A Record op-ed:

I am frustrated by many of the ways in which the campus has changed, most particularly the sudden prominence of the well-intentioned but detrimental Office of Campus Life [OCL], which is locked in a stagnating cycle of its own design. By in effect naming itself “the decider” when it comes to student life, the campus life office has alienated the College’s best leaders. As a result of this rift, the office has become inwardly-focused, self-promotional and deeply resistant to constructive criticism. Student life is student-driven no longer.

No kidding. EphBlog has made this prediction over and over and over again. The more control that Williams students have over life at Williams, the better. The more people (intelligent and well-meaning though they may be) that are hired by the College to “help,” the less active students will be.

The main rational used by CUL in establishing OCL 14 years ago — All the other schools have one so it must be a good idea! — was stupid then and it is stupid now.

Writer Ainsley O’Connell tells a depressing tale. Anyone who cares about student life at Williams must read the whole thing.

When I arrived on campus, director of campus life Doug Bazuin and his staff were a distant idea, not a reality. Barb and Gail administered activities on campus, helping students schedule events from their fishbowl office at the heart of Baxter Hall. Linda Brown administered room draw, her maternal warmth and firmness easing the process. Tom McEvoy (who has since departed) and Jean Thorndike provided big-picture support and served as liaisons between students and administrators. When students were moved to champion a new policy or party idea, Tom and Jean were willing to listen, and often to lend moral and financial support. The execution fell to students, but this sense of responsibility fostered greater ownership.

Great stuff. One of the purposes of EphBlog is to capture this sort of testimony, the thanks of current students to the staff members that have done so much.

But those with long memories will note what a mockery this makes of the CUL’s discussion in 2001 of the lack of staff devoted to student life. Indeed, if there is any table which demonstrates the dishonesty/incompetence of CUL during those years it is this description Staffing at Comparable Institutions. Click on the link. Let’s take a tour. (The line for Williams (all zeroes in bold) is at the bottom.)

First, note how the JA system magically disappears. The “50 junior advisors” for Bates are listed under “Student Staff” but, at Williams, they have vanished. Second, the CUL pretends that Dean Dave Johnson ’71 does not exist. The countless hours that he spent (and spends) working with the JAs and First Years doesn’t matter. Yet you can be sure that one of the “3 Assistant Deans” at Emerson does exactly what Johnson does at Williams, although probably not as well. Third, the CUL erases all the work and commitment of people like Linda Brown and Tom McEvoy, as evoked so nicely by O’Connell.

None of this is surprising, of course. Morty decided in 2000 that there were certain things about Williams that he was going to change. By and large, he has changed them. He and (former) Dean of the College Nancy Roseman and (former) CUL Chair Will Dudley implemented Neighborhood Housing, the biggest change at Williams this century. It was a total failure and has now, thankfully, been removed. Schapiro, Roseman and Dudley went on, despite this disastrous own goal, to college Presidencies at Northwestern, Dickinson and Washington and Lee, promotions which doubled (even tripled) their Williams salaries.

O’Connell goes on:

I will not dispute that in 2003 Williams needed a stronger support system for students looking to launch new initiatives and throw events open to the campus. For many, extracurricular activities had become a burden, with unreasonably long hours spent planning and preparing events down to the last detail. Yet today, some of the best and most innovative groups on campus remain far-removed from campus life, driven by highly motivated and talented individuals. Take Williams Students Online, for example, or 91.9, the student radio station: Their success lies in their student leaders, who have been willing to commit their time to making sweeping changes that have transformed WSO and WCFM, respectively.

It may have been reasonable for O’Connell not to see, in 2003, how this would all work out, but she is naive in the extreme not to see now that this evolution was inevitable. How shall we explain it to her? Imagine a different paragraph.

I will not dispute that in 2003 Williams needed a stronger support system for students looking to launch new publications and manage current ones. For many, writing for and editing student publications had become a burden, with unreasonably long hours spent planning and preparing everything down to the last detail. Yet today, some of the best and most innovative groups on campus remain far-removed from the Office of Campus Publications, driven by highly motivated and talented individuals.

In other words, why isn’t it a good idea for Williams to create an Office of Campus Publications [OCP], with a Director of Campus Publications and a staff of Campus Publication Coordinators? After all, as the meltdown of the GUL in 2001 (?) and the Record‘s occasional inability to pick a single editor-in-chief demonstrates, students sometimes need help. They often make mistakes. Who could deny that having someone to “help” and “support” the Record (and GUL and Mad Cow) wouldn’t make those publications better? No one. Perhaps OCP would even have prevented the demise of Rumor and Scattershot.

But would the experience of the students writing those publications be better with a bunch of (intelligent, well-meaning) paid employees of the College hovering over them? No. That should be obvious to O’Connell. Writing for and editing the Record these last 4 years has probably taught her as much about life its own self as any aspect of her Williams education. If she had had a Doug Bazuin equivalent supervising her all this time, her experience would not have been as rich, her education not as meaningful.

As always, critics will claim that I am advocating that the College provide no help or support, that we abolish the Dean’s Office. No! Some support is good, just as some social engineering is desirable. But, on the margin, the contribution of the OCL is negative.

Vibrant means “long hours spent planning and preparing events down to the last detail.” This is exactly why student institutions like WCFM, WSO and others (Trivia? Rugby? Current students should tell us more) are so vibrant. O’Connell acts as if you can have a vibrant organization or community without time and trouble, sweat and tears. In fact, you can’t.

O’Connell writes as if vibrancy appears from nowhere, that someone just sprinkles magic pixy dust on WSO and WCFM. No. Vibrancy, community, innovation and almost everything else worth having in this imperfect life require “unreasonably long hours” and “preparing everything down to the last detail.” You don’t think that Ephs like Evan Miller at WSO and Matt Piven at WCFM sweat the details? Think again

Unfortunately, the Office of Campus Life and the Dean’s office, which oversees it, have not fostered this model. Instead, both offices have moved in the opposite direction, at times going so far as to render student involvement wholly superficial, as with the planning of this year’s Senior Week. The senior officers elected by the Class of 2006 do nothing more than choose tablecloth colors; it is assistant director of campus life Jess Gulley who runs the show. Hovering over student shoulders, the campus life staff of today is like a mother or father who wants to be your friend instead of your parent. The office should cast itself as an administrative support service, not the arbiter of cool.

Harsh! True? Current students should tell us. But note that this is not Gulley’s fault! I have no doubt that she is wonderful and hard-working, dedicated to making student life better. Each day, she wakes up and tries to figure out how to make this the best Senior Week ever. That is, after all, what the College is paying her to do. In that very act, of course, she decreases the scope of student control and involvement.

Back in the day, students handled almost all aspects of Senior Week. I still remember dancing the night away, in my dress whites, at Mount Hope Farm, the most beautiful Eph of all in my arms. No doubt this year’s seniors, 28 years younger than I, will have a fine time as well. Because of Gulley’s involvement, it may even be true that the events are better planned and organized. Yet everything that she does used to be done by students, hectically and less professionally, but still done by them.

The more that students do to run Williams, the better that Williams will be.

This is a revised version of a post from 2006.

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