Morton Schapiro, president of the College, discussed his vision of residential life with the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) last Wednesday as the CUL continues with its discussion of campus reforms.
“Most of Williams is not about what happens in the classroom. . .the people with whom you live help educate you,” Schapiro said.
Last year, the strategic planning process focused on curricular innovation working in conjunction with the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). This year the focus has shifted to the CUL and the College’s residential life system.
At last week’s meeting, Schapiro discussed his hope for changes to the College housing system and his confidence in the College’s ability to raise funds for any proposed changes.
The CUL has set aside this year to examine aspects of residential life at the College, including problems like imbalance of gender, racial background and athletic affiliation within the dorms. “Students may know we have houses disproportioned according to gender or race, but they may not have thought about how this affects their experience at Williams,” said Tom McEvoy, director of housing.
“Our main energy and focus is to come up with analogous proposals to what we came up with last year for the faculty.”
In order to increase community and student interaction on campus, the CUL has come up with a variety of proposals, at the forefront of which is the “cluster system.” The cluster system would create social and residential units through dorm affiliations and with recent graduates serving as “community life coordinators.” Students, and their housing pick groups, would be randomly assigned a cluster sophomore year, and remain there until senior year, when they would receive a chance to live in the cluster’s “anchor,” a row house.
Schapiro stated that in order to make a new system work the College will fund all necessary changes, including dorm renovations. Between the endowment, future capital campaigns and money “left for a rainy day” Schapiro was confident that the College could find enough funding to support a new residential life infrastructure. “If it turns out to have major financial implications, that’s fine,” he said. “Don’t think about financial constraints.” Though energized about housing innovations, Schapiro discussed the potential student resistance to such ideas. “When you give students autonomy, they’re reluctant to relinquish [it],” he said, addressing the current housing lottery system, which gives students complete choice regarding where they live.
However, he emphasized that few other schools give students such autonomy in the housing process. “We allow things to happen that I don’t think anyone else does,” said Schapiro, referring to a few of the tremendously unbalanced dorms on campus. “There is a tension problem with student autonomy. . .the rest of the world is going in a different direction.”
Further elaborating on the College’s position in comparison to other schools, Schapiro said “this is not the kind of place where you just import what happens elsewhere, but we’re far from an optimal situation now.” Schapiro, along with Charles Dew, professor of history and chair of the CUL, and Tom McEvoy, director of housing, stressed the importance of studying models at peer institutions.
Most comparable to the reform ideas presented seemed to be the cluster system at Middlebury. However, according to Dew, the “elaborate administrative presence in each cluster,” including a dean and secretary for each cluster, seemed unsuitable for Williams.
Among ideas presented last week were apartments for recent graduates in the dorms, the potential return of dining to row houses, and the possibility of housing first-years in Mission Park.
“Mission is the rock on which this campus breaks,” said Dew, discussing the problem of class division, as well as alienation from suite to suite, created by the current sophomore living complex. Though many students would argue that neither of these issues are definitive problems, the CUL is working to create a system which would bridge the class and suite divide â€“ two issues which Mission clearly exacerbates.
The CUL is making an effort to explain its efforts and consult with the student body, particularly through a recent meeting with the house presidents. At the meeting, Dew discussed the committee’s proposals, as well as the current imbalances between houses in terms of factors like gender and athletic participation.
“What resistance people initially had was tempered by the discussion with Dew,” said Elliot Morrison ’04, House President representative to the CUL. “The more people learned, the more people seemed to support the cluster system.” However, Morrison did emphasize that there were mixed feelings expressed about loss of full student autonomy. The house presidents also were skeptical about how much students would actually take advantage of increased house diversity.
Despite complaints about student autonomy and flexibility, the CUL was quick to point out the reason for all of this reform: to benefit students through community building and more exposure to the diversity of the campus.
“The word for it is community building,” said Dew. “Maybe it sounds hokey, but people want a sense of community.”
Throughout the meeting all members emphasized the need to increase student understanding of the housing problems discussed and the proposed remedies. Students with any questions, comments or suggestions should feel free to email the Committee on Undergraduate Life at firstname.lastname@example.org.