Declaring that substance-free housing as proposed by the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) would “compromise the openness of our housing system,” President of the College Harry C. Payne and Dean of the College Peter Murphy decided not to implement the controversial plan.
Payne and Murphy explained the reasoiÃ› for their decision in an open letter to the campus (which appears on page 3 of the Record).
In support of the statement Payne felt that the proposal would do more harm to the college residential system than good. “We did not think a single substance-free house, policed from the Dean’s Office, was an adequate answer,” he said.
Payne and Murphy’s statement shows their judgement that substance-free housing represents a “species of theme housing” that the College has worked hard at over the years in abolishing. The statement also expressed the administrations reservations about enforcement.
Jackson Professor of Religion and chair of the CUL William Darrow expressed disappointment with the administration’s decision.
“We thought it was a modest proposal that met a legitimate need. We also thought the idea sent a useful signal of concern about substance abuse at Williams, one that most comparable institutions adopted several years ago.”
In response to this statement, Jason Oraker ’00, a member of the CUL and an outspoken proponent of substance-free housing, said, “Personally, I wonder if equating a proposal for a substance free housing option with ‘theme’ housing is minimizing the significance of the request. There was no attempt by the CUL to suggest that the assurance of substance-free-environment is entertaining, or is a request for living together out of common interests. If anything, we saw it as students coming from a broad range of interests to promote a living environment.”
Oraker also responded to the administration’s enforcement argument.
“I think we [CUL] thought that because the student population in the substance free house would be a self-selecting entity, there would be minimal need for huge issues of enforcement. As a Committee designed to investigate issues facing the campus and make recommendations, I guess I was not sure that every last detail had to be nailed down, either. We wanted to leave the ‘rules’ in the hands of the students living in the Substance Free situation,” Oraker said.
Another CUL member, Paul Friedman ’00 expressed his frustration that the proposal was not even given a chance as a pilot program. “I am sort of upset because it does not seem as though this was given a lot of consideration,” he said.
According to Friedman, when CUL brought up the issue they knew that they would face opposition from Dean Murphy, but once the issue was raised Murphy became more open to the idea. Friedman viewed the decision very much as a political issue with contrasting notions of “the will of the majority and the protection of a minority.”
What Friedman has learned from this dialogue is that “there really are divisions on campus.”
Payne and Murphy echoed the same feeling in their report.
“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,” the report said.
In light of this remark Oraker commented, “Ultimately, I think we doubted that housing 24 students in one house deemed ‘substance-free’ would affect the campus in a negative way, if it really affected the campus at all. It seems that until something like this is actually put in action, it is impossible to know, thus the intention of a pilot study. We were willing to take a risk and alter the status quo,” said Oraker
As far as Darrow is concerned, “The issue is closed. However, one focus of the CUL this spring will be the House governance system, including discussion of allowing houses to declare themselves substance free.
Renewed focus on the house president system was also one of the areas that Murphy and Payne feel needs to be addressed.
“I think that house governance needs to take the disruption of routine heavy drinking much more seriously, and confront it more clearly. When things are bad, students will know about it, but often won’t tell anyone else. I think we need to continue to invest College resources in other sorts of things for students to do. We need to be more aggressive in our health education programs,” Murphy said.
Payne expressed similar sentiments saying, “We have to look at what it is about house governance that does not create reasonable conditions for all, and find solutions to that problem. All the while we simply have to continue to educate and, where necessary, take disciplinary action where abuse of alcohol and other substances does injury to self and others.”
Payne knows that this is a controversial subject, but does not expect too much backlash from the community. “There is a conflict of values, and we have decided to uphold the hard-won value of heterogeneous housing while seeking ways to address the problems at the core of the proposal. This is a discussion we can have with passion but without backlash.”
Murphy expects there will be resentment, but also thinks that this dialogue has been very productive for the campus as a whole. What Murphy has taken away from this is that, “it will be hard to make progress until students themselves begin to confront this problem more directly in their daily lives, and intervene with each other.”