Discussion of substance free housing continues

The Committee on Undergraduate Life submitted its recommendation that substance-free housing be established in Hubbell house to Dean Peter Murphy this week. Murphy will review the proposal in the coming month and decide whether the school will offer a substance-free housing option before the Co-op and Off-Campus housing registration begins in early February.

In Wednesday’s College Council meeting, members voted overwhelmingly against the proposal, recommending that no substance-free housing be offered. Murphy will review this recommendation alongside that of the CUL.

“This isn’t the best way to deal with a community issue, but I think it is the only way our system presents to us with an issue of this breadth,” Murphy said. “I hope that whatever the outcome that we can find a way to represent the interest of the people on both sides, and continue to pursue those interests.”

According to Murphy, the current discussion on substance-free housing was initiated entirely by the Committee on Undergraduate Life at the suggestion of its Chair, Professor Bill Darrow. Murphy said that Darrow has been interested in the possibility of a substance-free dorm since he worked in the Dean’s Office almost ten years ago. Darrow returned to the issue when he became the chair of CUL this Fall. He is away for Winter Study, but will return to chair the committee in the spring.

The CUL plays a major role in the oversight and maintenance of College policies that relate to student life. Murphy commented on its role and the role of College Council in the discussion of substance-free housing proposals.

“It is the right ‘standing committee’ to discuss such things,” he said. “In my mind, the College Council is a necessary companion to the CUL. Its job with such an issue is to mediate the opinions of the student body at large.”

CUL

The Committee on Undergraduate life began its discussion on substance-free housing early this fall. According to CUL member Elizabeth Lee ’01, many members were originally opposed to the idea, but with extensive research and discussion, all eventually agreed that offering substance-free housing on a trial basis could only help the campus.

The proposal, which the CUL approved unanimously, recommends that Hubbell be designated as a substance-free dorm next year. All students choosing to live there would sign a contract pledging not to use alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs while in Hubbell. The proposal states that members of the committee “are convinced that this is a worthwhile experiment that meets a legitimate student need and would also send a modest but significant signal concerning the college’s view of alcohol and substance abuse on campus.”

According to the CUL proposal, creating substance-free housing will address the issues raised by the College’s philosophy toward alcohol. The policy has three components: “providing for the safety and conformance with the law for all students; attending to the health of students for whom alcohol use is in danger of being out of control; and empowering that significant group of students who think alcohol use should not be the main focus of social life on campus.”

The proposal asserts that the party policy and the health center meet the first two components of the philosophy, and that creating substance-free housing could help the college meet the third goal.

At the December 9 College Council meeting, Lauren Siegel ’00 and Elizabeth Lee ’01 from the Committee on Undergraduate Life reported on the committee’s recommendation that Williams establish substance-free housing in Hubbell. Siegel and Lee cited the success of similar programs at Middlebury and Wesleyan and noted that Williams is among the last schools not to adopt such a program. The Committee on Undergraduate Life proposed a one year pilot program that would be reviewed to ensure that it does not turn into theme housing, a development that would violate the College’s mission statement. Even council members who supported the proposal questioned the choice of Hubbell, saying that students who pick into a substance-free house are already receiving a frill, so they don’t need an especially nice house too. Other council members expressed concern that setting aside a house for non-drinkers would exacerbate the current housing crunch, especially for next year’s seniors. Several members advocated the integration of substance-free suites with regular upper-class housing, saying that, without the moderate influence of non-drinkers, students would not learn to moderate their alcohol habits to be considerate of others.

Jason Oraker ’00, also on CUL, said that the popularity of similar offerings at Middlebury, Wesleyan and other liberal arts colleges played a big role in influencing him.

“Seeing the success of the programs there, we were able to say unanimously that we should try it,” Oraker said.

Oraker, who gave tours for the admissions office last summer, also noted that applicants and their parents might feel more comfortable with Williams if the school offered substance-free housing.

Lee and Oraker presented the proposal to the Housing Committee on Monday night and answered questions about its implementation. They will hold an open forum for students to voice concerns Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Baxter Lounge. Lee and council member Dave Walfish ’00 will hold another open discussion Tuesday January 26 Baxter Lounge from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Lee said that she hopes this will initiate open discussion on campus and allow those who don’t participate in College Council to voice their opinions.

In this week’s council meeting

In Wednesday’s council meeting, members concluded their debate on substance-free housing. Co-presidents Will Slocum ’99 and Kate Ervin ’99 announced that they would submit a compilation of both points made in College Council meetings to the dean. The Council also formalized a casual vote taken on the ninth, deciding not to support the institutionalization of substance-free housing in any form (by dorm, floor, or suite) with seven members voting for institutionalization and fourteen against. One member abstained. Further, Council voted not to support the specific proposal of the Committee on Undergraduate life by a wide margin, with two members voting in favor of the proposal and nineteen against it. Three members abstained.

Pros and Cons

Murphy will make the final decision next month as to whether the college will offer substance-free housing next year. He offered both pros and cons to adapting the housing system.

“I can understand the motives for offering substance-free housing,” he said. “The pro, it seems to me, is creating living space that is free, or mostly free, of the potentially destructive influences that alcohol especially has on daily life. That part is clear and straightforward, and I don’t think that most people would argue with the thought that this could be a good thing.”

Despite his sympathy to the cause, Murphy worried that offering substance-free housing could disturb a uniquely open housing system.

“I know that [the system] is not perfect, but it does, essentially, prevent the developmentof permanent “interest blocks” associated with housing,” he said.

Murphy added that even when a house is inhabited largely by one team, or one group of friends, the residents necessarily change the next year. He commented on the amount of controversy that the issue has invoked.

“I have been puzzled by the occasional fierceness of the discussion around this issue. I find it surprising, and actually I can’t explain it. Perhaps the fact that some basic principles of Williams life are involved makes people take it especially seriously,” Murphy said.

Students living in Hubbell were overwhelming opposed to the idea of substance-free housing.

Charis Anderson ’01, who lives in Hubbell, is no exception. “I think that it is important for people to learn to live with people that differ from themselves,” she said. “If you feel very strongly opposed to substances, you can pick to live with people that feel the same way as you. I think that college is the time to learn about diversity. When you get out into the real world, you are not going to have the same measure of control over who you live next to. You might as well get used to it now. I don’t see the point in erecting divisions between different types of people.”

Carolyn Ryan ’01, also a resident of Hubbell, agreed.

“My major problem with the substance-free housing is that the CUL is making the decision partly because 60 students said they would take advantage of such housing,” Ryan said. “That means that they are willing to provide separate housing for 3% of our campus. I am sympathetic to people with family histories of alcohol abuse, however, why should those people who are simply uncomfortable around alcohol receive special treatment? It is hypocritical of Williams to expect its students to be tolerant and accepting of others, yet provide special treatment for students who are unwilling to be tolerant of their peers’ social habits.”

With such differing opinions from College Council, the CUL and students themselves, Murphy’s decision will not be an easy one.

“In my opinion, this system is a real treasure, and the Williams tradition of resisting theme housing is an important legacy,” Murphy said. “I think that we should be very careful before we fool around with that legacy.”

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