Mon 11 Jan 2010
My discussion text is the Interim Report on the Neighborhood Review Committee. As a long time critic of the administration’s misguided (and, as this report illustrates, ineffective if not counterproductive) attempts at residential social engineering (even before Neighborhoods, from gender-capping houses to reducing group pick size), I’m glad to be discussing this issue. I would like to have been proven wrong, but the only really surprising things about this report is just how colossally Neighborhood housing has failed and that the administration has released a document confirming it. They try to soften the blow as much as they can, trying to muddy the waters by conjecturing that the deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the housing system is in part a proxy for the way that various student groups interact on campus — but the unmistakable conclusion is that the housing system is not a symptom of another illness, but instead of a part of it.
The first part of the report is the Executive Summary — and here the facts are damning. NO IDENTIFIABLE SUBGROUP OF STUDENTS (and rest assured, they tried to massage the data anyway they could to find some group), not by income, not by race, not by sex, is in favor of the neighborhood housing. 70% of students are against it. Racial, ethnic, and LGB minority groups are all against neighborhood housing, and they all feel that it increases their isolation on campus. Students feel in some vague sense that it has provided increased social events on campus and are also in some vague sense supportive of the articulated goals of the system (more interaction between students, no racial or sex-based housing), but even that support is secondary to students’ own desire for their own choice in housing. Importantly, students do not simply go to the dining halls closest to their residences.
In the next section, the Committee outlined what it did to undertake a year-long, comprehensive review of the Neighborhood system. The Committee was comprised of students, staff, faculty, and administrators. From there, the report goes into a description of the neighborhood system, breaks down the clusters, and notes that until the review, many of the committee members (i.e., not the students) didn’t really comprehend how far some of the dorms were from their “home” dining halls (Tyler, Tyler Annex, and Thompson going to Dodd for meals). But hey, who cares if students have to hoof it around a campus to eat their meals? The report then details that the Entries are now attached to a particular neighborhood, and the penalties that the system imposes on students who deign to try to switch neighborhoods more than once.
Next up is the student surveys — and the news is not good for the social engineers. 70.5% of the respondents were unsatisfied, and 12.5% had no opinion, and 17% were either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied (and that grouping, if anything, makes it look like far more students are “very satisfied” than actually are). Another damning datum is that even the students who are more supportive of the articulated goals of the housing system (e.g., minorities, women, non-athletes, non-drinkers) are no more satisfied with the housing system. Revealed preference, anyone?
The student surveys articulated 6 main issues with this system:
(1) lack of freedom to live with friends or near particular academic resources (e.g., the way senior science majors tried to live in West); relatedly, that the campus is small enough without further fracturing the student population into somewhat arbitrary sub-groups and neighborhood housing has failed to replace the institutions that it destroyed (like the Odd Quad). Not that this is news to social engineers — but the failures of their grandiose visions never deter them. Cf Poletown, Kelo. Neighborhoods and community institutions are organic, and cannot be forced.
(2) Although students are supportive of “mixing” rationales for diversity and getting to know and interact with other students, they do not feel that the residential system is the appropriate venue for social engineering.
(3) LGB, and racial and ethnic minority students feel that the Neighborhood system has only exacerbated isolation on campus.
(4) Students really dislike living with people with wildly varying lifestyles — by spreading out the loud partiers from one or two dorms all over campus, the administration has turned one or two “drinking dorms” or party dorms into a problem that can and does occur anywhere on campus.
(5) Some belief that neighborhoods have been, to varying degrees, somewhat beneficial at social programming, though non-drinkers are much more likely to find any benefit from neighborhood social programming.
(6) The neighborhood system allocates housing unfairly, based on fluctuating stocks and varying students going abroad.
Notably, the report accepts that the neighborhood system has created many of these complaints, but tries to explain it away by assuming students’ rose-colored glasses about the “free agency era”. Also important is that the report contends that many of these complaints are endemic to Williams and its small rural campus. That may be true, but the existence of problems and their severity are two different issues, and the report to some extent sets up a strawman by noting that many of these complaints will always be around to some degree.
The operational constraints on the housing system include a fairly varying pool of housing at williams — from designed dorms, to buildings that were not meant to be housing, to converted housing (hotels and frat houses). The report also notes the way that Paresky’s quality and variety of food options have further kicked down the flimsy veneer of neighborhood community that the administrators have tried to consign students to through the neighborhood system. The report recognizes, significantly, that student dining choices appear to be related to convenience (proximity to activities) and food variety rather than mirroring residential clustering of students.
The question going forward, especially with President Falk’s arrival, is “what do we do about it?” This mealy-mouthed defense of a failed system is not the answer. It only says “other things could be worse” and “these problems aren’t new”. Other systems may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t head and shoulders above this mess.
My two cents (and I realize that the administration will never agree to it in practice, even if they allow things to develop that way de facto), we should scrap the whole thing — no gender balancing of houses, group pick size back to the most common suite size, let people cluster however they damn want. Yes, I understand the need for uncomfortable learning, and that not all learning takes place in the classroom. But people should be able to be comfortable in their own rooms — and it’s to the benefit of EVERYBODY if, e.g., early risers live together, if night people live together, and if all the loud partying is off away in a corner of campus (like oh, say, Tyler Annex) where weeknight partying won’t bother the students who are trying to study or sleep.
The need for social engineering is much diminished at a school like Williams, where most of the students live on-campus, where the campus is at worst a 20 minute walk from corner to corner, and where students largely attend classes, study, and eat meals in locations that depend only weakly on class selection. You don’t and won’t have the stratification of a “university” where the students with different majors are on opposite ends of campus and never interact.
That being said, the Administration should encourage mingling at various dining halls or in various dorms (and there are many ways to do this both in and out of mealtimes — e.g., including a rotating “bad dish” “vegetarian/vegan dish” “good dish” that bounces fron dining hall to dining hall — rather than having each dining hall with a designated specialty”) in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with students’ need for residences that are comfortable and suited to their particular lifestyles.
I would invite administrators to try living for a year with people with incompatible lifestyles — who have the exact same right to the living space — e.g., some senior “helmet sport athletes” who enjoy some heavy drinking, before they decide to condemn undergraduates to that situation in the name of social engineering. These are college students — they are adults, not children. Treat them like adults, rather than rats in a Skinner box for you to observe and see what happens. Let them make choices, let them succeed. More importantly, let them make bad decisions, and let those bad decisions be learning experiences.
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