Morty discussed campus social life a bit, especially the housing system. He confessed that, when grading his own performance at last week’s trustee meeting, he gave himself the lowest grade in this category. He felt that the College was still trying to figure out the best ways to do things. He reiterated again his dislike of the student self-segregation that he had known as a junior professor at UPenn in the late 1970s. When he came (back) to Williams a president, he did not like it that all the football players lived together and that the same was true of African American students. (He used those two examples first and, perhaps recognizing that he was being a bit too honest, tacked on examples like Jewish students. [As far as I know, there is no evidence of meaningful self-segregation of Jewish students at Williams in 2000.]) He noted that a goal of the new housing system was to break up this self-segregation and that this goal had been achived. Morty also (correctly) sang the praises of having the first years in Mission. He pointed out that first years in the Berkshire Quad had always felt like isolated second class citizens. (Morty goes to each first year entry for snacks.) Putting all the first years in either the Freshman Quad or Mission has solved that problem. [Rob Chase ’88 and I discussed this very solution more than 20 years ago. This is probably the best thing that Morty has done for social life in 8 years.]

But he still felt that there was much more that should be done, that Williams students deserved a first class social system just as they deserved (and received) a first class academic experience. He mentioned obliquely the various troubles with the Office of Campus Life and noted that some restructurings had occurred. My comments below:

There are two issues: The housing system itself and the Office of Campus Life. Morty is correct in his goals. We all want the Williams experience outside the classroom to be as amazing as the experience inside the classroom. Of course, it is already fairly amazing, but it could be even better.

Those interested in background reading about the dispute over Williams housing can start here. Quick summary is that Morty used the Neighborhood System to ensure that well-defined groups with a tendency to self-segregate (male helmut-sport athletes, African-Americans) were divided up into four parts, thereby making self-segregation impossible (at least on a large enough scale that an outsider would notice). Unfortunately, the many benefits of the old system (students living were they wanted, students living with their closest friends, a safe place for the non-mainstream to flourish in the Berkshire Quad) were lost along the way.

Despite being wrong about the desirability of Neighborhood Housing, Morty is an empirical economist. No doubt the data (which we are not allowed to see) is demonstrating that little — other than the end of self-segregation — has improved. If anything, I would bet that every measure of student satisfaction with social life was worse in 2008 relative to 1998. Thanks Will Dudley! ;-) But Morty continues to take this issue seriously, continues to have the best of intentions. He also mentioned that “some people” say that it takes seven years for a new system to leave the old one behind. He was skeptical of that and seemed to think that, after two years, the College ought to have seen more improvement than it has.

And I am here to help. Consider my vision for Williams Housing, a solution which makes full use of the Davis Conjecture. For my many fans, I will be working on a new version of this argument for next month. Contain your excitement!

The second issue involving social life, the Office of Campus Life, is also relatively simple to improve. Start firing people. Remember the tablecloth colors. (That link is better than anything I have written on student life in the last year.) Key argument:

The more control that Williams students have over life at Williams, the better. The more people (intelligent and well-meaning though they may be) that are hired by the College to “help,” the less active students will be, almost by definition.

The secret, then, to reinvigorating student social life is to get the bureaucrats out of the way.
As the Record reports, this has started.

Starting next year, the four positions of Campus Life Coordinators (CLCs) will be replaced by two Residential Life Coordinators (RLCs) and one Student Life Activities Coordinator. The new RLCs will have residential life roles similar to the current CLCs, but each will be responsible for two neighborhoods instead of one. The Spencer and Wood Neighborhood RLC will have a corollary role as Queer Life Coordinator, while the Dodd and Currier RLC will also serve as Community Engagement Coordinator. One staff position will be cut. Assistant Director of Campus Life Aaron Gordon and Campus Life Director Doug Schiazza listed a number of reasons for the staffing changes. Both agreed that the two new RLC positions will streamline many of the processes and encourage cooperation between Neighborhood Governance Boards (NGBs).

With fewer staff who dedicate 50 percent instead of 75 percent of their time effort to residential life, total time spent on residential life will be reduced by a third.

“We see several times of the year where [residential life duties] are really intense, but there are several times of the year when it doesn’t take nearly as much,” Schiazza said. “We feel comfortable with this decision.”

You had better be comfortable with these decisions, or Morty is going to find someone who is. Having spent scores of hours writing on this topic, I am somewhat depressed that it has taken so long for Morty to see the light, but I am also excited that the light seems now to have been seen. A smaller, less powerful Office of Campus Life will improve Williams. But has Schiazza gotten the memo?

“We see [event planning] done on the fly. Right now we’re teaching students individually when they walk through the door with an idea for a program,” Schiazza said. “Many students are surprised that having an event on campus is oftentimes more complicated than just saying, ‘I want to do this.'” He added, “What we’re hoping is that instead of 200 or 300 individuals or more retraining and retraining, we can get a bunch of people at a time and get them up to speed on the basics of planning an event right away.”

Dean Merrill also discussed the difficulties encountered by the many campus offices involved in planning events. “We live in an age where any event engages external issues,” Merrill said. “Students might not want to think about issues like fire safety and liability, but we need to make sure that they’re covered.”

According to the proposal distributed by Campus Life, students could be required to complete annually a course offered by Campus Life, Student Leadership Development 101: Event Planning Basics, in order to “receive programmatic support from campus offices.” Club and neighborhood officers could also be required to take a one-time additional course in Student Leadership 102: Student Officer Basics, while individuals wishing to serve alcohol or be paid as a host/server could have to take two other classes in alcohol education. Like other organization officers, treasurers would complete Student Officer Basics, but would also have to pass an additional class in Treasurer Training each year in order to receive financial support from campus offices, including financial sign-offs from administrators with the processing of financial paperwork in the Controller’s Office. The classes could add up to four hours of training for student participants.

How stupid is that? Williams students have a thousand better things to do then sit in some classroom for 4 hours of instruction on how to throw a party. When faced with an elimination of power, every bureaucrats first instinct is to reinsert himself, to make himself and his office relevant, to force people to work through him. I don’t have enough first hand data to know if Schiazza is a good at his job, and having worked with scatter-brained college students myself, I am sensitive to the challenges he faces. But still, this is absurd.

To the extent that there is a whole bunch of crucial information that student leaders/party-throwers need to know, fine. Write it down! Collect all the material that you would have presented in a four hour class into a 30 page booklet. (It is at least 8 times more efficient for smart Williams students to absorb information by reading rather than listening.) If you are worried that they won’t read it, then test them on it before you give them the money and/or sign their party paperwork. There is no better way to stifle student initiative than to require a four hour meeting before you allow a student to throw a party.

Now, perhaps I am being unfair to Schiazza. Given the constraints that he faces, no one could do a better job. Or perhaps I am being unfair to the Office of Campus Life. If it were run by someone more competent than Schiazza, it might be a well-loved institution. But I doubt it! There are plenty of already-leaders among Williams students, Ephs who would love nothing more than to throw parties, organize events, and make the Williams campus more fun an exciting. Just give them the resources (money, buildings), monitor their behavior (all student spending and receipts should be posted on-line) and get the hell out of their way.

Summary: Morty is right to give himself a low grade for student social life. Fortunately, an A in this class is easy! Just revise the housing system and eliminate the Office of Campus Life.

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