Have I mentioned my latest genius idea for fixing Williams housing? Here (pdf) is the current (much improved) version of my plan. (False) Modesty prevents me from assigning this as part of our January seminar. The major addition is to encourage large pick groups (15 or more) of fixed size (must be exactly 15) with gender balance and no more than 5 Ephs who are members of any one student team/organization.

Details below:

Larger and Diverse Pick Groups of Fixed Size

The 2005 Report of the Committee on Undergraduate Life provides an excellent description of the goal housing policy at Williams.

The primary goal of the Williams House System is the creation of an environment in which upperclass houses are not merely places to live, but are genuine and lively communities to which students feel a real attachment. The intention is not to replace other forms of attachment that are, and should remain, extremely important at Williams (including those based on class-year, entries, and extracurricular groups). Rather, the goal is to supplement these attachments in a way that achieves what they are having difficulty achieving on their own in the absence of a house system. The creation of a residential affiliation that enables the emergence of house spirit — by encouraging students to think of themselves as members of a community, and so to participate with each other in a wide variety of activities and events . . . .

The easiest way to ensure that houses contain students who feel a real “attachment” to each other and, therefore, to the house which they share is to allow very large, but diverse, pick groups.

Consider a scenario in which rising sophomores are allowed to form pick groups of size 15 but with certain restrictions. First, the groups must be gender-balanced, either 8/7 or 7/8. Second, no more than 1/3 of the students in the group can participate in any single extra-curricular activity. It is fine to have five football players or BSU members or Record reporters or Springstreeters, but you can’t have 6 or more from any category. Third, the groups must be exactly 15. Not 14 or 16. Not 10 or 8 or 6. Students can still form groups of 4 or fewer, but, if they want to select with a larger group, they must create a group of 15.

The mechanism would probably involve (for each class year separately) a first round in which large groups were formed. Consider the sophomore class and assume that the large group number is 15. Assume that 20 large groups apply for inclusion in the lottery. Someone, perhaps in the Dean’s Office or, better, a student group modeled on the Junior Adviser Selection Committee, needs to run and arbitrate the process. Assume that Williams creates a Student Housing Committee (SHC) for that purpose. The first step is for the SHC to confirm that each of the groups met the criteria for inclusion in terms of gender balance, no more than 5 students from the same organization and so on. Then the SHC would need to “block off” 20 picks of 15 beds each for the use of these groups. All of the beds in a given pick would be in the same building and geographically close, thereby guaranteeing that the students in the group would be living near to one another. Each pick would feature a collection of rooms that were, on average, slightly better than the average quality of sophomore rooms overall. (We want to encourage and reward students for creating large groups.) Each pick would be as similar in quality as possible to the other 19 picks.

The second step would be a lottery for the 20 groups. The group with the highest pick would go first and so on. Since all 20 picks are of similar quality, groups will be largely indifferent about which pick they get. But, after the first few groups select, there will be every incentive for groups to sort themselves into houses on the basis of their affinity to the other large groups that have already selected into those houses. If most of the students in my group know and like (at least most of) the 15 students in the group that has already picked in Currier, then we will probably pick into Currier as well. The more people who you know and like in your house, the more fun that house will be. So the sorting of students by natural affinity is going on at two levels: Students are have sorted themselves into large groups and those large groups have sorted themselves into houses. Even before September, the students scheduled to move into Currier will already know and like many of their future housemates. Moreover, because each housing group is diverse — in terms of both gender and group memberships — Currier itself will be as diverse as any freshmen dorm. If a large group with a low lottery number does not like any of the remaining picks, it would be permitted to “break up” into small groups, as if it had never created a large group in the first place.

The third step, after all the large groups have been assigned to houses, is a second stage lottery for students in groups of 4 or fewer, including large groups that had broken up. They would select rooms according to the lottery, with whatever gender caps or other restrictions needed. They would have full information about the large (and small) groups that had picked before them and would, therefore, be able to minimize the conflicts between partiers and non-partiers, at least for those with lottery picks above the very bottom of the class. This is the third level at which students are sorting themselves.

The first advantage of large pick groups is that they increase the chances that a dorm will become a home, that students will feel a meaningful attachment to Currier or Carter, not because they care about those particular bricks, but because they care about the 14 other students in their pick group who live there. Not only would 2 or 3 large groups be able to, on their own, create a community, but those groups (and the smaller groups who picked after them) would have selected that particular house with knowledge of the other students who would be living there. Given that students move from house to house each year (and no plan under consideration would prevent that), there is no way to create a house community unless you start with a large group of students who already know and like one another. If Neighborhood Housing has taught us anything it is that community does not come in a single year, no matter how many resources are devoted to the cause.

The second advantage of large pick groups (of fixed size) is that they increase the chances that students who have, for whatever reason, not developed a circle of close friends in the class to live with are sought out but larger groups. If your preferred group is 13, then you need to find 2 more students if you want to live together. (Otherwise, you have no choice but to split up into 4 groups, each with 4 or fewer students and no guarantee of ending up anywhere near each other.) The two students you find are precisely those who most need to be found by someone. Who will you pick? The short answer is: Whoever you can find. You need to seek out fellow students who are not already in a larger group, who are not close friends with three other students and, therefore, unwilling to split up their group of 4. You need to find students who have not, yet, found a home at Williams. How about the quiet kid in your entry? How about the loner in your physics class? How about the student who was cut from your sports team? You need to find someone, ideally someone that you know is nice and hope will fit in.

The students recruited for large groups will, finally, have found a place at Williams. Knowing how friendly William students are (especially the sorts of students who will want to live with a large group), we can be sure that these recruited students will be welcome at the lunch table and in the common room. They will become a part of the group because the group invited them in, because the group needed them. Of course, there will still be quiet kids in every dorm, loner students in every science class and athletes cut from every team. Those students are among those most likely to be dissatisfied with their Williams experience. But by providing incentives for other students to include them in a broader social circle, Williams does everything possible to end their isolation.

The third advantage of large pick groups is that it guarantees diversity in the least disruptive fashion possible. Currier and Carter will be as diverse as Sage and Williams. And, better yet, the College will still be allowing students so much freedom in deciding who joins their rooming groups that the diversity requirement for large groups will chafe as little as any such requirement could.

Consider these observationshttp://www.williams.edu/dean/nrc/What%20We%27ve%20Heard%20Jan610.pdf from the Second Interim Report from the Neighborhood Review Committee:

Students underscored what the Committee found in its surveying: they want to live with their closest friends and want more freedom of choice. Many students also embrace the value of having demographic diversity within residences and hope that a system could be developed that would allow students full choice in whom they live with while also making sure that separate, homogeneous enclaves of students don’t take over houses and dorms. However, if students had to choose between these two goals – choice and diversity within their residential settings – most would prefer to live with their closest friends.

The NRC hopes that we can develop a set of recommendations that will allow the College to get past having to choose between these two goals in upper-class residential housing.

The NRC is exactly correct that students care more about choice than they do about diversity but they are completely wrong to argue that Williams can’t have both. The key is to allow students to create their own large, diverse housing groups. Diversity is guaranteed by construction but no student is prevented from living with any specific friend in his own class, assuming that that friend wants to live with him. The only “constraint” in this new world is the prohibition against large non-diverse groups. Yet the College has never allowed such groups! Even during the halcyon days of Free Agency, groups were limited in size to either 6 (a decade ago) or 4 (more recently).

The NRC also notes that:

Students’ residences need to be places free of intimidation and disrespect, and students should not have to shoulder the burden of justifying their right to feel safe in their houses and dorms. The NRC also recognizes that there is a difference between this right to feeling safe and the discomfort that, typically, is going to rise from time to time among students as they grapple with the challenges of living together. . . .

Many individuals also spoke of their frustrations in not even knowing their immediate neighbors. Students are not getting the full benefit of widening their friendship circles and, moreover, are living in environments that are not conducive to resolving low-level disputes in an informal manner.

Correct. The trick to minimizing these conflicts is to provide students with the tools and incentives to better sort themselves. The proponents of Free Agency sometimes forget that “discomfort” was a not uncommon problem because the lottery process lent itself too easily to fractured housing. For example, a group of three juniors would pick three rooms in a four person Greylock suite. They were happy since they were all living together, but they may also have been somewhat concerned about who would be joining them. Then, later in the lottery, a single student would take that room, a student who was probably split up from his friends. What happens when his preferences for noise, music and parties conflicts with those of the other three?

Note that no one is at fault. The system has “worked.” Students have been allowed to live “wherever they want.” But, even with all that freedom, conflicts were (too) common precisely because there were two few incentives for students to sort themselves more efficiently. The more that students end up living with others who they are comfortable with — Ephs with whom they have enough in common that they are able to work out whatever problems may arise — the better off everyone will be.

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