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Housing alternatives open at other schools in light of suicide …

As forwarded to me by a reader:

The tragic occurrence at Rutgers prods some colleges to open roommate selection opportunities.

Gender-neutral housing has been approved by the college following recommendations and discussions last March, 2010. as reported in The Record

The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) and College Council (CC) both advocated gender-neutral housing last fall, following its proposal by the Queer Student Union (QSU). “I think there is a good chance that the NRC would have gone this direction anyway,” said Colin Adams, chair of the CUL and member of the NRC. “But the fact that CUL and CC supported and pushed for gender-neutral housing certainly helped to bring it to the forefront for consideration.”

And as reported int The Record

In a campus-wide e-mail last week, Campus Life also announced that a gender-neutral housing policy has been approved by the College. According to the e-mail, upperclassmen can choose to live in a double with another student regardless the students’ genders, as long as both students agree to the housing arrangement. Gender caps will apply as usual to all dorms. The e-mail clarified that the gender-neutral housing policy is optional and unless students of opposite genders decide to live together, housing placements into doubles will otherwise be based on same-gender placements…

“I’m pleased that the College can go forward with gender neutral housing,” Dean Merrill said. “It’s been an issue that students have been talking about for at least as many years that I’ve been dean. There’s been a lot of student effort, both here, and around the country, and I’m glad that we can be part of a growing number of schools that offer it.”

What changes do you see on campus that might relate to previous comments in the I am Fine posts below on the Williams experience? Additive to? Subtractive from?


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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Bad Arguments Against Sophomore Housing

Some of the commentary against sophomore-only housing from the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) (pdf) is annoyingly ill-informed and brings up bad memories of the fight over Neighborhood Housing from five years ago.

However, others worried that, if housed all together, sophomores would miss the opportunity to forge friendships with and gain the perspectives of older students.

Others shared the concerns of those students who worried that sophomore housing could cut sophomores off from friendships with juniors and seniors and that it might not serve well those students who reach the end of their first year with ambivalent feelings about their entry experience.

These “others” are fairly clueless. Williams had a ten year experience with sophomore only housing in Mission Park under free agency. There is no evidence that Williams sophomores in that era were any more cut off from juniors/seniors then than they are today. Most substantive relationships between sophomores and juniors/seniors have always been driven by shared participation in extra-curricular activities (or via JA connections from the previous year). If you are a sophomore, the juniors/seniors you know best are those that play on your team, sing in your a cappella group, participate in your student organization or hang out with your JAs. The housing system does not change those relationships. It is true, of course, that sophomores may also get to know the juniors/seniors that live near them, but this will be a relatively unimportant part of the total cross-class interactions. No one has disputed my description of what life was like in the 1980s. Summary: Even in an era in which students lived in Carter House for three years, less than half the seniors even knew the names of at least half the sophomores. I had lunch with a current junior who lives in a Greylock dorm last month. He reported not even knowing the names of the sophomores who lived next door.

Recall (?!) my Record op-ed from 2005.

Different housing policies have different effects on student life. It would be irresponsible to implement cluster housing without taking a data-driven look at the experiences of other colleges.

Let’s focus on a specific example. The CUL’s argument asserts that cluster housing would benefit sophomores because it would allow for “deeper connections” to other classes. This is an empirical claim. It might be true, but, having lived in Carter House from 1985 to 1988 and in a Harvard undergraduate house from 1993 to 1997, I am not sure that it is. But why rely on CUL Chair Will Dudley’s assertion, my observation, or your guesswork? Why not gather some data and examine the issue?

First, we would need to operationalize the notion of “deeper connections.” What does this mean and how can we measure it? We could ask each sophomore:

1. How many seniors he knows.

2. How many seniors are among his five closest friends.

3. How many seniors he has shared a meal with in the last two days.

Much of survey research is devoted to figuring out the best way of eliciting correct information. There are several Williams professors (Marcus, DeVeaux, Klingenberg, Sheppard, Zimmerman, et al.) with the requisite expertise as well as statistician alumni more than willing to help out.

Second, we need to see how these measures of “deeper connections” vary across time and space. It is a shame that the CUL, or some other body, does not design a thorough survey of undergraduate life at Williams and administer it every year. If participation in room draw were contingent upon completing the form, response rates would be close to 100 percent.

If the CUL had been doing this for the last 20 years, it would be much easier to examine how life at Williams has changed and to speculate on the causes of those changes as well as the likely effects of alternate policies. Although this hasn’t been done, there is no reason not to start now.

Did the College listen to me? No. The problem with the Administration is not that it engages in social engineering. It has to. The problem is that it is incompetent. If the Administration really cared about the amount of interaction between sophomores and upperclassmen then it should have started to measure that interaction five years ago. If it still cares, it should start measuring it now.

But, in fact, Williams does not really care. The Administration/Trustees wanted to stop all the black students from living together in a theme-house fashion. Mission accomplished! It has no interest in taking a serious look at the interactions between sophomores and juniors/seniors. If it did, data collection would be the first step.


Create Sophomore Housing

The best part of the Final Report (pdf) from the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) is its praise of sophomore housing.

It is striking to note that just over 70% of the first-year respondents believe that the College should offer sophomores the option of living in designated sophomore housing. … The committee concluded that the sophomore housing option is worthy of further study.

Read the whole thing. As best I can tell, the Committee was pro-sophomore housing but with a non-trivial minority against. Yet the central flaw of the Report in this regard was its complete failure to describe and analyze the history of sophomore housing at Williams, at least since 1990. (Useful references here, here and here.) Short version: Sophomores decided, on their own, that they wanted to live together in Mission. A large majority of sophomores preferred living in housing that was 90% sophomores. They achieved this goal in the early 1990s by trading their picks. Free agency arrived in 1994 and made the process more simple/fair/transparent.

Recommendation: Allow the sophomores to live together in the Berkshire Quad. The Kane Housing Plan (pdf) provides all the necessary details.

A fine rant (slightly edited) from past discussions below.
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The Baxter Fellows Program is Doomed

UPDATE: A longtime reader has convinced me that mentioning the names of three specific Williams folks in the initial version of this post was a mistake. So, I have replaced their names with “the Williams Administration.” I have left the comment thread unchanged.

The single most important prediction in my five years of blogging about Neighborhood Housing was that attempts to create a meaningful neighborhood identity were doomed to failure (see here and here). Surely we can all agree that I (and others) were 100% right about this while the Williams Administration (and others) were 100% wrong.

Care to know what else the future will bring? The Baxter Fellow Program is doomed to failure. Consider the latest from the Neighborhood Review Committee (pdf).

As outlined in Part One of our final report, the Neighborhood Review Committee recommends a significant reconceptualization of the role of Baxter Fellows, focusing primarily on two areas: conflict resolution and community building within the house. Students value the freedom from oversight that they enjoy in their residences, and they have clearly voiced their resistance to a traditional residential advisor system. Yet most members of the community also recognize the need to establish mutually agreed-upon norms of behavior in residences and, moreover, accept that conflicts are bound to occur in even the best organized residential system. The committee would like to see the Baxter Fellows take on a larger role in leading discussions of communal norms within their houses, opening lines of communication, and hopefully fostering a mutually respectful environment. We believe that Baxter Fellows should be better trained in conflict resolution and better prepared to handle, with respect and fairness, issues arising from disparate lifestyles and differing expectations for dorm life. Ultimately, we believe that the Baxter Fellows should be the first resource for low-level conflict resolution within dorms.

This will never, ever work. And, as I have exhaustively documented, it has not worked over the last 5 years. Read these classic rants from 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Want more? Remember the Tablecloth Colors is an all-time favorite. Read it.

Too lazy to click on those? The argument is simple: Williams students will not defer to the judgment/decisions of their fellow students unless they want to. In certain circumstances (JAs, elected students leaders like sports captain and organization heads), they will. But why should a given Williams student listen to a Baxter Fellow? What has the Fellow done to earn my respect? Nothing. If anything, I half expect he took the job because he wanted some extra cash. All the training in the world won’t change that basic reality. And, what is worse, the Office of Campus Life has little ability to actually ensure that Baxter Fellows do their jobs.

Changing the role of the Baxter Fellows and making them into more robust, legitimate, and important players in residential life will not happen overnight. The committee urges the College to prioritize changes that will help the Fellows begin house-level conversations about expectations and norms and that will prepare them for an expanded role in conflict resolution.

Utter fantasy. The program has failed for five years. You think some magic pixy training dust is going to airlift the Baxter Fellows to Never Never Land? Instead of closing Greylock, the College should have just ended the Baxter Fellows program and closed the Office of Campus Life.

Paying students to create community is stupid. Instead: Allow students to elect their own leaders. Give those leaders money, not as salary but for spending on events. Demand transparency. The details will take care of themselves.

Professor Colin Adams, head of the NRC, is a smart guy. Doesn’t he already know this? Probably. But, whenever judging the output of a committee, you need to check its members. The two folks primarily in charge of the Baxter Fellow program, Aaron Gordon and Doug Schiazza, are on this committee. How likely were they to ever agree to its elimination? Yet, over time, the Williams administration does learn. When the Baxter Fellows program is no more successful next year then it has been this year, look for it (and the Office of Campus Life?) to be cut as well. You read it at EphBlog first.


CGCL VI: The “Neighborhood” Housing System — A Pyrrhic Failure of Social Engineering

My discussion text is the Interim Report on the Neighborhood Review Committee.  As a long time critic of the administration’s misguided (and, as this report illustrates, ineffective if not counterproductive) attempts at residential social engineering (even before Neighborhoods, from gender-capping houses to reducing group pick size), I’m glad to be discussing this issue.  I would like to have been proven wrong, but the only really surprising things about this report is just how colossally Neighborhood housing has failed and that the administration has released a document confirming it.  They try to soften the blow as much as they can, trying to muddy the waters by conjecturing that the deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the housing system is in part a proxy for the way that various student groups interact on campus — but the unmistakable conclusion is that the housing system is not a symptom of another illness, but instead of a part of it.
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Housing Updates

1) The Neighborhood Review Committee has published a Second Interim Report (pdf).

2) Will Slack published an e-mail (full contents below the break) about “Four Proposals for Residential Systems,” created by NRC and CUL (I think) and which will be discussed at a forum on Tuesday night.

3) The best idea is my housing plan, new version coming soon. Among the four options below, the best is the sophomores in Berkshire Quad option (Proposal III). Indeed, the language used mirrors many of the arguments that I have made in the past.

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On the floor at room draw …

floor at room draw


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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Forum on the NRC Report

There is a forum tonight on the Neighborhood Review Commitee’s (NRC) Interim Report (pdf). I hope that many students come and that they ask a lot of tough questions. Neighborhood Housing has failed. Williams deserves better. (See here for my proposal with a new slogan — “Community by Class Year” — and further details. Contact me if you are interested in working on this idea or, even better, taking it over and running with it.)

See below for the sorts of trouble-making questions that I would like to see asked. (And I hope that someone takes, and publishes, thorough notes, just as Joe Shoer ’06 (here) and Amarnath Santhanam ’07 (here) did 4 years ago. Future students will thank you!)
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The Statistics of the NRC Report

I am somewhat suspicious of the statistics in the Neighborhood Review Committee’s (NRC) Interim Report (pdf). (Previous discussion and associated links here.) Consider this passage:

Opinions on the desirability of diversifying dorms varied widely and were strongly predicted by demographic group, with heavier drinkers, athletes, men, and white students much less likely to value diverse dorm life than women, non-drinkers, non-athletes, and minority students.

There are other similar discussions in the Report, generally suggesting that certain groups of students feel very differently about topics like diversity (and implying that this is a bad and/or avoidable state of affairs). But how should we translate the words above into the numbers that the Committee refuses to share with us? My thoughts below.
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When the Fault Line was the Angle of Repose …

Untitled-2 copy

I originally just put this post up as a cryptic comment on housing. I thought the composite spoke for itself.

I have had a request or two to put up the full scans of the yearbook pages I used. Indeed DK did a great series for his class of ’88 reunion and scanned the whole book!

I really don’t want to do that.

These pictures (senior year) would show names, addresses as they were then, fraternity affiliation or NA, and activities.

I think Dave’s case was different: reunion and the full class knowledge and every page of the yearbook. People would drop by, urged on by the reunion chair I’m sure, to share the memories.

This is not the case with my ‘56 classmates. And I’ve only taken six pages at random as I scanned. As different as our time may have been (referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of men’s colleges and boy’s schools – Thank you, Henry Bass), I am reluctant to put identified individuals on display for study.

But here is what you see. Six pages of yearbook photos made into wallpaper with a repeating pattern. All white. All male. All dressed of the times and very similarly.

Closer examination would show that most belonged to a fraternity. That the interests of the young men were varied. That different interests were present in the same houses.

That home addresses were mostly east coast but with a solid representation from the midwest, and even some west coast students when the train was how you did it. That home addresses were pleasant neighborhoods (even though that may not be true now in some cities).

Most of us might well have been included on the wrong side of the fault line. But we were then, as you can see, unconsolidated material piled together that remained stable because we maintained the angle of repose.


Fault Line

HWC writes:

For all intents and purposes, Gifford was describing the same social fragmentation that launched Morty on his cluster housing kick to start with.

This new Neighborhood Housing report outlines the social fault line in pretty stark terms:

Heavy Drinking


Non Heavy Drinking

It’s the same fault line that has appeared in every other report — the report on Diversity, the report on Alcohol, the report on Athletics. The sad irony is that the below-the-line group is significantly larger in numbers than the above the line group, but they keep bearing the brunt of these social-engineering efforts. One of these days, an administrator is going to wake up and say, ‘wait a minute, why don’t we leave the large below-the-line group alone and address the issue with the smaller above-the-line group? The tail keeps wagging the dog here. White, male, heavy-drinking athletes are a decided minority at Williams college (25% tops), yet they continue to be ID as one side of a fault line that causes friction.



Neighborhood Review Commitee Interim Report

The Neighborhood Review Committee has issued its Interim Report (pdf). Record coverage here. Don’t want to read a thousand words from me on this topic? No worries! Summary:

I told you so! The Neighborhood System has failed, in just the way that I (and others) predicted it would. Students don’t care about their neighborhoods, and never will. They are angry that they can’t live with their friends. The obvious solution is my Vision for Williams Housing. Put sophomores in the Berkshire Quad, juniors in Greylock and allow large groups of seniors to pick into entire row houses. Allow free agency within those constraints. Bring back WSO plans to allow sorting along the loud/quiet dimension.

Details below.
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