Just when I thought that my work deconstructing the CUL’s 2005 Report on cluster housing was done, I am sucked back in. Such is our windmill-tilting life here at EphBlog. Only die-hards need read further.

Throughout the debate this past year, the anchorites (mainly CUL) have promised that anchor housing will not hurt the co-op system. Everyone loves co-ops. Most agree that the College needs more co-ops. (There are usually 200 applicants for the 100 or so spots.) We promise, implied CUL, that co-ops won’t be affected by anchor housing. But, buried in the report, we have this gem:

Finally, Dodd House needs the addition of Goodrich, Parsons, and Sewall (which are currently co-ops) in order to offer enough quality senior housing in its geographic area. In order to avoid the loss of co-op beds, we recommend that Chadbourne and Woodbridge be converted from regular housing.

CUL can “recommend” things all it wants but, if they have their way, there can be no doubt that 1/4 of the current co-op beds will simply disappear. Again, if you don’t care about co-ops, if you don’t think that they are popular (or that they should be popular), then that’s fine. But don’t tell us that you love co-ops and then decrease them by 25% in order to generate your wished-for cluster “equity.” Co-ops should not be sacrificed on the alter of anchor housing.

Now, to be fair, the CUL does recommend replacing the lost beds with Chadbourne and Woodbridge. Perhaps that is a fair trade. But anyone concerned with student opinion — with providing opportunities for the 100 (!) seniors who, every year, seek co-op housing and are turned down — would instead recommend just converting Chadbourne and Woodbridge into co-ops. Full stop.

Now, all of this is a somewhat minor topic in the context of the larger debate over anchor housing. If there are 100 co-op beds today and 100 under cluster housing, then what is the problem?

The problem is that, I predict, there will not be 100 co-op beds under anchor housing. Consider the Tyler cluster.

Tyler House needs additional quality housing for seniors, which could be achieved by some combination of converting existing doubles to singles (in either Tyler itself, or in Thompson), renovating Tyler Annex, or adding portions of Poker Flats to this House.

Tyler is the great Achilles heal of the anchor system since the vast majority of students would prefer to live in almost any other cluster but Tyler. It is very hard to do anything about Tyler’s geography, obviously. But once there are 260 students stuck there, they will have every incentive to complain loudly about their fate, to demand equity. From their point of view, the least that the College can do is give them Poker Flats.

CUL doesn’t even pretend to have a plan to deal with the loss of Poker Flats to Tyler.

But all of the above is just so much quibbling. The real problem for co-ops in the context of anchor housing is not what happens in the first few years. The real problems come later. Five years from now, if [when! — ed.] cluster housing is implemented and when all current students have forgotten life under free agency, it will be clear (to those with eyes to see) that anchor housing has failed. There will be no meaningful cluster identity. Students will be no more a part of the Tyler cluster in 2010 than they are part of Tyler house in 2005.

At that point, the social engineers of CUL, to the extent that they are even willing to admit that there is a problem, will be perplexed. Having built this great new system, why have the students not rallied to it? Why aren’t they attending the great intra-cluster public speaking competitions? The reason, CUL will see, is that students do not care about their clusters. Students will not see clusters as an important part of the social fabric of Williams. Students, five years from now, will care about their friends, they will care about their activities, they may care about their class. (The decrease of class identity will be one of the biggest hidden costs of the end of free agency.) Students will not care about their cluster.

And so, what will CUL do? CUL will (correctly!) recognize what we have pointed out time and again. Clusters can not work at a Williams at which 1/2 of the juniors/seniors live outside of them. No meaningful cluster identity can possibly develop with this much turnover. As long as Williams allows juniors to JA/study abroard and seniors to live in co-ops/off-campus, there will be no cluster identity.

At that point, the forces of righteousness will urge CUL to go back to free agency, to consider a housing plan that makes a virtue of the turmoil of junior year and the desire of independence in senior year rather than fighting against them.

But I suspect that the powers-that-be at the CUL/Administration will be unlikely to go that route. Instead, they will try to invigorate clusters by drawing seniors back into them. This may, perhaps, occur via a major building program, a la Middlebury. But it will also involve the death, or at least dismemberment, of co-ops as they are known today.

The CUL already hints at this when it writes:

Co-ops are deliberately not incorporated as physical components of the Houses.

Today. This promise will not be kept for long. Indeed, the more cynical among the CUL probably view this as a way of decreasing student opposition in the short run.

Co-op living is extremely popular, and it is important that every senior have the same probability of success in the co-op lottery. It is also important, however, that seniors living in co-ops have natural incentives to continue participating in House life and events. It is therefore recommended that groups wishing to enter the co-op lottery be formed of students who share the same House membership, but that these groups have the opportunity to choose from among any of the available co-ops.

Today, co-op groups can be formed however students see fit. Tomorrow, students will only be able to select among their fellow clusterites. This is a huge change. The wonder of co-op living is not, simply, the intimacy of a small house and shared meals. The wonder is that intimacy with a handful of your closest friends from the senior class. Under anchor housing, you won’t be living with your closest friends. You’ll be living with your closest friends from your cluster.

If you think that this is where the process will end, you’re wrong. CUL will want to force seniors to be more involved with their clusters, to meet the sophomores and interact with the juniors. CUL will still worship Harvard/Yale, where students have, essentially, no choice but to live in the same house and eat in the same dining hall for three years. CUL will still want to bring that vision to Williams. CUL will recognize that co-ops drain much of the life out of clusters, that co-ops entice the very seniors who should be leading the clusters. CUL will want to do something about that.

Most importantly, there is nothing that students can do now that will bind future versions of CUL. CUL might promise now to leave co-ops alone, but future CUL’s will feel free to disregard that promise. By agreeing to anchor housing now, students are preparing the ground for the end of co-ops later.

And that is the biggest shame of the whole process. The development of the co-op system (the history of which we do not know as well as we should) is one of the greatest victories for taking student preferences seriously of the last 30 years at Williams. Anchor housing is the first step in its dismantlement.

Thanks to CUL for making a break-down of the proposed clusters and associated data publically available (See Appendix 2 of the pdf version of the report.)

Print  •  Email