CUL: changing Williams’ landscape

Though little can compare to the College’s dramatic transition away from fraternity life in the 1960s, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) is presently looking toward major changes for the campus with plans to revamp the College’s residential life system. The Committee, which has been in existence since the abolition of fraternity rushing in 1968, has always been concerned with student-faculty relations, and has also dealt extensively with dorm life.

Charles Dew, CUL chair, talked about the future housing transformation: “[We are] trying to rebuild a sense of community in the residence halls that a lot of people on campus think we have lost.”

Composed of faculty as well as student representatives, the CUL has introduced multiple ideas to the College over the years, as well as grappled with continuing issues of community and diversity. Substance-free housing, faculty associates, party policy and general residential reform are among the issues the CUL has dealt with during its existence.

Summarizing his work with the CUL in the 1970s, Hank Art, professor of biology, explained that the “focus was largely on residential life. . .At that time there were still faculty associates who worked with house leadership on how to spend ‘cultural funds.’”

Discussing the CUL’s general goals during his many years with the group, Art said that their work was more often about “the generalities of student life on campus, rather than directly addressing what was happening in individual houses.”

Formed in 1968, the CUL began hearing student complaints in the early 1970s. In 1970, the CUL ended freshmen choice regarding the residential house affiliation system. The concern that allowing freshmen to express housing preferences could cause dorms to be frat-like and undermine the diversity of the student body is quite similar to the CUL’s current worries.

A 1977 report continued the CUL’s ongoing discussion on the dynamics and goals of residential life at the College. The study, which outlined the advantages of the College’s current house system, also has many striking similarities to this year’s debate. The residential house system brought students together with common row house dining spaces, and, according to the CUL, a strong focus on house leadership.

Student protest again held strong similarities to complaints today; one 1977 Record editorial deemed the residential house system to be a “bastard child, born out of the marriage of the wrenching dismantling of fraternities and a unique but bizarre scattering of houses around campus.”

A huge transformation in student life facilitated by the CUL was the move in 1981 to eliminate row house dining. This decision, chiefly directed by the Gifford Committee (Committee on Student Residential Life) was made mostly to save money during a difficult financial time for the College.

However, the Gifford committee also looked to avoid the clique-like exclusive eating in the row houses, stating “the companionable and educative functions of dining on campus derive from shifting groups at individual tables, rather than from the entire membership of a house dining in its own dining room or assigned space.”

Dew credits the loss of community within the residential house system to the demise of row house dining, considering the shared meals one of the last forms of house unity and cohesion.

Another instrumental decision by the CUL was the move to abolish house ‘cultural funds’ in 1984. The “cultural funds” were replaced by an increased focus on the House Associate, and establishing a $600 fund for each associate to spend with his or her affiliated house. However, the Faculty Associate program, once a popular program continued to decline, with only 14 faculty members volunteering for the job in 1984.

Currently the CUL is working again to revive House Associates, in an attempt to foster the student-faculty interaction, which always played such a large role on the committee.

In 1986, the Committee’s focus shifted for the year, as the students and faculty opted to study the College’s party policy. Major issues included the new policy at the Log, in accordance with the raised drinking age, and a new rule forbidding freshmen to throw their own parties. To revive social life, the committee considered, amongst other things, reinstating row house dining, an idea which was abandoned and re-adopted by the CUL this year.

The CUL also fell under criticism in 1986 for not meeting as frequently as possible, particularly in regards to the proposed theme housing.

With the CUL’s discussion of minority life, party policy and residential possibilities deemed inefficient, the committee looked for ways to strengthen its influence. At this point, the CUL considered electing a student to be co-chair. That plan, however, never went into effect, and the CUL has continued to have a single faculty chair.

One way the committee later revitalized itself was by streamlining its dealings with funding in the late ‘80s.

“The CUL became a clearing house for when a proposal was made,” said Tom McEvoy, director of housing, a current and past member of the CUL. He described this process as “a waste of the committee’s time.” Instead, a sub-committee was formed to deal with monetary issues.

Developments in the early ‘90s included the implementation of snack bar and Goodrich, right? “CUL points” to foster student-faculty relations even without the faculty-associate program the committee once regulated. The CUL points, still popular today, credit students at the snackbar and Goodrich to allow for coffee or a snack with a professor.

Other major issues for the CUL included the recent debate, and subsequent student backlash, over the possibility of substance-free housing. The concept of a trial substance-free house was suggested, with Hubbell as the model. “It seemed to the CUL there was a place for this kind of house on campus — ideal for students bothered by the secnd hand effects [cigarettes, alcohol and drugs] cause — noise, messed up bathrooms, second hand smoke, etc.,” McEvoy said. “Another group we thought it would help were students who were ‘in recovery,’ and who needed a safe place for them, free of temptation. Also, we thought of students who came from families with a history of alcoholism who were looking for alternative housing.”

College Council (CC) deemed the substance-free housing idea to be too similar to theme housing, a living type specifically not endorsed by the College. Though many students were in support of substance-free living, CC spoke out against the idea, and Hank Payne, then-president of the College, rejected the proposal.

In 1997, the CUL returned to their discussion of alcohol on campus, particularly after tragic events at the University of Massachusetts and MIT inspired colleges nationwide to examine the binge-drinking problem. The Committee directed a study, interviewing students, JAs, coaches and faculty to research alcohol’s role on campus.

According to Art, then-chair of the CUL, “an instance of a first year student passing out on Main Street at two o’clock in the morning” also prompted an examination of drinking at the College. However, Art stated that the study garnered “remarkably little support from the administration,” with many deeming underage drinking to be an unfixable problem.

Another major development in the late 1990s was the “series of introspective studies” conducted during the years Payne served as president of the college. Payne conducted studies on all areas of student life, including, amongst other things, diversity and community, academics and residential living. McEvoy deemed the CUL to be “the conscience of Hank Payne’s college review.”

Now, the CUL has returned to the forefront of student life with President Morton Owen Schapiro’s challenge to re-examine the College’s residential life system.

The 2000-2001 academic year served as a warm-up, with the committee, headed by Dew, beginning to think about strategic planning and, according to Dew, “trying in whatever ways we could to think creatively about student life.” The committee spent the year brainstorming and conducting six formal house talks, asking students what comprised the strengths and weaknesses of residential life at Williams. An end of year proposal included suggestions such as reviving the faculty associate program, lowering the housing pick group number to four, hiring ‘Community Life Coordinators,’ and splitting the housing committee into two separate bodies to revive house leadership.

This year the CUL is looking to innovate the college’s residential system, with guarantees from President Schapiro that the college can fund whatever needs to be done. One possible replacement for the current random lottery would be a “cluster system,” where students would live in residential “clusters” of affiliated houses, tied together through social activities and an “anchor house” though not necessarily by geographic location.

Perceived problems with the current system include the residential divisions between races, genders and athletic teams, which the committee describes as creating a lack of community on campus. The CUL also considers the current housing system flawed in its lack of leadership and guidance after the freshmen year entry system.

Current members of the CUL include Chair Charles Dew, history professor, Tom McEvoy, director of housing, Steve Kuster, swim coach, Medha Kirtane, assistant director of the Multi-Cultural Center, William Dudley, philosophy professor, Susan Engel, psychology professor, Stephen Collingsworth, coordinator of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, Richard Kelley, activities coordinator, Donna Denelli-Hess, health educator and Jean Thorndike, head of security. Student representatives include Joslyn Nolasco ’02, Khurram Ahmed ’03, Susan Combs ’04, Andrew Nathenson ’04, Maja Karr ’02, Social Chair representative and Elliot Morrison ’04, House President representative.

The CUL’s current attempt at bringing the diversity of the campus together through the residential system strangely echoes many of its attempts in the past. Art described his work with the CUL in the late 1970s as “an attempt to build residential houses into random social units which could be diverse;” this statement clearly applies to the committee’s current goals regarding diversity, randomization and community in housing.