Substance free housing ill-advised

The issue of substance free housing has again come to the fore. Since the Record editorial has been mentioned (and misunderstood) in the CUL’s proposal, we at the Record feel the need to restate our objection to substance free housing and to respond to some of the points raised by the CUL.

The proposal mentions Williams’ three-point philosophy towards alcohol. First, it seeks to provide safety and compliance with the law for all students. It aims secondly to attend to the health needs of those students for whom alcohol use might be out of control. Its third goal is to “empower that significant group of students who think alcohol should not be the main focus of social life on campus.”

Given that the first two problems are dealt with in other ways, substance free housing is intended to combat primarily this third problem, but it doesn’t. The CUL argument seems to suggest that without a safe haven house that is substance free, an individual who does not smoke or drink has no place to go, no friends to find. This is clearly not the case. This year has seen an explosion of non-alcoholic events, especially at Goodrich. And as we have said before, people with similar lifestyles will naturally come together. We do not object to friends living together and deciding not to drink. We do object, strenuously, to the College institutionalizing lifestyle choices.

Quoting the CUL proposal: “as the Record pointed out in an editorial, Hubbell already sometimes functions in this way because of who chooses to live there. Our proposal simply raises the profile and formalizes the reality.” By this logic, we could say that many football players live in Tyler House and therefore the College can “raise the profile and formalize the reality” by making Tyler House the official house for the football team. How can we distinguish between the latter, which clearly runs anathema to the Williams ideal, and the former, which is every bit as problematic and segregationist?

When CUL distributed a survey, the results did not reveal conclusive support from the student body. 290 students responded — around 14% of the student body. 64 expressed interest — around 3%. 93 more thought it would be a good idea — around 5%. 131 thought it was not a good idea — around 7%. Just under half of those who responded thought it was not a good idea.

This leads one to question whether the survey was in fact pro forma or actually considered. It also leads one to question who is developing this proposal. We do not doubt that there are 24 (or indeed 64) students who would be interested in living together in this theme housing, and having the College institute it. Similarly, there might be 24 Christians or Jews or racial minorities who would like to live in College sponsored theme housing and have the College institute that theme.

Yet the CUL rejects the argument that substance free is like theme housing on two grounds. “First, to want to be involved in substance free housing has different motivations: individual choice, personal recovery, or experience with another’s alcoholism or substance abuse. Second, since there is no expectation of any programming or other commitments, this proposal doesn’t really represent a theme house model as it has been developed elsewhere. If there is a model, this proposal looks more like a type of co-op housing although open to all three years. Rather than trying to achieve communal living by limiting participation in the dining hall system, students are committing to obey certain rules that structure their life together.”

In response to the first objection: of course the choice to live anywhere is an individual choice. Personal recovery and experience with another’s alcoholism or substance abuse is a somewhat different issue. If someone is in this situation, he or she can live under the current system with friends who do not partake in substances. Furthermore, a recovering alcoholic is a recovering alcoholic 24 hours a day, whether in class, at a party or on Spring Street. While we can – and should – sympathize with such circumstances, substance free housing will not rid the individual of them.

In response to the second point, when a person decides to live with his friends, he and his friends come up with certain rules that they will live by. The problem with substance free housing is that the College is structuring the rules that the students live by, and the students are agreeing to them. This is a far cry from allowing students to develop and regulate their own living standards. As adults, students should not look to the College to dictate the “rules of the house” in this way.

Finally, the CUL has said that substance free housing would not be an option for first year students. The CUL believes, as we do, that an important part of the Williams experience is learning to live and cope with different kinds of people, and that allowing first year students to live in substance free housing would attach an unnecessary stigma to those students and lead to undesirable fragmentation of the campus from the very beginning. However, the students who suffer the most from others’ alcohol use or abuse are first year students, who cannot pick their roommates or entrymates. With or without a substance free dorm, some first year students would be faced with intolerable roommate situations. With or without a substance free dorm, these students would not have to endure such a situation as upperclassmen. With a substance free dorm, the college would be picking away at the ideals of our residential community.

In an article in this week’s Record, Dean Murphy is quoted as saying, “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.”

“Fierceness” comes from the fact that we hold our residential community in such high regard. Institutionalized theme housing leads to further fragmentation of that community.

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