Mission common rooms converted to singles

Debate erupted last Tuesday when the Housing Office announced that 35 (all but five) common rooms in Mission Park would be converted into rooms. After a dramatic series of events preceding the Housing Lottery on Thursday night, Director of Housing Tom McEvoy agreed to create 10 more common rooms.

McEvoy made the initial decision based on the number of students studying abroad and living off campus. “I realized that the study abroad number wasn’t going to hold up to what we expected,” McEvoy said. He said they had predicted that 150 juniors would study away, but only 120 were. “Once I realized that, I contacted Bert [Leatherman ’00] and Medha [Kirtane ’00] [the College Council Co-Presidents]. The rest is historical,” he said.

When Leatherman and Kirtane learned of the decision to convert the common rooms, they told the freshmen representatives College Council, who informed the Class of ’02.

“There was a quick and angry response,” said Heather Matthews ’02, Morgan-Lehman College Council representative. Matthews said her fellow first year College Council representatives were “inundated with freshmen e-mails.” The representatives worked together to draft responses to McEvoy and a proposal for College Council.

In their letters to McEvoy, Matthews said the reps asked him to think through the decision and its ramifications more carefully. They requested that 6-10 common rooms be returned. In the College Council proposal, the Class of ’02 representatives asked for larger concessions. According to Kirtane, they asked for more of the burden to be placed on sophomores and juniors. “The freshmen came up with this proposal. We didn’t agree with it… We didn’t accept their proposal, because it was ludicrous,” said Kirtane.

“The one part (of the situation) that we did find unfair was that people budgeted their groups to be seven at most, and now there were suites of eight. That was a good point. That made sense,” said Kirtane. Upperclass members of College Council then recommended to the freshmen that they ask for the Housing Lottery to be postponed so they could re-formulate their groups. The freshmen agreed to make that proposal.

College Council voted almost unanimously to support the movement to postpone the lottery. However, Kirtane said it was a symbolic statement. “Realistically, we knew it wasn’t going to work,” said Kirtane. “It wasn’t a movement to push the lottery back, but it was a movement to get attention, and it worked,” Kirtane said. “By endorsing it, we showed that the College Council and the student body were behind it,” she added. She said that it was important for the administration to see that it was more than just the freshmen who were concerned.

Armed with the College-Council-endorsed proposal to delay the Housing Lottery and mindful of their original ideas for McEvoy, Matthews and Frosh Council liaison to the College Council Nishant Nayyar ’02 met with McEvoy Thursday morning.

“I think we all understood that cancelling the lottery really wouldn’t solve the problem,” McEvoy said, explaining that it would be too difficult to re-do the groups. He did not delay the lottery.

However, he did work with Matthews and Nayyar to modify the situation. “He has been great about making other improvements. He knows that this is not an ideal situation. He was really receptive to our ideas,” said Matthews.

The adjustments included adding 10 common rooms back to Mission. “We compared the number of registered students and people who signed up for the lottery,” explained McEvoy. He found that 10 students were not returning. “It was kind of a tit-for-tat thing. I could safely give back 10 living rooms,” he said. Before the lottery Thursday night, Matthews announced the addition to the Class of ’02.

“We were really psyched… It’s a pretty good situation,” commented Matthews.

After this immediate adjustment, more issues remain unresolved. The first and most pressing is where the ten common rooms will be located. Since Armstrong and Dennett already have three each, McEvoy said they were looking primarily at Mills and Pratt. He said they were considering lower floors so the rooms would have more access. “I’m welcome to student opinion on that. I’d be happy to work with rising sophomores,” he said. Matthews said that she and Nayyar have given him some ideas.

To further adjust the situation, McEvoy has promised to improve the landing and basement common spaces in Mission. “We’re creating a nice big kitchen where the Mills rec room is,” McEvoy said. “I’d like to work on the East Lounge (the Pratt rec room),” he added. “There will be a furniture improvement and floor lamps added in the landings,” he said. Again, McEvoy welcomed student input.

While concessions regarding the common rooms and common spaces alleviated immediate tension, McEvoy’s decision was ultimately bolstered by the fact that it was the pre-determined course of action in the case of a housing crunch. “This isn’t just a decision we made overnight,” explained McEvoy.

In fact, in January, Dean Peter Murphy created an ad hoc committee to create possible solutions to the housing crunch. If study abroad and off-campus numbers did not register high enough, the administration knew they would be faced with a housing shortage. The committee included Dean Charlie Toomajian, McEvoy, and former College Council Co-Presidents Kate Ervin ’99 and Will Slocum ’99.

“We had to find 40 rooms that we didn’t have,” said Ervin.

Ervin said that the committee initially had solutions besides Mission. “The option that we liked best was to convert faculty housing into co-op’s,” she said. Since that would not cover all 40 rooms, they also proposed that rooms in Milham be renovated and that half of Fitch be re-converted to upperclass housing. “That’s what we first threw at the Deans. Milham and Fitch were okay, but the co-ops were a no-go,” she said, due to fire safety and construction issues.

The committee then returned to the drawing board. “At that point, we had three options: using Mission common rooms, taking various large rooms from row houses and making them doubles, or making Brooks all doubles,” she explained.

Because making random doubles seemed like it would isolate sophomores, Ervin said, they narrowed the options down to the Mission common rooms or doubles in Brooks. After much debate, both students and faculty agreed that Mission was the better option. “Generally, people want to be in singles, and generally people want to be in Mission. A big factor in enjoying your Williams experience is being in Mission,” said Ervin.

“It’s a cultural thing at Williams: this desire to live in Mission Park,” agreed McEvoy. “I had heard that creating more doubles created a very weird sophomore-senior dynamic,” he added.

Ervin explained that the Deans also favored creating more singles in Mission, because singles reduce the tension between students. “If you have more people in doubles, you have more general aggravation, which gets translated into more people doing stupid things,” Ervin said, explaining the Deans’ thinking. According to Ervin, the Deans felt that Williams can have such little house governance because there are so many singles.

“It pretty much came down to a singles/doubles thing,” summarized Ervin. “This was done with the intention of helping the sophomores,” she added.

In February, McEvoy reported the decision to the College Council. “He came and asked us, in the worst possible scenario, would we be OK endorsing Mission common rooms as singles. That seemed to be the best alternative,” said Kirtane.

Kirtane said that some of the freshmen representatives informed their constituents in February, and “nobody said anything about it then.”

Matthews conceded that they had known about the possibility of losing the common rooms, but it had not seemed realistic. “We had known since February that it was a possible scenario, but it was a worst, worst case scenario,” she said.

Yet Matthews said that College Council’s approval of the initial decision tempered the frosh reps’ objections. “We knew that ultimately the College Council endorsed this decision. We knew we were fighting an uphill battle,” she said.

When the study abroad numbers came in lower than expected, converting the Mission common rooms was thus the pre-determined response.

As last week’s stir indicates, there are many critics of this plan of action. The freshmen complain that they are bearing too much of the housing burden, and that the loss of the common rooms will ruin the dynamics of Mission.

“I think most people in my class were really upset,” said Irena Hollowell ’02. “I don’t think it’s fair…I don’t think they’re trying to target us, but we got the worst situation,” she said.

“I think the common rooms are really important. I really want to live somewhere with a common room,” Hollowell said. “I didn’t want to live in Mission anyway. It made me really not want to live in Mission. It made me more sure of it,” she added.

Upperclassmen who have lived in Mission were also upset by the decision. “I think it will be a problem if there are fewer common rooms. Two televisions are not good enough for 300 people,” said current Mission resident Katy Schorling ’01. “If there are no common rooms in Mills, that will be a problem,” she said.

“I think it’s going to ruin everything about Mission. That’s the only place in Mission where everyone can meet,” commented former Mission resident Erin Anderson ’00. “I could not have lived in Mission without a common room. Rarely was I in someone’s room,” she said.

Yet, the people who crafted the solution stand by it, as do some rising sophomores.

“It’s going to be what people want to make of it,” said McEvoy. “It may actually create a better dynamic for the class,” he suggested. “One thing architecturally problematic about Mission is that people disappear into their suites. The negative thing is that we’re losing some suite common space, but the positive thing is that general common space may be better used,” he said.

“It’s a judgment call, and certainly, it stinks. People are upset now, and they’re saying they want Brooks, but when they get in there, they’ll want Mission,” predicted Ervin. “They’re going to be liking this decision at the housing draw.”

Mike Dovorany ’02, who received a low pick in the draw, echoed Ervin’s sentiments. “I’m definitely happy that there are more rooms available in Mission. I really want my own room,” Dovorany said. “I don’t spend much time in my common room as it is, so it’s not a big loss,” he said. “In that sense, I’m really happy that they’re getting rid of the common rooms, because that leaves some room for me,” he added.

Regardless of student opinion, the Housing Office is committed to this plan for next year. However, it is considered a temporary solution.

“We in no way felt we were deciding the future of Williams housing,” said Ervin. “This is the peak of the crunch, and it’s going to get better,” she predicted.

McEvoy pinpointed the problem in the large Classes of ’00 and ’01. “When next year’s senior class leaves, it should loosen things up a bit. When the juniors leave, we should be back to a steadier state,” he said. “The plan is a reduced size of the college. Housing will then balance out,” he said.

“We’ve really pushed to make sure this is a temporary solution,” said Matthews. “It makes us the sacrificial lambs, but that’s OK,” she said.

With Mission common rooms eliminated, at least for next year, McEvoy anticipates a more pleasant housing draw than last year. “We’re using everything that we added last year. It’s a very risky thing to say, but I fully expect there will be no problem,” he said.