I am shocked, shocked that Neighborhood identity continues to be a figment of the Administration’s imagination.

When the neighborhood housing system was first implemented, the question was not whether current students would like it – they didn’t – but whether future generations would benefit socially and come to appreciate it. It is now in its third year, and the administration must be wondering how the current generation of students is dealing with it and whether we have begun to warm up to the system. After all, it’s been over two years. Has our opinion of the system changed?

To put it bluntly, it hasn’t. It was often said during the initial controversy that the furor over the new housing system would disappear in four years when the people who remembered the old system graduated. Now that we’re in our third year of neighborhood housing, this seems to be wrong.

Well, there are two separate issues. First, would students forget the details of the controversy, the history of how we got to today? Answer, as Andrew Triska’s ’10 later comments make clear, is Yes. Students do forget. Second, would students grow to love or at least not-hate the Neighborhood system? Triska is correct that the answer to that is No.

Even students who didn’t live under the old system – myself included – think the new system is a mistake. Even the freshmen have opinions on the issue, and those opinions are generally negative. You can’t implement a system that’s opposed by a majority of students and expect new generations of students to welcome it. Students who didn’t have housing choice can still imagine what it would be like, and it’s an enticing idea.

Indeed. During his talk at Foxborough last March, Morty (wistfully?) quoted a statistic about student opposition to the elimination of fraternities 45 years ago and student opposition to the ending of free agency. He implied that future generations would look as kindly on his overruling of student opinion today as we look upon Jack Sawyer’s ’39 leadership in the early 1960s.

Unlikely!

Morty, as an economist, may not give history the weight it deserves. Recall the Terrible 22, and the Administration’s (Morty’s?) misleading description of that history to impressionable Ephs like Jonathan Landsman ’05. The fight against fraternities was led by the students. (Does Morty know that history?) Sawyer’s genius was not so much in overruling student (and alumni!) opinion as in harnessing it. He didn’t eliminate fraternities, he allowed the Williams community to make the decision for itself. Morty’s single biggest mistake in trying to improve student life was his failure to create the equivalent of the Angevine Committee.

More quotes and ranting below.

Andrew Triska ’10 continues with:

The problem seems to be that the administration expected some sort of neighborhood loyalty to emerge. They imagined future generations of Ephs fighting for the honor of Dodd, Wood, Currier and Spencer in well-attended ping-pong tournaments and pumpkin-carving contests, fiercely defending the honor of their neighborhoods. Perhaps they expected that new neighborhood traditions would emerge, or that the neighborhoods would develop personalities a la Gryffindor. But, not surprisingly, Ephs don’t seem to define themselves by their choices of housing. Instead, our loyalties belong to our sports teams, clubs and especially friends – who, by the way, might be able to live together if we weren’t from different neighborhoods. The goal of the system was to unite, but it seems to have divided.

All those who think that I am out of touch with campus opinion should compare Andrew Triska’s ’10 words with mine.

Students do not feel, and will never feel, any meaningful attachment to their Neighborhoods. You can not have group identity within the Williams community for all the reasons that I have cataloged ad nauseam. Our architecture is too dispersed. Our dining halls are not integrated with our houses. More than half the juniors leave the neighborhood system to JA or go abroad. More than one third of the seniors live in co-ops or off-campus. Few members of Wood will care who wins the volleyball competition because few members of Wood care about Wood. They care about their friends, their teammates, their classmates and their fellow Ephs, in that order.

Back to Triska:

Yes, unlimited freedom may be a mistake. No one wants to feel excluded because their house is dominated by a particular social group or sports team. And perhaps forcing people who don’t ordinarily socialize with certain groups to live with those groups has some social benefit. But social change can’t be engineered, and people will find ways of socially isolating themselves or their groups no matter what the administration does.

Perhaps “encouraging” rather than “forcing” might be key here. We could keep the neighborhoods and still have neighborhood social events, but still retain the freedom to pick housing in any neighborhood we choose. We could reduce the sizes of pick groups and more strictly enforce the “no-pressure” rule.

Doesn’t Triska read EphBlog? All these fixes and more were tried in the five years leading up to Neighborhood Housing. All failed to end student self-segregation. If Triska wants to advocate for change, he should start with my plan, or wait for the new version, due out next month!

But what we cannot do – indeed, what is impossible to do – is to artificially create communities on campus. It is not feasible to throw together a group of people and expect social cohesiveness based solely on their location. Under-attended neighborhood events and a general resentment toward the powers-that-be are a testament to this.

Who would have predicted that?

After all, a community that isn’t defined by its members but by an external authority is not a community at all. A student who is forced to be a member of such a community will quickly grow to resent that community. And this is precisely what’s happened: students are feeling alienated by the neighborhood system rather than identifying with their neighborhood. The neighborhood housing system had good intentions but unrealistic expectations, and part of fixing the problem is recognizing that.

Correct.

What would happen if we suddenly went back to the free-agent system? Largely nothing, I predict.

Wrong! All the African American students would start living together. Morty will never allow that, so full scale free agency is a non-starter.

Students seem to consider their neighborhoods matters of inconvenience – and, indeed, burdens – rather than their social centers or communities. If anything, we would have greater social diversity: people would be able to live with friends from different neighborhoods that they meet during their years at Williams rather than sticking with the same people they lived with in their entries. No neighborhood communities would collapse because these communities never existed in the first place. What communities did exist – and what communities continue to exist despite the efforts of the administration – were based on choice rather than social engineering, friendship rather than location. And what fault can our college find with that?

Plenty. Morty will never allow significant amounts of student self-segregation on clearly observable characteristics. He does not care if all the hockey players want to love live together. He won’t allow it. And neither would most Williams administrators. Any realistic proposal for improving the Williams housing system must begin from that starting place.

What would help for next year? How about some party houses?

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