David Ramos ’00 was kind enough to provide this history of WSO/Plans, the on-line guide to rooms at Williams that now only lists those rooms that have been taken but did, in the past, provide the identity of the takers. This is part of a continuing series at EphBlog in which we try to maintain a listing of institutional memory for all those Ephs whose time at Williams is too brief.

For those students still fighting against anchor housing, the most interesting story here concerns the success of students in 2000 who fought to retain the posting of names against a CUL that sought to remove it. You can fight the power at Williams. Of course, that success only lasted for a couple of years . . .

Preface
——-

I joined WSO around 1997-98, slightly after WSO/Plans went into operation. I graduated in June 2000, and stayed at Williams as (a keenly interested) staff member through 2002.

Creation
——–

The idea was a simple one. Room Draw was a complicated, stressful affair, marked mostly by the scarcity and poor quality of information available to students. WSO/Plans duplicated the housing plan and room occupancy information online, in the hopes of making solid information more accessible.

WSO advertised WSO/Plans partly to on-campus students, as a way to help them plan their housing picks before room draw, but also to students studying abroad, who could use WSO/Plans and email to help guide their on-campus proxies.

I’m not sure of all the early players. Sophia Kuo ’00 pushed the idea to fruition, and I think that it was her idea from the start. I think that Chuck Hagenbuch ’00 and Jason Healy ’00 did a good bit of the coding and scanning of housing plans. The idea went through with support from Tom McEvoy, then Director of Housing.

I’m not sure when WSO/Plans first went into operation. I think that it was my freshman year, 1996-97, or the year after.

Room Draw Mechanics
——————-

In the weeks before Room Draw, students could review plans online, looking at each dorm’s layout – although the Housing Office and the /Plans pages both cautioned students to look at dorms in person. Some plans departed dramatically from the dorms as-built. My senior year room included a huge chimney stack that didn’t show on the plans, and that I hadn’t noticed when I was scouting rooms late one night.

Most students met with their pick groups an hour or so before their numbers were due up, in dorms or in computer labs. They checked over WSO/Plans, and confirmed or adapted the housing tactics that they had agreed on earlier. WSO/Plans provided a detailed information, spatially organized, which meant that students were making decisions from ample data.

As draw time approached, each group walked down to Mission, where the draw proper took place. The foyer served as an anteroom, where students could wait for their number, watching small status boards that indicated open/closed rooms. Housing Office workers updated these small boards, but the data lagged behind the actual draw, and they only indicated the gender of a room’s occupant. In Mission lobby, without computers, information decreased, while uncertainty and tension increased.

The draw proper took place in Mission lounge. When a student’s pick number drew close, the bouncers let that student into the lounge, where he could look at the big boards that displayed the most recent room information. Now the information was as good as it could be, accurate, detailed, and current – but with so little time before the draw, students had little chance to process this information.

Then students made their pick, and left. Room Draw night usually saw a huge crowd in the Snack Bar, chatting and decompressing.

I remember excitedly checking over /Plans the morning after the draw, to see who else I’d be living with. At some point, the students entering data discovered that they could enter catchphrases into the /Plans information, so that some students had subtitles like “Clarinet Superheroine!” or “Cool Dude,” which made for good entertainment.

How WSO/Plans Worked
——————–

WSO/Plans was a web application hosted on the WSO webserver. The only way to search was by dorm; you could not go in and search for a particular student. It stayed up all year, but saw its busiest traffic in the weeks before, during, and immediately after room draw – and also when KAOS was running over Winter Session. It was accessible from on-campus, but off-campus access had to go through the college proxy server, to ally privacy concerns.

WSO/Plans depended on manual data entry, lots of it. WSO staff took turns manning a data-entry laptop set up in Mission. As the draw progressed, Housing Office staff passed slips recording the results of each pick, and the WSO staff member entered the information into the /Plans system.

The data were not as current as the big plan boards in the picking room proper. It lagged by about 10-15 minutes, but lag time was never much of an issue, because no one could access WSO/Plans from Mission lobby anyway.

Curiously, the Housing Office staff also entered picks into their own database, down in Mission, but no one went to the trouble of making the Housing database update WSO/Plans automatically.

After the draw, WSO corrected errors on /Plans as better information became available from the Housing Office.

I don’t remember exactly what information WSO/Plans recorded at first. Certainly it displayed names, and I think gender and class year. The lighthearted subtitles that I refer to earlier went into some additional data field, which might have been intended for smoking/nonsmoking indications.

I think that when students picked into a suite, they could declare that entire suite smoking or non-smoking, and that WSO/Plans reported this information too.

First Threat to WSO/Plans
————————-

The Housing Office loved WSO/Plans, but the service soon faced the sights of a reform-minded CUL. In March 2000, the CUL, headed by Bill Darrow, called for a blind room draw.

The first notice we had came in a email from Joe Masters, a WSO staffer and CC member:

8 March 2000

I have just been informed that CUL has decided that names will not be listed on the room draw on wso/plans. I’m currently trying to get some information from Tom McEvoy about how this decision can be made without campus-wide input, and how students can protest, but this is a head’s up on the fact that the decision has been made. Draw is mid-April, so hopefully we can do something about not bringing this into effect, but WSO can’t really do anything about it if housing won’t give us the information.

Instead, the housing plans online would simply reflect a room’s status [occupied/not occupied]. To see the current plans, go to wso/plans.

That fired off some debate on the WSO staff listserver. A number of WSOers and other concerned students wrote to Bill Darrow and CC representatives. (Prof. Darrow sent me a quite nice response, even though he must have gotten snowed with messages.)

College Council started looking into the matter, but didn’t have much time to get organized. Student opposition was based around a few key CC members and WSO administrators, though quite a bit of the Odd Quad knew about the issue and cared passionately. I don’t remember much coordination between CC representatives and the freelance opponents, who worked mostly on a quick turnaround and over media like student-organization listservers. (There wasn’t really such a thing as a “blog” yet.)

I’d attribute part of this CUL focus on diverse housing to a reform-minded Senior Staff. This is supposition. Senior Staff at Williams refers to the four administration leaders, all of them faculty members: the President, Dean of Students, Dean of Faculty, and Provost. My impression was that Dean Roseman and our then President (not sure if it was Morty Shapiro or his temporary predecessor) supported CUL’s ideas. I do know that the trustees worried about what they saw as a Balkanization of campus, and had done for years. I think that few faculty cared about the issue.

The CUL Meeting
—————

On March 14th, the CUL held a meeting on the issue in Goodrich Living Room. I believe that they had thought the change a simple one, and were surprised at the forceful opposition. Originally they planned to meet with WSO representatives, but they opened the meeting to other concerned students.

We talked-up the meeting in dining halls and on student-organization listservers, trying to pack the meeting with opponents. It worked.

The meeting drew two or three dozen students, nearly all of them vehemently opposed to a blind draw, most of them from the Odd Quad. Arguments varied from the cerebral to the heartfelt, and it sometimes bordered on melodrama, with a good many emotional pleas drawing on personal experience. But it stayed polite the whole time — just a little emotional. Many students there felt that a blind draw would threaten their happiness and success at Williams. It was a pretty one-sided affair, and I think it took the CUL members off-balance.

The CUL withdrew the proposal at the meeting — right then, right there. It hadn’t developed much momentum, despite its apparent finality.

One theme, brought up by both sides, was the idea of dorms as a “safe place.” Blind draw opponents felt that students needed a safe place, somewhere they could call home. Blind draw supporters felt that they didn’t want to be safe, that they wanted to learn from new people.

I think that the college did change room draw policies, though, perhaps restricting pick size and enforcing gender limits. It was my senior year, so my personal involvement had diminished. Certainly housing draw that year looked more or less the way it had the year before.

Room Draw Goes Blind
——————–

A few years later, probably in 2002, the CUL floated a farther-reaching proposal that included a blind room draw. By this point, I had graduated, and was working as a college staff member, so my knowledge is not so close as others’. After resistance from WSO, and some confused, uncoordinated opposition from College Council, the College put a blind draw into effect.

Talk turned ugly for a while, especially because of a few firey individuals on WSO staff, but nothing much happened. Some students and alumni advocated running a full WSO/Plans anyway, without college help, but that never got beyond talk.

I have an email sent to the WSO staff listserver by Joe Masters ’02, then College Council Secretary and a WSO staff member. Dean Roseman had asked Joe to tell us that any student circumventing the blind draw would be reduced to last pick, and that seniors would face some other kind of disciplinary action. The phrase “college policy” came up.

WSO protested; College Council debated. But room draw stayed blind.

Many thanks to David for taking the time to write up this history. The more that students know about the history of the College, the better able they will be to fight for their interests.

UPDATE 2009-10-25: During our move, this post was mangled with content/comments lost. Fortunately, David Ramos ’00 was able to help me recreate it. Here are the comments that were made on the original post:

If I remember correctly, there was a period in which draw was partially blind: wso didn’t have the plans up, but you could find out who was living near you when you went into the mission room to make the decision. How is it now?

Also, to be fair to the history, it’s also worth noting the specific allegations that prompted (at least the second attempt) to change room draw blind: namely, the amazing dominance of some social groups over certain houses, the genius tradition of leaving one or two spots open in a big suite so that friends with later picks would get them (especially if you were a partier), and the most serious allegation that students were threatening and bribing other students to ensure that their friends would land where they wanted. I don’t know about the truth of those allegations, but they were out there.

Or maybe that was a proposal only. I had already gotten into a co-op, so I didn’t give a rat’s…:) Last co-op pick…25, of over 100 groups in the first year of the new room draw structure.

However, in what were some sage wordsby dean lopez to me when we were talking about the room draw arguments, “you don’t get to pick your apartment neighbors, and there’s no security to quiet a party down except the cops.” Some mornings, I really wish I could call the cops to shut up my neighbor’s dog (and downstair’s baby).

Posted by: Rory at May 20, 2005 12:22 PM

Room draw isn’t actually blind…the wso plans are just not available before hand. When you go into the log (that’s where picks are now) to pick where you want to live, there’s a big board that has fairly up to date, accurate information with people’s names on it.

Also, what Rory is saying is true–especially before gender capping it wasn’t unusual for a team to half pick into a building and then intimidate other students so the other half of the team could get in. Gender capping and blind room draw have both, to a certain extent, prohibited this from happening. Incidentally, many of the problems leading to the 2002 decision (stories of intimidation in room draw, consistently awful house damages, etc) have seen a drastic decrease in seriousness and frequency since the policy went through.

Personally, I feel like it would be possible for wso to reinstate the plans system (if it was pitched correctly the admin would bite)…but they would have to do so within anchor housing and that seems almost prohibitively complicated.

Posted by: Eph at May 20, 2005 12:36 PM

Josh Ain admirably summarized the recent history of the housing draw- at least WSO’s experience with it- so I’ll try not to repeat content from his or Dave’s posts. I lack the documentation, but I was probably one of the “firey individuals” who turned that debate ugly, so I’ll try to avoid that, as well.

The blind draw discussions- and now the cluster/anchor housing debate- are like water circling a drain: inexorably, all are guided to a predetermined point, but the shallow apogee violently splashes about- making a big show of itself- without really phasing the drain.

The most convincing argument I heard years ago was that the groups that would stay together in a blind draw were the ones with predefined modes of communication (read: sports teams and identity groups). With the semi-real-time WSO/plans, even the independent could orchestrate his/her living situation by communicating with others ad hoc during the draw; the gender-only posts create a situation where communicative groups can return from the draw, post status information, and- every night after each class picks- evaluate its success and strategize. The argument against blind draw was that it was asymetric and contrary to the goals it claimed to address (i.e. greater diversity within housing). Furthermore, houses would develop an identity that- while liquid, given the short institutional memory- are very real to students. Blind draws- so the argument goes- codify those reputations since all the premeditation from unconnected groups would be uninformed and inflexible during the pick.

The arguments against cluster housing are quite different, if equally unmoving (the ones I’ve heard, anyway). People change a lot during college. It is often said that Williams is too small, but not small enough; students’ reputations endure and spread so that it is difficult to know nothing about another student before meeting him/her, but those reputations are sometimes undeserved and often stale. Unlike a large university, it is difficult to change one’s image, interests, or friends without appearing phony. At first, clusters appear to address this by creating small communities, recognizing that proximity is the foundation of any lasting friendship. What it seems to create in reality is a single opportunity to swap your community for your friends- an option to be hastily exercised in most cases, I suspect- only to discover that four intense years will likely make you incompatible with those people.

WSO opposed the blind draw- and collected several hundred signatures from like-minded students- because it was asymmetric, but cluster housing isn’t asymetric; cluster housing is normalizing and contrary to the personal growth supplementing academic development.

This is straying. The point is that this is a security issue and ought to be regarded as such. The administration (a term that sounds too transcendentally threatening than it should) is trying to take its diverse student body and prevent it from becoming an emulsion. To accomplish this, it attempts to make groups act like collections of individuals instead of groups. However, each of these proposals plays to the comparative advantage of being part of such a group: influencing information flow. WSO’s role- at least as it developed through the /plans system- was to empower everyone as equally as possible by recognizing that some people would have this information, so everyone should.

Posted by: Addendum at May 21, 2005 10:31 AM

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