Although it is tough to judge these things from a distance, I am impressed with College Council Co-Presidents Mike Tcheyan ’10 and Lizzy Brickley ’10. One of their campaign issues was the expansion of the co-op program. Good for them! [Update: Here is my letter to CUL from 4 years ago making the same suggestion.]

Summary of this post: Tcheyan and Brickley should use the NRC process as an occasion to move selected houses (probably Spencer, Brooks, Agard and Wood) out of the Neighborhoods and into the Co-ops. A Student Housing Committee (similar to the JA Selection Committee) should supervise the co-op lottery to encourage large groups of seniors to pick into entire houses.

There is not enough time to fix all of Williams Housing this year. (And here (pdf) is how to do that.) But those two changes would both make a significant improvement for students next year and pave the way for a better system.

See below for details.

Background: Co-ops are perhaps the most popular and successful part of housing at Williams, other than freshmen entries. Originally designed to provide alternative living arrangements (small houses in which students cooked/cleaned for themselves), they have morphed over time into generic senior housing, with a majority of the class seeking space in co-ops each year, not because they want to clean, but because they want the chance to live with their closest friends.

The Record provides some useful background information.

With an evaluation of the Neighborhood System already underway, peripheral discussions have also been taking place amongst various administrators regarding a potential expansion of co-op housing. Demand for co-ops has consistently outweighed availability over the past few years, with around three rising seniors entering the co-op lottery for every one spot available. According to Gail Rondeau, Campus Life assistant, 318 members of the Class of 2008 entered the co-op draw, as did 289 members of the Class of 2009 and 314 of the Class of 2010. To compound matters, the number of available spots decreased from 109 to 101 last year when the College dropped the Rectory as a co-op.

The promise to attempt to claim “unused” buildings on campus for new co-ops was central to the campaign platform of College Council (CC) co-presidents Mike Tcheyan ’10 and Lizzy Brickley ’10, who have initiated discussion on the matter with various administrators, including Dean Merrill, Assistant Director of Campus Life Aaron Gordon, who is in charge of Residential Life, and Associate Vice President for Facilities Diana Prideaux-Brune. According to Tcheyan, these sessions were meant to be an initial step in the long-term goal of finding a suitable building to be designated as another co-op.

Read the whole article.

Tcheyan and Brickley wrote in their self-nomination.

Improve the Neighborhood System. We want to tailor the neighborhood system to become a benefit rather than a detriment to student life. The administration has imposed the neighborhood system on the student body. We will work within those constraints to make all students’ residential life experiences as good as possible. We will start to improve the system by fighting to expand the co-op program and reclaim unused small houses around campus for the student housing pool.

Excellent idea. Previous discussion here. The Neighborhood Review Committee Interim Report (pdf) does not discuss co-ops, but the Committee’s deliberations provide a perfect occasion for smart Ephs like Tcheyan and Brickley to effect change.

Although the NRC does not have the power to change the system in major ways, it is probably in a position to impose minor changes for next year. (Major changes will have to wait for President Falk.) If anything, the NRC, like all committees, probably has a bias toward recommending some changes, if only so that all its hard-working social engineers can feel like they are doing something for Williams.

The hard way to expand co-op housing is by converting existing buildings. This is a worthwhile idea, one that I have been pushing for years. But, given the current budget crunch, it may be very hard to do. Tcheyan and Brickley are, obviously, trying their best on this, but it is a tough case to make right now. Fortunately, their (likely?) loss in that effort may give them more power in making a different sort of change: Transform some of the current row houses in the Neighborhoods into co-ops in ten easy steps.

1) These houses may not have kitchens. No worries! The students who want to live their won’t care. Just allow them to stay on the meal plan.

2) Change the terminology from “Co-op Housing” to “Senior Housing.” There is no reason to make a big distinction between houses with and without kitchen facilities. There are a variety of houses, each with different characteristics. Certain rules may apply to certain houses (in terms of the duties of residents, the limits on college meal plan participation) but the process by which seniors are placed into houses is the same.

3) The most likely houses to add are: Spencer (25) and Brooks (28) (from Spencer Neighborhood) and Agard (30) and Wood (30) from (Wood Neighborhood). First, the Spencer Neighborhood is already the largest neighborhood, with 114 more students than Dodd. It can afford to lose 53 spots. Second, the Wood Neighborhood would, after losing 60 spots, be about the same size as Dodd. Third, Agard and Wood are so far away from the rest of campus that they, like Poker Flats, are perfect for seniors.

4) Both these neighborhoods have above average housing quality. So, although some rising seniors will lose out because the senior rooms that they had planned to pick are now gone, they have already had an advantage for two years (and they still have the option of participating in Senior Housing and getting these rooms anyway). To ease the transition, we could even give students from these neighborhoods and advantage in the lottery for choosing into a house from their neighborhood. But such an advantage would probably only be necessary for one year.

5) One advantage to this plan is that it allows some doubles to go to students who really don’t mind a double (conditional on getting to live in a house with all their senior buddies) as opposed to forcing doubles on sophomores with lousy picks. Other house options are plausible too. Perhaps West should replace Spencer? Williams could allow two large groups of seniors each to select into West. Hubbell (27) might be added as well.

6) It would be handy if the number of beds in these 4 (or 3 or 5) houses were standardized so that there would be one uniform (large) group size for seniors to organize themselves into. This could be done by increasing the number of doubles in the small houses (thereby easing the housing crunch) or decreasing the number of doubles in the large houses (and thereby making the rooms more befitting the seniors who will be living there). In the short term, Williams will probably want to add doubles. But, in the long term, we should be moving to a system in which every senior has a single. For now, assume that all these senior houses have 30 students.

7) Establish a Student Housing Committee (SHC) that would operate independently from the Administration but with close contacts to it, just as the Junior Adviser Selection Committee does now. That Committee would, in consultation with CUL and the Dean’s Office, come up with a procedure for allocating Senior Housing. I would recommend a series of rounds with decreasing pick sizes in each. In the first round, seniors would form groups of 30 to “apply” for the houses of that size. (Assume for the sake of discussion, that these are Brooks, Agard and Wood.) If only three groups apply and they each pick a different house first, then the SHC just needs to assign them to their first choice. Everyone wins! If there are more groups than houses or if more than one group wants to pick Agard, then the SHC would need to come up with a lottery process of some kind.

8) To the extent that Williams is concerned about “theme housing” in the senior house process it could require, via the SHC, that applicant groups, at least the large ones, not be thematic. No precise requirements would need to be specified beforehand. The SHC could handle this in a know-it-when-we-see-it fashion. A roughly even gender split could be required. With such a split, the only theme likely to emerge is racial. With luck, off-the-record conversations with key individuals would solve that problem before it reached the formal application stage.

9) Once the large-house-round is complete, the second round could begin. (We need to allow large groups that lost out in the first round to re-organize themselves.) In this round, the diversity of the small houses makes it impossible to standardize in a group size. So, instead, it is probably best to have seniors form themselves into groups of whatever size they like as long as that size corresponds to a specific house or houses. So, if you are a part of a group of 9, you would apply for Milham and Suzie Hopkins. (This might lead to some gaming as students tried to figure out how many other groups applied to the different houses and then adjusted their group size accordingly. But I doubt, given the complexities involved, this would be a big issue.)

10) Once all the applications are in, the SHC would allocate houses to groups. This might be via a strict lottery. Or the SHC might take other considerations into play. For example, if a particular house is good for throwing parties, it would be a good idea to put a group of party-throwing students into that spot.

Summary: Leave all the messy details to CUL and then hope they leave it to a new Student Housing Committee. The biggest improvement in student housing that could be made in time for next fall is a) to move a few houses from the Neighborhoods to Senior Housing and b) Change the co-op process to encourage/facilitate the creation of unified senior houses.

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