An anonymous student asked for my opinion on the history of the campus politics behind Neighborhood Housing at Williams. My answer below.

1) The student has already read much of my previous commentary. See also this. On my to-do list is to put all this material together and create a 200 (500?) page document with better organization and supporting material. Maybe next year.

2) The single most important thing to remember about the politics of campus housing is that Morty has the most powerful voice. And the single most important thing to remember about Morty is that he hates student self-segregation, especially along racial lines. When Morty first arrived on campus in 2000, there was significant self-segregation. (Perhaps a reader can give us the exact details.) African-American students all lived together in Brooks. Male helmet-sport athletes live together in Tyler. Morty was going to do whatever it took to stop that. (There was also other self-segregation, especially in terms of similar groups of seniors “taking over” a row house, but African-Americans and male hockey/football/lacrosse players were the two biggest issues.)

On several occasions, Morty has mentioned his experience as a junior professor at U Penn in the late 1970’s, his dislike of the “theme” houses and self-segregation that he saw on campus at that time. Any proposed change going forward will only succeed if you can convince Morty that it will not lead to student self-segregation.

3) In many ways, the campus debates of 2000 to 2006 centered around a series of attempts by the Administration to make self-segregation go away without getting rid of the (wildly popular) free agency system. (All students participated in a single campus wide housing lottery.) Here is a useful summary. Shrinking rooming group sizes, preventing WSO from posting the results of the housing draw as it progressed, enforcing gender balance in houses, all these and more were attempts to stop self-segregation. All (mostly) failed, because Williams students are resourceful and want to live with their friends. Yet the single underlying theme throughout these years was an attempt to stop self-segregation.

4) After ending self-segregation, the most important theme of the underlying politics involved bringing Yale to Williams. There was widespread feeling that Williams housing (and social life in general) was not as good as it should be, that students did not know the people they lived with as well as they should, that social cohesion was better in the housing of the 70s and 80s. Some of the people saying this were just saying it in an attempt to convince students to embrace the change. Others really believed it, they really thought that Williams could and should move to a system more like that of Yale and Rice, with students living together for three years in a geographically compact area with a central dining hall.

[The central problem with this vision were always two fold: First, Williams does not have the buildings to support this vision. Ever been to Yale? All the students (400?) in a given House actually live in the same building and eat in the same dining hall. And students from other houses live and eat elsewhere. Although such a plan might work for something like Greylock or even the Berkshire Quad, Williams does not have enough such structures. This issue manifested itself most prominently in the debates as the CUL tried endless combinations of clusters. The CUL wanted lots of small clusters (ideally 6 and at least 5) but just could not make such combinations a) geographically compact and b) even in housing quality.

Second, even if Williams had such structures, we provide students with much more freedom in terms of junior year abroad and senior year off-campus than places like Yale. (Not sure if this is still true today.) That is, even if you have everyone living together, if 1/2 the juniors and 1/3 of the seniors are not these (juniors aboard or JAing, seniors in co-ops or off-campus) then it is tough to build a meaningful community.]

Anyway, the underlying politics still involved many good people who wanted to make Williams housing/social life better and thought that a Yale model (live and eat together with the same set of people for three years) was the way to go. I think that this feeling is less important to the politics going forward because — Surprise! — Neighborhood Housing has been such a dismal failure on this front. Who could have predicted that?

5) Another aspect of history is the central role of CUL in the debate. (Lots of background reading here.) Almost any plausible change to the system will need to go through CUL, at least in the next few years. Also, CUL/Administration will refuse to make any radical changes. Partisans of Neighborhood Housing have always argued that it would take “years” for the new system to work, that we need to allow students who knew free agency (and miss it) to graduate. You can make changes around the margin, but no one is going to countenance major reform, at least this year.

I’ll save my recommendations for another post. Anyone else with thoughts or questions on the history of the politics of housing at Williams is welcome to comment.

Print  •  Email