Students make proposal for improvements to the house governance system

In an effort to improve the house governance system at Williams, Phil Swisher ’01 and Ian Roche ’00 have begun forming a proposal that would create a residential cluster system on campus.

Swisher and Roche wrote the proposal to address issues that involve the “lack of house affiliations among students and of effective organizational structure for house governance system.” The proposal also incorporates ideas to address class stratification, the lack of prestige and responsibility for house presidents, unhappiness with the campus social life and the absence of first-year participation in the housing system.

The proposed solution, which is in its preliminary phases, would create a cluster system, based on the residential system that Williams had in the 1980’s. Houses would be associated with a small group of other houses and the clusters would not change from year to year, although students would be free to move between groups. Each cluster will have one house president, one social coordinator and one treasurer. The treasurer will be in charge of a bank account with all the House Entertainment Funds (HEF) and cluster dues for the entire cluster.

According to the proposal at this point, students who choose to remain in the same cluster will be given preference by participating in a cluster-housing draw that would precede the campus-wide draw. All students choosing to leave their cluster will enter the housing lottery with the rising sophomore class. Although off-campus and co-op students will be included in clusters, the off-campus and co-op housing lotteries will not be affected.

In their proposal, Swisher and Roche wrote, “House affiliations are strengthened because there will be a larger group to associate with.” With similar number of students living in each cluster, Swisher and Roche point out that inter-cluster competition, such as community service opportunities and intramural sports will be possible. The two hope that this will increase house spirit.

In response to the proposal, Dean Wanda Lee said that the current problems with “house spirit” would not be solved by the introduction of the cluster system. Lee said, “It will still be up to the House Presidents to include the ideas and interests of all members of their houses, and to document and communicate how house funds are effectively being spent towards the interests of all residents and not just a particular group.” Lee said that doing this would require the effective use of leadership skills by house presidents.

However, Lee also expressed reservations that the cluster system may put too much pressure on the house presidents and for that reason, “The Housing Committee will need to give careful consideration to the detailed design of this system should it be implemented.”

Swisher agreed that the house presidents would have to figure prominently in the plan. “Cluster president will be a time-consuming position, and one that carries a large amount of responsibility,” he said. “I think it will attract highly motivated students who will want to plan activities and events for the campus.”

Having one house president for each cluster rather than one for each house will put more pressure one each president and will make it harder for officers to avoid performing their duties properly because there would be fewer people available to help them. The proposal compares the officers’ jobs to those of the student activities council (SAC), which has a large budget and a small group in charge of it. Swisher and Roche point out that SAC has very successfully planned many campus events.

By combining house budgets in the cluster, the total house system will have a budget that exceeds every student organization, with the exception of College Council. By having fewer bank accounts, less money will be wasted, which has been a criticism of the current system.

Swisher and Roche hope that the proposal will also help to alleviate the problem of class stratification. By setting up the clusters so they contain students of different classes there will be more interclass communication.

It is hoped that the proposed cluster system will improve campus social life. With more central planning and larger budgets, it will be less of a burden for each cluster to host a campus wide event than it is for an individual house. Also, with about 200 students living in each cluster, Swisher and Roche said it will be easier to find people to plan and clean up. The way the system would be set up, there would also be people over 21 in each cluster who could host parties.

According to the proposal, first-years would be divided into two clusters, each with a first-year co-president, a Junior Advisor (JA) co-president, and a first-year social director. These clusters would have no money because taking HEF funds away from the entries would undermine the entry system, which is an integral part of first-year life. Entries would purchase invites from the cluster officers for parties, Homecoming, Winter Carnival and Spring Fling. Frosh council would also be able to fund cluster events at its discretion. Upperclass HEF funds would not be used to fund first-year parties. Swisher and Roche said they hope this will also reduce class stratification because first-years and upperclassmen will be attending the same events.

Swisher said that this proposal is based on the cluster system of the 1980’s, but allows for more freedom of choice in housing for students, which was one of the reasons the original system was abolished.

According to Jackson Professor of Religion and chair of the Committee of Undergraduate Life (CUL) William Darrow, the housing system of the 1980’s was not a cluster system, but a residential housing system. Darrow called the old system, “a ‘secularized’ fraternity system, with randomly selected students being asked to form a coherent identity based on their house affiliation.”

Darrow said the system was abolished for several reasons, such as “a changing student culture, a decline in faculty interest, the major trend of allowing students to easily change affiliation, the amount of pressure on house officers to do room draw, plan events, and finally significant differences in the quality and character in our housing system.”

Darrow does see some major issues with the current housing system though. “We have a rather wide disjuncture between philosophy and actual practice. We say we privilege randomness of selection, the emergence of separate and continuous house identities and autonomy of house governance, yet we have a system that is heavily stratified by class, resistant to anything distinctive emerging in a house and that gives house officers very little to do except organize parties.”