any other school that I know of. To the extent that clusters will work, they require a large amount of year to year continuity. The freedom that Williams allows seniors makes that very hard to achieve.

Again, you could fix this by forcing seniors to eat in the dining halls. But, once we rule out that change (by assumption), we need to grapple with the fact that the senior class is barely half there.

#4 Comment By Jared ’96 On February 23, 2005 @ 1:12 pm

I agree with all of your assumptions, but I disagree with most of your policy proposals.

As for what I agree with, I like having no squatters’ rights and no doubles. I also like having more co-ops, though I would simultaneously reduce the number of off-campus spots available.

As for my disagreements, I see no need to keep seniors out of Greylock or upperclassmen out of Mission. I think there’s plenty of class unity in those places already, and I don’t see how a few people from other classes crash the party. However, I might support a rule that would allow people to pick into Mission or Greylock if and only if they are in a pick group with sophomores or juniors, respectively.

I also disagree with the “whole house pick” proposal. There are very few houses that would be appropriate for such a thing (I doubt that having a pick size of more than 12 people would be remotely feasible), and those that exist would become co-ops as per one of your other proposals. I think it’s best to have pick sizes no bigger than 6 people, with public disclosure of who’s picked where, and let the chips fall where they may.

#5 Comment By hwc On February 23, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

I agree with the assumption that the freshman entry system is untouchable at Williams.

However, I would suggest that extreme freshmen segregation from the rest of campus has implications for campus life and community beyond what many of us may believe.

As an Eph alum, I always assumed that the entry system was ideal. However, having now seen an offspring attend a college where freshmen are scattered into dorms with upperclass students, I question my assumptions.

What I have seen is that freshmen hanging out with seniors after dinner or during study breaks integrates them into the larger campus community, provides positive role model mentoring, and establishes a higher expectation for responsible behavior.

Consider this out-of-the-box assumption: I suggest that segregated freshmen housing has a direct correlation to higher levels of dangerous and disruptive drinking behaviors among first year students. Issues of critical mass and lack of peer pressure for responsible college life contribute to problems in all-freshmen dorms, establishing behaviors that continue for some students and become a larger part of the social scene.

If you think I’m nuts, look back on your own college career. I would be willing to bet that you became more fully engaged and invested in the academic side of college life as your four years progressed and that, as a result, your studies became more enjoyable. Would it be beneficial for first-years to see that “fully engaged and invested” in academics is a positive goal?

I know that Williams can’t change the freshman entry system. I’m just suggesting a different take on this “segregation by class” issue.

#6 Comment By Mike On February 23, 2005 @ 5:57 pm

David: Perhaps it would be useful for you to explain your attachment to the “Davis Conjecture.”

It seems to me that the most useful observation made in the last several weeks since you got interested in this subject was by either (d)avid or derek, I unfortunately forget which one, who observed that there seems to be a loss of tradition at Williams (cf. WCFM trivia, snow sculptures, etc.).

As long as we’re helping you relive graduate school by framing everything in social science terms, allow me to add an assumption:

Assumption: Both Williams traditions and the fostering/preservation of the unique “Williams experience” requires an institutional memory only available through interaction between classes and upperclassman taking underclassman “under their wing,” if you will.

If we make said assumption (I would, I gather you would not… maybe after you’re done with the EphStyleGuide you can create a “Book of Eph Norms” that incoming frosh can be required to read and then tested on?), the Davis Conjecture fails.

#7 Comment By David On February 23, 2005 @ 7:05 pm

Mike’s assumption is clearly false. As evidence, I cite his own experience! A 4 year generation of Williams students had already been living in free agency when he started; de facto free agency had been going on for 5 or more years before that.

No one has presented any good evidence that Mike’s “Williams experience” was any worse than, say, Will Dudley’s ’89. Therefore, mixed class housing is not a requirement for maintaining the Williams experience.

Moreover, I am getting somewhat tired of the constant claim that there has been a “loss of tradition at Williams” in any meaningful way over the last 20 years. I never did Trivia. I never worked on a snow sculpture. I am fairly certain that this was true of a majority, even a large majority, of Williams students during 1984-1988.

If Trivia and snow sculptures are the only examples of Williams traditions that the opponents of free agency have to offer, there case is even weaker than it appears.

#8 Comment By (d)avid On February 23, 2005 @ 10:16 pm

I think Mike is clearly correct that inter-class cohabitation facilitates traditions. Institutional memory is created and maintained. The groups on campus with the thickest culture, traditions, lore, etc. are the groups like WUFO, the Rugby team, the Octet, Combo Za, etc., where members from different classes hang out and become friends. The younger folks hear the stories of the older generation and pass them on. I would be shocked if the same dynamic doesn’t hold true for housing.

Of course, a desire to foster traditions doesn’t necessarily trump advantages of the open lottery. I’m sure one could imagine downsides to traditions as well (not every WUFO tradition was healthy, tequila springs readily to mind). You’re right, snow sculptures and trivia aren’t exactly compelling examples.

Perhaps the party scene has changed? There seemed to be more themed parties when I was a freshman than in later years (though we tried our best in Spencer senior year). Heaven and Hell in Gladden(?). I recall a lingerie party in a row house as well. I don’t think CUL will be advancing these examples on behalf of cluster housing any time soon.

#9 Comment By David Ramos On February 23, 2005 @ 10:34 pm

I can’t say much about snow sculptures, but there is no evidence to connect Trivia’s sometime troubles with the free-agent system.

First off, while WCFM graciously allows Trivia to use the station and transmitter, Trivia otherwise operates independently of WCFM.

I’ve been playing (and more recently, keeping half an eye on) Trivia for near on a decade. The generally accepted view is, I think, that Trivia was going strong well into the mid-1990s. I remember bustling contests in 1998.

The Trivia community boasts institutional memory of tremendous longetivity – the senior participants on the Trivia listserver started playing around 1970. And in the Trivia community’s periodic debates about “why isn’t trivia so popular as it once was,” no one has EVER proposed housing changes as a reason. Not one of the House Affiliation-era alumni, no one from the early 90s, no current students.

They have offered simpler explanations, though: Internet search and its ability to spoil a contest based on answering trivia questions; a shift of focus away from pop culture toward the merely esoteric; music’s changing place in American culture; the fact that Trivia traditionally took place right before finals.

I would hardly describe Trivia as dead. Not so popular as it once was, but well-enough known that someone wrote a New York Times on the phenomenon just a couple years ago.

By the way, the Williams traditions that I do remember were associated either with academic pomp and circumstance, or with particular student organizations like the Marching Band or Gargoyle.

#10 Comment By David On February 23, 2005 @ 11:05 pm

(d)avid writes:

The groups on campus with the thickest culture, traditions, lore, etc. are the groups like WUFO, the Rugby team, the Octet, Combo Za, etc., where members from different classes hang out and become friends. The younger folks hear the stories of the older generation and pass them on. I would be shocked if the same dynamic doesn’t hold true for housing.

I completely agree with your comments on the culture of organizations like WUFO et al. They are a crtitcal part of the backbone of Williams. But I know for a fact that the same dynamic did not hold for Carter House in 1985-1988. I am almost certain that the same was true of all the Greylock and Mission houses. The Odd Quad was, then as now, a special case. Dodd might have been somewhere in between.

The simple facts were that seniors in Carter did not care that much about Carter. My roommate was captain of WUFO. That’s what he cared about. It wasn’t that he was anti-Carter, he just didn’t have strong feelings about the place. The vast majority of seniors felt the same. Carter was where we lived. It wasn’t who we were. There were no meaningful house traditions of any type, although we did take our foosball fairly seriously.

This was made even more true by the turnover of junior year. With so many juniors coming and going, it was tough to see the Carter House community as very stable. Again, at places like Harvard where juniors are much more likely to stay in the House, the dynamics might be different.

Now, it is possible to imagine a world with 4 years of living together and dining together that might create a dynamic in which “younger folks hear the stories of the older generation and pass them on”, but, whatever you might say of the current cluster housing proposal, that it will not do.

Ephs today will not in any meaningful way identify with their clusters just as Carter House residents 20 years ago did not meaningfully identify with their house. Since the putative benefits of cluster housing will not develop, the costs are not worth it.

#11 Comment By Diana On February 27, 2005 @ 10:53 pm

The fundamental idea of the Davis Conjecture — if I may so boldly enumerate, which I may, since I am actually the Davis of the Davis Conjecture — is simple: Something good happens at Williams, namely, that students choose to live in certain places with certain people and tend to be happy with those choices. Let’s support the structure that is already in place by giving funds to the preexisting affiliations, rather than creating new ones.

#12 Pingback By Trends in Trivia Participation » EphBlog On May 9, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

[…] all our many discussions about Williams housing, a recurring claim (see Mike’s comments here) has been that, back in the misty past of affliation, “Williams traditions” were more […]

#13 Comment By frank uible On May 9, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

Let’s face it. “Social life” (defined broadly) at Williams is fundamentally joyless and consequently no better than dully mediocre – and possibly worse – maybe much worse. That is a serious indictment for an institution with Williams’ general reputation and resources.

#14 Pingback By Pockets of Success : EphBlog On March 14, 2009 @ 6:32 am

[…] in the houses that make party throwing easiest. Initial thoughts here. And, yes, a new draft of my Vision for Williams Housing in the works. Harness your eagerness. […]