This is the first installment of our one week seminar about my plan (pdf) to fix Williams housing. Each day I will post (below the fold) some excerpts from that 18 page (!?!) plan and seek comments and discussion. Feedback is most welcome! I have been pushing an idea along these lines from more than 5 years, but only recently figured out the importance of large group size to solving the problem.

The central dilemma is that Williams does not have the architecture of a place like Yale (equal quality houses, each with its own dining facility) and so there is no way to force students to live in the same house multiple years in a row. Also, given the large numbers of juniors who go abroad and seniors who live off-campus and in co-ops, there is no way to generate any sort of neighborhood identity. So, we need a different approach.

I have sent a copy of this plan to all the members of the Committee on Undergraduate Life. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. Here is the executive summary:

There is a strong consensus within the Williams community about the main assumptions underlying housing policy: the importance of the freshmen entry/JA system, the success of co-op housing for seniors, the lack of funds for major new construction, and the desirability of both house community and diversity. Given those assumptions, the best housing policy would involve three major structures. First, a Student Housing Committee — modeled on the Junior Advisor Selection Committee — should run most aspects of the housing process. The more that students have responsibility for managing their own lives, the more they will learn from the process and the better the outcomes will be. Second, students should, as much as possible, live in houses with other members of their Williams class: sophomores in the Berkshire Quad, juniors in Greylock; seniors in row houses and co-ops. Third, non-senior rooming groups should be as large as possible and of fixed size, but subject to diversity constraints. For example, sophomore rooming groups would be any number less than 5 or exactly equal to 15, with restrictions on both gender balance and organization membership. Allowing students to group themselves has two main advantages: it creates genuine house community and it provides major incentives for large groups to “pick up” less popular students. The more that students sort themselves into houses and the more incentives they have for being both diverse and inclusive, the better the housing experience for everyone.

Below are the key assumptions. (Comments welcome.)


Assumptions
After a decade of turmoil, the outlines of a better housing system for Williams are fairly obvious. Begin with a series of assumptions, widely held in the College community.

1. The ideal Williams house, whether a small building like Milham or a large dorm like Carter, will feature a diverse group of students who know and like each other. The prototype is the (successful) freshmen entry, featuring students from all sorts of backgrounds who enjoy discussion and activities. Any house in which the students, without any interference from the Administration, spontaneously decide to create house t-shirts, compete in broomball, field a Trivia team or create a snow sculpture is a good house. Those activities, although fairly unimportant in and of themselves, indicate a cohesion and fellowship which will unavoidably generate numerous opportunities for learning and growth outside of the classroom.

2. The First Year entry system with Junior Advisers in the Freshmen Quad and Mission Park works well. First Years should be engineered into entries and rooming groups that are as diverse as the Admissions Office can make them. Never had an opportunity to interact with football players or international students? Now is your chance.

3. Co-op housing for seniors works well and should be expanded. There is something magical about the opportunity to live communally with your closest friends senior year. It is a good thing that Williams has exposed you to a wide diversity of Ephs in your first three years. Senior year is the time to enhance and solidify the very special bonds that, if you are lucky, will last a lifetime. Co-ops do that.

4. Senior-only housing is special and should be encouraged and facilitated, even for those who do not want to live as co-ops. All the good aspects of co-ops apply here as well, but there is no reason to prevent those who want to eat in the dining hall from enjoying an intimate housing experience with close friends during their senior year.

5. During sophomore and junior year, it is good to live with both close friends in your suite and Ephs different from and/or unknown to you in your house. The time for the extreme social engineering of freshman year is over, but the importance of being exposed to a diverse group of Ephs remains. It is best that the serendipitous relationships that will arise from these interactions have as many years as possible to develop and deepen.

6. There shall be no theme or special interest housing. The College will not allow significant student self-segregation, especially segregation that crosses class lines and continues for more than one year in the same location. The situation a decade ago (with certain houses dominated by African-American students or by male helmet-sport athletes) will not be permitted again.

7. It is hard to know ahead of time who your friends will be or where your most meaningful Eph connections will occur. It is just as likely as not that your relationships will be with people who came to Williams from very different backgrounds. The more different you are from your fellow Eph, the more likely you both are to get something out of the relationship. But those relationships take time to develop and flower.

8. The physical infrastructure of Williams is a given. No major student housing construction projects are on the horizon. To the extent that there is money for housing, it should be spent on increasing the number of small senior houses and decreasing the number of doubles.

9. The spaces on campus — Dodd, Spencer, Currier and so on — capable of supporting large parties are held in common for all students. The College plans on holding a certain number of parties in those spaces each year, even if the residents of those houses are not attending the party. Students who do not like living in such houses should not pick into them.

10. No housing system is perfect. There will always be students who are dissatisfied. But misery should be decreased whenever possible. A housing system in which 30% are very happy and 3% are miserable is much better than a system in which the breakdown is 50% and 10%.

11. Student choice in housing is a good thing. It is not the most important thing but, as long as the other goals of housing policy are met, it is best to let students choose where to live. This is especially true when it comes to different rooming groups living near each other. It is better to allow the natural clustering of rooming groups with similar preferences about noise and parties than to force groups with conflicting tastes into close proximity. Groups that want to have a Thursday night keg should live near groups that either agree or don’t mind.

Any of these assumptions might be challenged. Reasonable people will disagree. For example, Smith integrates first years into upper class housing. Stanford has theme housing. Yale has a radically different housing infrastructure. Perhaps such systems would make Williams better. Yet the vast majority of Ephs, including current and past members of the Committee on Undergraduate Life, concur with almost all of these statements. The optimal housing arrangement for Williams follows quite naturally, if we accept these assumptions. We should organize housing by class year and encourage the largest, most diverse pick groups possible.

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