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What’s Really Wrong with Housing: Statistics and More

To put it simply, I believe a closer analysis of the Neighborhood Review Committee reports will give a lot of insight into the recent actions the College has taken.

First, let’s examine the claim that “The 2009 survey data on Neighborhood housing make clear that students are dissatisfied.” That is from the Interim Report of the Neighborhood Review Committee, October 2009 [1]. This report described what the NRC found in May 2009 when they surveyed the student population. First of all, only 30% of the on-campus student body took the survey. That is not a lot. The report also says that more info was taken from past surveys, etc.

The Final Report of the Neighborhood Review Committee Part Two, April 27, 2010, notes that “[student surveys] added nuance to the most vocal complaints [about the neighborhood system]: some student dissatisfaction could be attributed to factors other than the neighborhood system and a substantial proportion of students believed the overall goals of the system were worthy” (1) [3].

The report continues, “Indeed, during the public forums of the fall, the NRC did not hear as much public criticism about the Neighborhood system as some of us imagined we would hear.

The comparative lack of criticism this academic year does not necessarily mean that the dissatisfaction had gone away or that many students were suddenly pleased with the Neighborhood system as a whole or with their individual Neighborhood. But it does suggest that what had been identified as dissatisfaction with the Neighborhoods was a complicated phenomenon” (1) [3].

Let’s take a closer look at the data to get a better understanding of these nuances. The class of 2009 was the last class to be under both the free-agency system and the neighborhood system, even though they were only in free-agency for their freshmen year. (Keep in mind that this is only the 5th year the neighborhood system has been around. It was instituted 2006-2007 [2].) They got the worst of both worlds–the un-unified freshmen experience and the lack of choice from the neighborhood system. At the time, they were randomly assigned neighborhoods, and penalized for trying to switch.
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What’s Really Wrong with the Housing System: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Hi. I’d like to use the opportunity of my first real post to introduce myself. I am Brad Polsky ’12. An Art History and Practice major, I like playing jazz and eating Italian food, amongst other things.

I am writing tonight about the housing system. If you’re reading this post, you probably already know about David Kane’s Housing Plan. If not, take a look at the posts entitled “Housing Seminars.” Dave’s plan is very detailed (18 pages long) and a good read.

However, as a student currently at Williams who is interested in the outcome of the housing debate, I cannot recommend Dave’s plan. My two main points are:

1) Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke
2) What may work in theory may not work well in practice.

I will then talk about what should be done to fix the current housing issues.

Everything’s Just Fine

In Dave’s executive summary, he gives a list of assumptions we have about housing. One that he neglects to include is that he assumes the housing system now is bad/inefficient/[insert other negative adjective here]. David says there is evidence for this: “students recognize this.” Which is funny, because he says a sentence later that he doesn’t know this but he’s sure that if students were polled they would surely agree with his view.

I’m not so sure about this. I live in Currier Neighborhood. I have friends in all other neighborhoods. Almost all people seem happy with their neighborhoods and houses, or, at the very least, are not miserable (I strongly agree with Dave on one goal of housing to minimize misery). One of my biggest issues with the system had been that it really locked you into your neighborhood, and you were penalized for trying to get out.

This has changed. There are no longer penalties for switching out. I know many people who have switched, to be closer to their friends, to get (in their eyes) better housing, or for other reasons. As I said, most people seem happy with the system and their individual situations, and if they are not they can easily switch.

And despite some of the neighborhoods not really being neighborhoods (i.e., Wood), the system has its own way of working. In Currier, the housing is rather homogeneous; there are no spectacular rooms or under par rooms. Dodd is acknowledged to have the worst sophomore housing, but housing junior and senior year in that neighborhood makes up for it. Spencer has Morgan (it used to have West; I’ll get to that later), and Wood has the beautiful row houses. As a Williams student in the neighborhood system gets older each year, she has a better pick of rooms in more locations. There is a logic to this system.
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Co-op Room Draw Conflict

Interesting details from WSO:

I got into the co-op draw and had pick number 7. This meant our group had to split, me along with two other girls decided to go into either chadbourne or lambart. Two of us are Muslims and don’t drink or really participate in parties because of our religious/cultural beliefs. These are the two very nice emails I got from the people in chadbourne and in lambart:

I put the two “nice” e-mails below the break. Summary: We have the classic conflict between students who want to party and students who do not. I predicted this would happen because it has happened in the past. Fortunately, I have the solution, both permanent (new version! pdf) and what should have been done this year but wasn’t. The student continues:

It amazed me how similar the two emails were. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate them both, I recognize they both come out of good intentions and are only going towards a better understanding. And I really do understand why people go for co-ops, they don’t want to be limited by people different from them. Heck, thats why I wanted to go into a co-op: so I don’t have to deal with alcohol stinking up my room which I didn’t even touch and so I don’t always end up being the person who isn’t following the norm. But, frankly, going into senior year I have never felt more unaccepted (rejected?) here at the college. Up until now, I didn’t care about claiming williams, I thought that if I didn’t fit in and didn’t feel like ‘i am williams’, it was cuz of my personal problems and insecurities. But, this, was more than a bit off-putting. Am I being picky and taking offense for no reason?

No. These conflicts are not your fault or their fault. Yet Williams could do a much better job of creating a housing system which minimized those conflicts. When will the CUL listen to me?

UPDATE: By request, I have deleted one of the e-mails. You can still read it at WSO.
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Co-op Housing Draw

The co-op housing draw is tonight. Will Slack ’11 writes:

We’re pretty blessed by the [Williams housing] situation, and in visiting Milham, Doughty, Chadbourne, Woodbridge, Lambert, and Susie over the past two days, I saw just how great the Cream-of-the-Crop is. Milham: beautiful, especially the mantelpieces. Susie: luxuriously large. Woodbridge: a true home. Lambert: a small house with big rooms. Doughty: just plain old gorgeous, with a piano in the huge common room. Chadbourne: cozy, with a great location.

Indeed. Will also (because of the good words that EphBlog put in for him with Campus Life) has a great housing pick. Can anyone tell us how many rising seniors applied for the co-op draw? More comments below.
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Housing Data: Implications for More Co-ops

Thanks to Professor Eiko Maruko Siniawer for giving me permission to post Appendix D (pdf) from the NRC Interim Report.

Thanks to Director of Campus Life Doug Schiazza for passing along this file of exact housing details. (This data will soon appear at the Campus Life webpage as well.)

Comments below:
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A Simple Plan For Co-op Expansion

Although it is tough to judge these things from a distance, I am impressed with College Council Co-Presidents Mike Tcheyan ’10 and Lizzy Brickley ’10. One of their campaign issues was the expansion of the co-op program. Good for them! [Update: Here is my letter to CUL from 4 years ago making the same suggestion.]

Summary of this post: Tcheyan and Brickley should use the NRC process as an occasion to move selected houses (probably Spencer, Brooks, Agard and Wood) out of the Neighborhoods and into the Co-ops. A Student Housing Committee (similar to the JA Selection Committee) should supervise the co-op lottery to encourage large groups of seniors to pick into entire houses.

There is not enough time to fix all of Williams Housing this year. (And here (pdf) is how to do that.) But those two changes would both make a significant improvement for students next year and pave the way for a better system.

See below for details.
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More Co-Ops

College Council C-President Michael Tcheyan ’10 asks:

What are your thoughts on a new Co-op? College Council is exploring the option of a new Co-op and we want your input!

Needless to say, the co-ops are one of the best aspects of Williams housing. Every student in the thread votes “Yes.” Comments:

1) My Vision for Williams Housing (pdf) would significantly improve housing at Williams. This evidence of co-op popularity supports my Assumption #2.

2) Back in the day, co-ops were less popular for, I think, two reasons. First, there was much more emphasis on the “co-op” part of the exercise. For example, co-op students were not allowed (at all?) to be on the meal plan. That is no longer true. (Are there any restrictions on co-op students?) Second, the failure of Neighborhood Housing has led to a dramatic (almost doubling?) increase in co-op applicants precisely because the single most important aspect of senior housing is having the chance to live with your best friends. Williams is almost over and you want to spend those last 9 months with the Ephs you hope/plan to be close to for the rest of your life. As Dave Moore notes:

One of the reasons co-ops are so valuable (and popular) is that they upset the neighborhood system by their very nature, by removing restrictions and allowing people to actually live with their friends.

Before the Neighborhood Housing, seniors could live with anyone they wanted to.

3) I am glad to see College Council focusing on this topic. Good for them!


Co-op History

JG writes:

I wonder if the housing office would be willing to share data for the past 10-15 years on the co-op draw/off-campus aps to know if there is a notable increase post-clusters.

An excellent idea. Perhaps a reader will find out? There has definitely been an increase in the last three years, from 189 in 2006 to 300+ in 2009, but I am also interested in the longer history. Let’s collect some of this history now. The below are my vague guesses about the highlights of the last 20 years. Does anyone know the real story?

1980s: Very few co-ops (40-60 spots) and some modest competition to get in to them. Key issue was that co-op students could not take any meals in the dining hall, so you had to be really committed to cooking.

1990s: Co-op spaces increase significantly (to around 100), mainly through the addition of Poker Flats, which was formerly faculty housing. (When did that happen? Who deserves credit?) But co-op demand also goes up dramatically because (?) students are now allowed to be on a (partial?) meal plan and live in a co-op.

2000s. Co-op spaces stay the same, but demand sky-rockets as more and more students view co-ops as, not so much co-ops, but cool places to live with their senior friends. Neighborhood Housing accelerates that effect.

But the above could be completely wrong! What is the real history?


Co-ops 2009

Can someone give us an update on how co-op housing is going this year? (See here for previous discussion.) I was pleased to see that my suggestion to use Willipedia to make the co-op process more efficient has continued this year. Questions:

1) How many students applied this year? There were 285 last year and 189 in 2006. (I can’t figure out how many there were in 2007.) There is some dispute about whether how much, if any, of this increase is due to dissatisfaction with Neighborhood Housing. I think that much of it is. Consider:

I know personally that my motives for entering the co-op draw had entirely to do with neighborhood housing. I’m not a big fan of cooking, but all of my friends lived in a different neighborhood than me, so it was my only chance to live with them.

Indeed. Williams would be a much better place if every senior could live with her closest friends. More on that topic later.

2) How many co-op spots are available?

3) Did you apply for a co-op? Why or why not?


Party Rules

A student writes in with the rules for campus parties. Full e-mail below the break. Comments:

1) Thanks! We love to preserve these details for future historians. Can someone explain the meaning of “host” and “server” in this context?

2) The rules seem not dissimilar from what I remember in the mid-80’s, especially the requirements to have some non-alcoholic drinks and food.

3) As much fun as I like to make of Campus Life, the job of regulating parties is not an easy one. What rules would you suggest?

4) Want to improve the party scene at Williams? I have an easy solution! Do a better job of matching Ephs who like to throw parties with housing that makes throwing parties easy. (There is nothing wrong with social engineering as long as it is done intelligently.)

Williams has a variety of houses that make for great parties. (What buildings would you include on this list? I need to be specific for my future Record op-ed on the topic.) Right now, we make no effort to ensure that the students living in those houses want to throw parties. That is a huge waste of resources. Solve this mismatch with a mechanism similar to the JA Selection Committee.

First, remove three (5?) houses from the general pool (some will be co-ops and some not). These are “Party Houses,” designed for students who make a credible commitment to throw lots of parties and, thereby, improve the social scene at Williams. Prior to the co-op process, allow groups of seniors to “apply” to these houses. The groups would be large enough to fill the target house and would be restricted to seniors. (Throw in diversity requirements if you like.) A student committee would then select the winners. Losers would then be able to participate in the co-op process and regular housing draw.

Winners would be chosen on the basis of their credible commitment to throw parties. A student selection committee would be an excellent, although not perfect, judge of that commitment. Heavily involvement in organizing/throwing parties in your Neighborhood or your entry would be key credentials.

Losers in this process would be quiet students who a) Don’t want to throw parties or b) Can’t credibly claim that they would throw parties. Their housing options would be (slightly) more limited in this scenario.

Comments welcome, especially on what houses to include in the plan and what counter-arguments I need to consider.
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Co-ops 2008

Can someone provide the details of the co-op process this year? Leah Shoer ’09 wrote:

So, having just gotten the scary email today about statistics of co-op draw…

Can we stage a sit-it of campus life or something? If over half the senior class is trying for a co-op, I think it’s time to get some new ones. Also, I love how their estimates were way off at the info session (around 160 people? 200 max? come on, it’s cluster housing making everyone run for the hills).

Did more than 250 juniors really apply for co-op housing? How many spots are there? Two years ago, there were 189 applicants for 108 spots, but then nasty neighborhoods took away some (?) of those. Other EphBlog coverage here. Note the use of Willipedia to organize the process better. I take a foolish pride in being the first to implement this idea. My position on co-ops is the same as always.

It is a shame that the College — as well as the students representatives on bodies like CUL and College Council — do not provide more co-op spots. It is an excellent program, beloved by all and largely unique to Williams. From a fund-raising point of view, there are few ways to bind Ephs more tightly to their friends (and future class agents!) then having them live together intimately senior year.

The problem with student leaders wasting their political capital on projects like Focus the Nation and Stand with Us is that this does little to concretely improve student life at Williams. It’s a free country, so each Eph may do as she pleases. But you only get to ask Morty so many favors. Think there should be more co-ops? Then you need to fight for them.

Is the dramatic (?) increase in co-op applications an indication that Neighborhood Housing is a failure. Yes! (To be fair, this could just be a random blip. If requests go back down to the tradition 150–200 range in future years, then this analysis is wrong.) Neighborhoods were supposed to be such wonderful communities that, if anything, seniors would want to stay in them rather than move away. That, obviously, hasn’t happened. More importantly, seniors — Call them crazy! — want to live with their very best friends senior year. And some of those friends will not be from the same neighborhood. Under free agency, seniors could live with who they pleased. Now they can’t, unless they go co-op or off-campus. The increase in co-op (and off-campus?) applications is a direct measure of student dissatisfaction with neighborhood housing relative to free agency.

Want to test that hypothesis? Look at the groups that applied. If most of them included students from just one neighborhood, then it was the chance of living in a co-op itself that caused them to apply. If (as I predict) most of the groups featured students from multiple neighborhoods, then it is neighborhood housing itself which is causing the increase in co-op demand. Seniors want to live with their friends. Why won’t Williams let them?

Simple plan for fixing Williams housing here. As true today as it was three years ago.


Co-op One More Time

Anna Merritt asks:

I remember last year someone set up a wiki page where people could put their group numbers and where they were thinking of going… that takes all the fun out of it, though.

That “someone” was me. Although most of what I add to campus is, uh, discussion, it is great fun to make a small but real contribution which makes life just a little better for current Ephs. Anyway, it is good to see the tradition live on. Comments:

1) How many applicants are there this year for 109 spots? I can’t tell. As always, the College needs more co-op space. Co-ops are one of the best parts of the Williams housing. Expand them by, for example, bringing (back?) Parsons, Hubbell and Sewall. Yes, I realize that this would make the Dodd Neighborhood “too small,” but given that there is now (nor will there ever be) meaningful amounts of intra-neighborhood competition, it does not matter if Dodd is much smaller than the other neighborhoods.

2) Note (as usual?) the large groupings, often team-based (12 crew guys; 9 swimmers). Although the College is reasonable to insist on mixing people thoroughly — Can’t let all those damn swimmers live together! — before senior year, it should encourage seniors to live together and bond with their closest buddies, forging friendships that will last a lifetime. The more invested people are with their Williams friends, the more time/effort/money they will give to the College in the years to come. Harnessing this healthy force is a main part of my master plan.

3) Is there some way to combine demand for co-ops with greater power to the students to improve the Williams social scene? Perhaps! Co-ops have the desirable property that they are often (?) great places to throw parties (although someone with more knowledge can provide details) and house seniors with an interest in throwing parties (and legal means of getting alcohol). Wouldn’t the campus scene by more fun if “partiers” were given preference in co-op choices, at least for those co-ops which are good for throwing parties? Basic idea is that the College wants, say, Milham (is that a good example?) to have 9 male swimmer buddies who will throw a party every Saturday night. Everyone is better off.

Now, this is not an easy thing to arrange. How do such groups demonstrate that they would throw parties? How can we discriminate against quiet students? And so on. But, conceptually, this is not dissimilar to the JA selection process. We let students choose who gets to be JAs. Why not have a student committee choose which groups (each of which makes an application to a specific house or houses) gets assigned to the party co-ops? Sounds like a great project for Campus Life.

4) This Willipedia page will generate more hits and edits over the next few weeks than the entire project has in the last couple months. What other services could Willipedia provide in a similar fashion?



Fun thread on neighborhood housing at WSO. Some highlights:

“Welcome to Williams College’s new housing system. As you may already know, the housing system is compromised of four neighborhoods, each with about a fourth of the student body affiliated or members.”

This is from the official neighborhood system webpage.

And yes, you read correctly, not comprised, compromised.

Ha! Miss my endless neighborhood housing analysis? Read on!

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Co-Op Pick Update

What has been the coolest example of collaborative technology at Williams in the last 24 hours? Easy! The Co-Op 2006 Pick page at Willipedia. See our previous discussion. Comments:

1) It was very interesting to watch the conversation happen in real time. You can see the history of changes made to the page here. Kudos to everyone for the maturity and honesty displayed. Given that most people were willing to reveal their identity, there is no reason not to make everything public next year.

2) Good luck to all. It might make sense for students to gather 30 minutes ahead of time so that they might all have a chance to talk.

3) Best part:

In order to increase the likelihood that housemates from different groups will get along, you’re encouraged to describe the social environment that your group envisions. However, when doing so, you’re discouraged from employing sly intimidation tactics under the guise of straightforwardness in an attempt to scare others away from your favorite house. Such tactics are decidedly not the way of the Eph.

Very true! Now, there are tricky issues here about whether or not the College should take account of the tendency of different groups to contribute to campus-wide social life by throwing parties, but, if that were to be done, it should have been done before this stage in the process. Indeed, a better process would include these sorts of externalities. But, at this stage, what is done is done. The highest picks should get their picks without regard to implicit threats about partiers who will pick in after them.

4) Funniest line from the group near the bottom (and, therefore, unlikely to get anything): “MILHAM!!!!!!!!!! WERE CONFIDENT THAT WE’LL GET IT!!”

5) Exercise for the reader: Create an animation which loops through each edit to the history of the page and displays the changes in various colors in the order in which they occur. A visual representation of a virtual conversation would be quite stunning.


Co-Op 2006

The results of the co-op lottery are available and the draw is tomorrow night. Comments:

1) See below the break for the e-mail announcing the results. Alas, I can’t find any updated information on how many rooms/houses are available. I made a special plea to increase the number of co-ops this year, but I doubt that this happened. Where can students in the lottery go to find out what their choices really are?

2) Thomas Kindred suggested coordinating the picking process by sharing information about pick numbers and likely selections. Great idea! I created a Willipedia page to help out but my attempts to point this out in the discussion failed because I (like all alums?) can’t login to that part of WSO. Perhaps a reader could provide a pointer in the thread.

3) By my count, there 189 participants. It is a shame that the College — as well as the students representatives on bodies like CUL and College Council — do not provide more co-op spots. It is an excellent program, beloved by all and largely unique to Williams. From a fund-raising point of view, there are few ways to bind Ephs more tightly to their friends (and future class agents!) then having them live together intimately senior year. How many spots are there?

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More Co-Ops

There is a meeting tonight on physical spaces. More on this tommorrow but, in the meantime, if you are a student or student leader you should go to this meeting and lobby for more co-op spaces, at least for keeping Goodrich, Parsons and Sewall as co-ops. In a four cluster model, there is no particular reason why the clusters need to be the same size, so there is no reason why these co-ops need to be converted. Below is my email to the CUL on the topic.

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Tick, Tock

Co-op applications are due in 6 weeks. (See below the break for the latest e-mail on the topic.) One factor that led to the delay Anchor Housing last year was that time ran out on implementation. Since we still (!?!) don’t know if there will be 4 clusters or 5, can there be enough time to plan for this year?

Any news or updates from the CUL meeting tonight would be appreciated.

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Save the Co-ops

Just when I thought that my work deconstructing the CUL’s 2005 Report on cluster housing was done, I am sucked back in. Such is our windmill-tilting life here at EphBlog. Only die-hards need read further.

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A Vision for Williams Housing

UPDATE Feb 2008: See at the bottom for modifications caused by the switch in freshmen housing to Mission.

I have been bombarded with requests to provide my own vision of housing for Williams. Well, perhaps “bombarded” isn’t the mot juste. In any event, if I were CUL, here’s how I would think about housing . . .

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Noah notes that CUL will urge

future attention to the addition of more high-quality singles through the conversion of small houses that are currently in use as offices (but no longer will be after the new Stetson complex is completed).

If there is one thing that “everyone” agrees on — other than the system of first year entries with junior advisors — it is the wonderfulness of Co-ops. (It would be handy if a current student could tell us how many co-op spots there currently are as well as how many applicants there were this year.) I suspect that the students on CUL and the Anchors Away folks all agree that co-ops serve a useful purpose and that the College should provide more such opportunities. I would suspect that, if the data were public, we could see that seniors living in co-ops are some of the most satisfied students at Williams, at least as far as living space and social life are concerned.

But, despite the fact that Noah and other CUL students might be pro-co-op, there can be no doubt that the anchor housing proposal is, objectively, anti-co-op. First, unless and until the clusters have equivalent amounts of desirable senior single space, there will be a constant demand that any new space that comes available be devoted to this. So, instead of turning newly freed buildings into co-ops, they will be added to clusters. Second, if not enough new space becomes available, there will be a demand, in a few years time, to add co-ops back into clusters. You heard it here first.


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