We recently reviewed a proposal by the CUL to establish an option for Substance Free Housing. Since this proposal generated significant discussion on campus, we wanted to explain to the community our reasons for not accepting this proposal and to suggest how we as a community might work on the very important issues that the CUL was attempting to address with this initiative.
The degree to which our students feel comfortable in College housing is obviously an important issue; the degree to which Williams social life is diminished by substance abuse is important too. Our fundamental objection to the proposal is that we felt it would have compromised the openness of our housing system.
This system is the product of a deep commitment on the part of our predecessors at Williams, and was won for us at considerable cost, with considerable benefit. The absence of any sort of specialized or “theme” housing is for some of our students an important reason for coming to Williams in the first place, and is a cornerstone of our culture. We feel it is our duty to protect this system, not out of dogmatism but with the firm belief that it is a wise system. It encourages diversity and encounters with others, and discourages the development of groups that see themselves as somehow necessarily separate from the larger community. These values remain vitally important in our world, and indeed are perhaps more important now than ever. We considered Substance Free Housing a species of theme housing and therefore decided against it.
We were also concerned that the CUL had not thought through the enforcement mechanisms and that this proposal would have required the administration to enter into the social life of the house to ensure adherence to the rules of the house. We did not share the CUL’s confidence that residents of Substance Free Housing could govern themselves without administrative oversight, and did not want to implement a system that runs so immediately counter to the general spirit of independence that has long been a part of Williams residential life.
Our judgment that administrative involvement would be necessary is, however, also symptom of a set of issues about which we are very concerned. Our housing system is not perfect. Its very independence complicates the lives of students who experience aspects of the environment they find unpleasant and who feel they have no easy way to voice concerns or find improvement. This is another important worry of the current CUL. The system is increasingly stratified by class year, which is fine in some ways, but runs against our interest in diversity in other ways. Blocks of “interest groups” do develop every year, sometimes dominating whole houses.
And of course alcohol and other substance abuse is a continuing and important issue as well. We worry that our campus is developing an increasingly sharp division between non-drinkers and drinkers, a problem that has begun to plague campuses around the country (indeed, we believe that the Substance Free proposal would have exacerbated this problem). Many Williams students struggle or fail every year because of substance abuse, or because of problems that are strongly associated with substance abuse. Students regularly complain that athletic teams dominate social life with a culture that revolves around substance use and abuse.
We consider it very important that we, as a College community, deal with these issues. The CUL proposal did attempt to correct the noticeable inability of our house governance system to control effectively the atmosphere in houses. While some house officers are active, it is widely recognized that the House Presidents Committee has become almost exclusively a party-planning committee. Because students resist talking to non-students about things that go on in houses (for fear of getting even unpleasant people “in trouble”), the fact that the house governance system is inactive means that many problems go unresolved. If Williams residential life is to remain largely independent, it seems imperative that the community make improvements in this system, making it both accountable and responsible.
The questions raised by the CUL discussion are the first important questions to be asked about these issues in a long while, and we would be eager to see the CUL pursue them.
We have also found the general atmosphere of questioning that the CUL created and fostered to be very healthy, and hope that this discussion can continue. House governance, JAs, faculty, SAC, College Council, coaches, team captains, the CUL and administrators should work together to foster a more creative and healthy social life. In short, we expect that the energy made visible by the CUL’s work this year can be captured, and put to work.