Doug writes:

Can you explain why the neighborhood system is the “single biggest failure” at Williams in recent memory? I’m a student here now and the neighborhood system is totally fine with everyone — I’ve never actually heard anyone bash it before. People generally seem to like neighborhood events and not having RAs But there’s also no institutional memory at this point about what it replaced. Curious if you could point me in the right direction to learn about this.

Start with a definition.

Neighborhood Housing: students are randomly assigned to one neighborhood and can’t transfer.

The central aspect of Neighborhood Housing — what made it different than the system today or the system pre-2005 — was that students were assigned to one of four “Neighborhoods” and were not allowed to change. This was similar, indeed it was explicitly designed to be similar, to housing systems at places like Yale and Harvard.

It is true that lots of other things were also changing around this time. Some changes — gender caps — pre-dated the implementation of Neighborhoods and are still with us. Some changes, like moving First Years to Mission, actually had nothing to do with Neighborhood Housing per se. Some of these changes were good. Some bad. But, in this post, I am just discussing Neighborhood Housing at its core: the random assignment of students to housing groups.

Consider some background reading from 2005. Summary:

1) From 1995 to 2006, the Williams housing system was “free agency.” There was a campus wide lottery more-or-less identical to the one in use today. The system was popular and worked well.

2) “Neighborhood Housing” — also known as “Anchor Housing” — was the replacement. It was 100% driven by the Williams administration, mainly then-President Morty Schapiro, but with significant help from faculty on the Committee on Undergraduate Life, folks like Charles Drew ’58 and Will Dudley ’89.

3) The fundamental goal was to prevent student self-segregation in housing selection, especially racial segregation (all the black students in Weston) and athlete segregation (all the male helmet-sport athletes in Tyler/Tyler Annex). At that time, the Berkshire Quad was universally known as the “Odd Quad” and served as central location for those students outside the Williams party/alcohol/athletics “mainstream.” My sense is that administrators were not anti-Odd Quad, but they were certainly more than willing to sacrifice the special character of the Odd Quad for their larger goals.

4) Neighborhood Housing worked, at least according to Morty’s goals. Student self-segregation decreased. It was tough for the whole football team to live together if 1/4 of the team was assigned to each Neighborhood.

5) Neighborhood Housing was certainly the biggest non-academic change at Williams in the last 20 years, and perhaps back to co-education. (Does anyone disagree?) And, given how constant academic life has been at Williams (and/or how gradual any changes have been), Neighborhood Housing may have been the biggest change at Williams in a generation. Other candidates?

6) Neighborhood Housing failed, which is why students are no longer randomly (and permanently) assigned to a neighborhood. It failed for all the reasons we predicted and just as we documented for a decade. It is to Williams (and Adam Falk’s? And Steve Klass’s) credit that we ended Neighborhood Housing a few years ago and went back to the traditional campus wide lottery.

7) There are residues of neighborhoods that are still with us, like the word “neighborhood” itself and some of the changes that went along with their creation and then destruction. By far the most important of these is the move of First Years to Mission Park.

8) One occasionally reads strange revanchist views like this from abl. I have trouble understanding them. If words have meaning then “Neighborhood Housing” means “students are randomly assigned to one neighborhood at random and can’t transfer.” Both opponents and supporters agreed that this was the heart of the debate. No one cared about “campus social life/planning.” The Administration could have changed any aspect of that and no student would have complained.

abl claims:

Moreover, the neighborhood system in its conception and its execution represents the sort of Democratic social engineering that DDF and his libertarian/conservative leanings detests.

Untrue! I am in favor of competent social engineering, as here. The CUL was incompetent, as we documented/predicted at the time. Neighborhood Housing was doomed from the start, mainly because certain Williams traditions (JAs and entries, and co-ops) and the reality of our diverse housing stock.

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