Governance reform needs forethought, discourse

People are dissatisfied with the present house governance system. Some house residents complain that it doesn’t do much, (a look at the Housing Committee’s web page, which continues to promote the upcoming 1996 Fall Fest might support that allegation); some house presidents complain of apathy and a lack of identity within their houses. A new proposal to replace the present system with a system of larger clusters, made up of several houses and including students from all three upper class years, presents an excellent opportunity to talk about the goals of house governance.

We recognize that the proposal, as it stands right now, is still very much a preliminary one, and therefore we do not intend to evaluate it specifically. Rather, we would like to offer some thoughts on what we see as the advantages and disadvantages of our current system, and what effect certain changes might have.

The present housing system is based upon chance. Students are given preference based upon their class years, but lottery numbers are assigned to each class at random. The make-up of any given house is therefore dependent upon who got the good picks this year. Of course, friends tend to live together, so houses tend to develop some sort of personality and identity, but this identity changes every year, so this year’s quiet dorm could be next year’s party dorm. This kind of fluidity is valuable, and is one of the essential qualities of our vaunted housing philosophy. The same values that lead us to resist theme housing put a premium on mobility. There are no formal restrictions on where we can live, or with whom.

Any changes to the system, therefore, should try to preserve the freedom we feel is so important. Under the proposed cluster system, there would be separate cluster room draws, giving preference to students remaining in their cluster. Students would always be free to change clusters, but the quality of their housing would suffer. Since a student’s initial cluster affiliation would presumably be based upon a housing lottery, and since students switching clusters would be, in effect, penalized for so doing, a poor showing in the lottery at the end of the first year could doom a student to less than desirable housing for several years. This element of the proposal constitutes a restriction of mobility within the housing system and we expect it be one of the key points of contention as the campus discusses the proposed changes.

Replacing houses with clusters could indeed simplify the event planning process and, if done properly, could help unite the campus. Students from different classes, with different interests, could come together. It could also enforce the divisions already present within the Williams social scene. Clusters could form fairly permanent identities, and, if single cluster social events came to dominate the scene, could keep us apart. At their worst, clusters could replace the disjointed, detached feel of our current housing system, with a system of large-scale, institutionalized cliques.

This last outcome seems unlikely, as the clusters would hopefully be large enough to ensure relative diversity within each cluster. And perhaps our doubts are unfounded. Certainly, it is a young idea, still in development, and deserves a chance. In any event, it is an excellent opportunity for us to continue to refine our ideas of what we want from our residential experience. We look forward to a lively discussion.