The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) met for the first time last week, commencing work on a collection of proposals to reinvigorate Williams’ residential life system. Charged to review existing structures as part of the College’s ongoing strategic planning process, the CUL is expected to utilize background work it did last year and make bold proposals on reforming student life before the academic year is complete.
“President [of the College Morton] Schapiro has asked Professor [of history and CUL chair Charles] Dew to make student life this year’s highest priority,” said Tom McEvoy, director of housing and CUL member. “Last year we were in a fact-gathering, analytical discussion mode, with several proposals put forth. I think this year will be dramatically more action and implication oriented.”
The Committee, made up of students, faculty members and administrators, convened last week to begin discussing last year’s proposals as well as this year’s plans, building on Schapiro’s eagerness to begin implementing changes as soon as possible. Though there is no “roadmap” to what exact changes will be made, Schapiro has charged the Committee with rethinking and reevaluating many aspects of the college’s residential life.
“We want to work towards making residential life at Williams better for all of our students,” Dew said. “I think that housing should serve as more than just dormitories â€” as homes, communities.”
Schapiro has shown such enthusiasm for renovating the housing system that he has suggested that the College will find the funding for whatever needs to be done, even if some dorm renovations are necessary to implement new plans. Said Dew, “This College is blessed with tremendous financial resources and Morty is willing to spend them.”
According to Nancy Roseman, dean of the College, “We have the green light to think radically, to not think about cost. We can make all the changes we’re going to make and go for it.”
The CUL sees community building on campus and the breaking down of residential divisions between classes, athletes and non-athletes and other groups as major issues to address. The CUL will also be addressing problems such as gender balance in dorms, the room draw system and the lack of a support system in upperclass housing. At the CUL’s first meeting, Roseman said “We need to look at how we stratify ourselves by class and team. We need to retain a sense of community and promote interaction. We’re creating a whole new housing system for very good reasons.”
Another significant issue presented was the lack of organization and community after students’ first year.
“The entry system and the JA system really work,” McEvoy said. “They do an incredibly good job, and then, poof, there’s nothing. For some students that’s fine, and for others, it’s just not.”
The committee focused on searching for more leadership and guidance for students in dorm life, though they emphasized that the new staff would not serve as paid RA disciplinarians. The unique lack of dorm staff at Williams was especially obvious to the CUL in reviewing a study comparing Williams to 23 similar liberal arts colleges. The study showed Williams as one of only two schools lacking both professional and student residential life staff.
One idea for creating further guidance and community after the first year would be grouping the housing in “areas” overseen by residential staff. This system would retain the current room hierarchy: single rooms would still be more common with each year of seniority and students would still work toward living in a row-house or co-op senior year.
The CUL predicts that having “areas” in which students would stay in for three years could bridge some of the community problems within residential life. For example, CUL members mentioned that in the current system students frequently do not interact with or even know their neighbors upstairs, or in the adjacent suite.
“Let’s get students mixing a little more, you all have a lot to teach each other and we want to facilitate that,” McEvoy said.
The College’s need for community will be first addressed as some of last year’s CUL proposals are implemented. Through student input at six informal house talks and extensive brainstorming of its own, the CUL created a plan last year for this coming academic year and the future.
Major points included restructuring Housing Committee by splitting the house president position into separate house advisors and social chairs, increasing resources and staff for student life and activity, and planning and implementing a house associates program for professors and students to interact more on the casual level. Other points emphasized, such as the resizing of the room draw groups from seven to four, will be put on hold for this fall and reexamined.
Student members of the committee, who include Joslyn Nolasco’02, Khurram Ahmed ’03, Susan Combs ’04 and Andrew Nathanson ’04, look forward to having a true impact their campus.
“I think it’s going to be a really productive, important year at the CUL,” said Nolasco.
Nathanson focused on the problems he believes a new housing system can fix.
“The biggest problem I see on this campus is a difficulty in organizing really good parties, concerts, etc.,” he said. “I think this really stems from lack of unity in houses â€” especially when people are picking in with such small groups and then hardly interacting. Having a group of people that you stay with, a greater sense of continuity in the residential system, might make the houses more cohesive.”
The biggest focus of last week’s meeting, however, was the need for input from the entire student body in this decision-making process.
“We are looking to the student body as a constituency,” Dew said. “Student input will be absolutely vital.”