This is the fourth installment of our seminar about my plan (pdf) to fix Williams housing.

The Uible Lament: The only way to create genuine and lively communities to which students feel a real attachment is to allow large groups of students to sort themselves into houses.

(Named in honor of Frank Uible ’57, former president of the DKE House. Frank is famous (on EphBlog) for reciting “Bring back . . .” whenever someone mentions the various ills of Williams social life. The ellipsis take the place of “fraternities.”)

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. Assume that the large group number is 15 for the sophomore class. Assume that 20 large groups apply for inclusion in the lottery. The Student Housing Committee (SHC) first confirms that each of the groups meet the criteria for inclusion in terms of gender balance, no more than 5 individuals from the same student organization and so on. The SHC would then “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 to the second floor of 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.

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 have broken up. They would select rooms according to the lottery, with whatever gender caps or other restrictions were 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.

The sorting of students by natural affinity occurs on three levels: Students have sorted themselves into large groups, those large groups have sorted themselves into houses, and the small groups have sorted themselves based on the large and small groups that have picked before them. 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 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 among strangers 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 by 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.

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