There has been a fair amount of talk on campus about residential life at Williams. The recently formed Residential Improvement Committee (RIC) is currently looking for solutions to several perceived problems, including the unwieldy size and structure of the Housing Committee and the segregation of students in dorms by class year.
One of the ideas we hear a lot about is the cluster system, which would group several dorms together into a total of nine clusters, each one of which would have a president. The most optimistic proponents of this system see clusters as a way to recapture the interclass unity and sense of belonging at Williams that fraternities, and the house system that replaced them, are fondly supposed to have fostered.
People who long for those days, however – and there is something strange about nostalgia for a time that exists only in someone else’s memory – must realize that the Williams of fraternities, and the Williams of the housing system of the ’70 and ’80s, was fundamentally different from today’s Williams, and not simply because of those institutions. The Williams of today is much more diverse, in every sense of the word, and with such diversity – a good the College actively pursues – comes a degree of social discomfort.
Williams students, like all people, tend to form groups of friends with similar interests and experiences. For this reason, members of a team tend to be friends; former entrymates often stick together; people who identify with this or that group tend to be friends with others who identify in the same way. This is a reality, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is important to realize, however, that a campus as diverse as ours offers a tremendous potential for growth and understanding. Especially as a residential college with a mission of producing thoughtful, responsible citizens of a richly diverse world, Williams should encourage people to respect, challenge and learn from each other. If the current housing system is an impediment to these kinds of interactions, it should be examined and improved.
Accepting this as a noble goal, which I enthusiastically do, I cannot believe that imposing artificial organizational structures onto large, sometimes disparate groups of people will do much, if anything, to promote the kind of unity and interaction lacking in our current system. Sophomores would still live primarily in Mission, juniors would still live largely in Greylock. There will be no meaningful change in the residential interaction between classes without radical alterations to the housing draw system.
A top-down reorganization like the cluster system would do little to encourage increased interaction between people with different interests and experiences. All it would do, in fact, is make the housing committee more manageable in size. But at what cost?
One of the great goods of the housing committee under our current system is that every house president lives in the house he represents, with all of his constituents. This simple geographical fact ensures an accountability not guaranteed under a system that does not include representatives from each house. Given that I feel this accountability is very important and should be preserved, how would I suggest we make the housing committee more efficient and less cumbersome? Quite simply, I would cut the committee in half by eliminating house co-presidents. Currently, the housing committee itself has a single president, but each house has two presidents, each of whom attends the weekly meetings in Greylock dining hall. This strikes me as the exact opposite of the natural way to organize the committee. Why not have housing committee co-presidents (as they did, until one of them resigned and was not replaced) and single representatives from each house?
Limiting each house to a single president might even serve the purpose of making house presidents more responsive and give them a greater stake in doing their job. With many house president pairs now, one person tends to emerge as the president who does all the work anyway, and sometimes communication errors lead to each of the two presidents assuming the other is responsible for getting Homecoming tickets or registering Friday’s party. Being a house president is a lot of work, admittedly, but it can be done, and done well, by a single person.
The house itself is the fundamental unit in the Williams residential experience, and I feel it is crucially important that it remain so. It still works pretty well, after all. Most people do end up living with at least some people they would not have met otherwise, and many develop unique friendships based upon the experience of living together in the same space.
By cutting out the redundancy in the current house governance, we can improve the housing committee without compromising the integrity of a system based on individual houses.