Some of the commentary against sophomore-only housing from the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) (pdf) is annoyingly ill-informed and brings up bad memories of the fight over Neighborhood Housing from five years ago.
However, others worried that, if housed all together, sophomores would miss the opportunity to forge friendships with and gain the perspectives of older students.
Others shared the concerns of those students who worried that sophomore housing could cut sophomores off from friendships with juniors and seniors and that it might not serve well those students who reach the end of their first year with ambivalent feelings about their entry experience.
These “others” are fairly clueless. Williams had a ten year experience with sophomore only housing in Mission Park under free agency. There is no evidence that Williams sophomores in that era were any more cut off from juniors/seniors then than they are today. Most substantive relationships between sophomores and juniors/seniors have always been driven by shared participation in extra-curricular activities (or via JA connections from the previous year). If you are a sophomore, the juniors/seniors you know best are those that play on your team, sing in your a cappella group, participate in your student organization or hang out with your JAs. The housing system does not change those relationships. It is true, of course, that sophomores may also get to know the juniors/seniors that live near them, but this will be a relatively unimportant part of the total cross-class interactions. No one has disputed my description of what life was like in the 1980s. Summary: Even in an era in which students lived in Carter House for three years, less than half the seniors even knew the names of at least half the sophomores. I had lunch with a current junior who lives in a Greylock dorm last month. He reported not even knowing the names of the sophomores who lived next door.
Recall (?!) my Record op-ed from 2005.
Different housing policies have different effects on student life. It would be irresponsible to implement cluster housing without taking a data-driven look at the experiences of other colleges.
Let’s focus on a specific example. The CUL’s argument asserts that cluster housing would benefit sophomores because it would allow for “deeper connections” to other classes. This is an empirical claim. It might be true, but, having lived in Carter House from 1985 to 1988 and in a Harvard undergraduate house from 1993 to 1997, I am not sure that it is. But why rely on CUL Chair Will Dudley’s assertion, my observation, or your guesswork? Why not gather some data and examine the issue?
First, we would need to operationalize the notion of “deeper connections.” What does this mean and how can we measure it? We could ask each sophomore:
1. How many seniors he knows.
2. How many seniors are among his five closest friends.
3. How many seniors he has shared a meal with in the last two days.
Much of survey research is devoted to figuring out the best way of eliciting correct information. There are several Williams professors (Marcus, DeVeaux, Klingenberg, Sheppard, Zimmerman, et al.) with the requisite expertise as well as statistician alumni more than willing to help out.
Second, we need to see how these measures of “deeper connections” vary across time and space. It is a shame that the CUL, or some other body, does not design a thorough survey of undergraduate life at Williams and administer it every year. If participation in room draw were contingent upon completing the form, response rates would be close to 100 percent.
If the CUL had been doing this for the last 20 years, it would be much easier to examine how life at Williams has changed and to speculate on the causes of those changes as well as the likely effects of alternate policies. Although this hasn’t been done, there is no reason not to start now.
Did the College listen to me? No. The problem with the Administration is not that it engages in social engineering. It has to. The problem is that it is incompetent. If the Administration really cared about the amount of interaction between sophomores and upperclassmen then it should have started to measure that interaction five years ago. If it still cares, it should start measuring it now.
But, in fact, Williams does not really care. The Administration/Trustees wanted to stop all the black students from living together in a theme-house fashion. Mission accomplished! It has no interest in taking a serious look at the interactions between sophomores and juniors/seniors. If it did, data collection would be the first step.