Housing: The rise of today’s housing system

The 1980s brought about a new era in housing at the College, as the end of house dining precipitated a shift away from the allegiance students had typically felt toward their houses.

While the house affiliation system would exist in name until 1996, the termination of house dining signaled the beginning of the end for the affiliation process at the College. No longer bonding over meals with their house, students within each housing affiliation became disconnected from each other. With each new class year, freshmen entering the “inclusion,” as it was then called, were less concerned with house unity, tending instead to favor houses that could provide them with the best rooming situation.

The housing system, which relied heavily on the affiliation system, was thus undercut by the lack of coherence within houses and student attempts to find every loophole possible in order to attain the most desirable living arrangement. By the end of the 1980s, students had to be expert negotiators and crafty politicians merely to obtain a single in Mission.

Early in the decade, students began to heavily use the transfer option offered by the Dean’s Office. Previously used only for serious roommate problems and special circumstances, transferring became the norm for sophomores who did not want to spend three years in Mission or the Berkshire Quad.

Sophomores who had been assigned to Dennett, for example, often tried to transfer into Greylock or the Row Houses for their junior year, and this was where the politics began.

A group of friends, typically four people, would fill out a transfer sheet listing all 15 houses in order of preference. The transfer requests were then delivered not to the Housing Office, but to the 15 elected house presidents from each dorm.

While not given the names of the applicants, house presidents would be asked to admit, for example, “four sophomore women currently living in Dennett who request a transfer of affiliation to the Spencer-Brooks house.” The Spencer-Brooks president would then approve or reject the group. If rejected, the next house on their preference list would be asked the same question.

In a college the size of Williams, it is not hard to imagine that house presidents usually had a rough idea of whom they were admitting, and as long as they held to a somewhat equal gender balance, they had complete discretion over acceptance policies.

“The transfer process was patently unfair and dominated by favoritism,” said Tom McEvoy, director of housing since 1988. “The selection meeting was almost like watching a baseball game as the house presidents winked, nodded and used hand signals to determine who exactly was in each group.”

Students requesting transfers could contact the house presidents and, if they had the right connections, would most likely succeed in transferring their affiliation. If this level of corruption was not enough to bring down the affiliation program, the practice of swapping was.

Like transferring, swapping was a College-sanctioned process. Swapping allowed students to trade rooming picks for the year while maintaining their original house affiliation. This meant that a junior in Gladden could trade picks with a junior in Prospect for a year, but then both students would return to their original houses for senior year.

The process of swapping was, in theory, a simple one. However, students found ways to manipulate the process to their advantage. While there have been students tricking the housing system for decades, by 1990 hundreds of rising sophomores were involved in some sort of swapping scheme.

The diversity of housing at the College created an incentive for students to spend their sophomore year in a single in Mission, but somehow find a way to live in a Greylock or Row House single their junior and senior years, and the most effective way to achieve this was through swapping.

For example, at the end of their freshman year, two male students would list a Row House as their first choice on the housing sheet. If they were lucky, the two men would be assigned to the Agard-Garfield-Wood (Gar-Wood) affiliation. This assured them rooms in one of those houses for the next three years. With this affiliation, they were guaranteed singles in a beautiful house as upperclassmen, but since internal lotteries within the affiliation were based on seniority, they would most likely get a double for their sophomore year.

To avoid living in a double, many freshmen would go searching for those unfortunate rising seniors who, having failed in the transfer process, had been forced to spend their junior year in Mission. The two freshmen would trade their pick in Gar-Wood for the rising seniors’ pick in Mission. The trade worked because the rising seniors were given a senior pick in Gar-Wood, guaranteeing them singles, while the freshmen assured themselves rooms in Mission.

While this is the simplest of examples, swapping set the stage for elaborate plans involving seniors who intended all along to live off-campus, but who would register for the on-campus draw, swap and pull out at the last minute. These plots involved an incredible amount of planning, politics and the occasional bribe.

“Swapping became a snowball,” McEvoy said. “Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, swapping increasingly became the norm for rising sophomores.”

As swapping plans became more elaborate, the paperwork involved was overwhelming for the administration. Linda Brown, coordinator of housing services since 1980, recalls one scheme involving a group of students swapping 16 times before settling down.

“Every Spring, I would take home stacks and stacks of paper, lay them out on my living room floor and spend hours tracking all the swaps,” said Brown.

Even apart from the corruption of transfers and the chaos of swapping, another reason contributing to the administration’s 1995 decision to end the affiliation system was the corruption of intra-house lotteries. All 15 houses had different processes for assigning rooms within the house, and so the house presidents each held their own lotteries, few of which were fair.

The Housing Office inevitably received complaints, but there was little they could do because control was entirely in the hands of the house presidents. The Housing Office could not assure the impartiality of 15 different lottery systems that changed every year. As complaints rose, the housing office decided that holding on to the affiliation system without house dining was a mistake.

In 1994, a committee was formed to evaluate the housing system. Citing the absence of house unity, the lack of allegiance to affiliations, corruption and administrative problems, the Housing Office decided to eliminate the affiliations system. An all-campus lottery was deemed the most equitable way to distribute housing.

The first all-campus housing lottery was held in the spring of 1996, with a very small number of students continuing to advocate for affiliations. While the new system was free from corruption, transferring and swapping, it placed little importance on house unity, a situation today seen by some as problematic.

While the process itself was dramatically altered, there has been little change in the actual makeup of each dorm. Just as in the late 1980s, Mission and Row House doubles are primarily filled with sophomores, the Berkshire Quad has retained its reputation as the “Odd Quad,” and the Row House singles tend to be filled by the first picks in the senior class.

While the all-campus lottery system tends to maintain a broad range of living options, in the spring of 1999 students found a way to solidify their control of Tyler Annex.

Instead of moving on to “better” housing, a group of sophomore athletes decided to “squat” in their rooms going into junior year. Squatting was a process by which students could choose to remain in the same room they had lived in the previous year.

The group of rising juniors encouraged their younger teammates to pick into Tyler Annex as well, and the house thus became dominated by a specific group of athletes. The Housing Office responded by abolishing squatting in the 2000 room-draw, though the reputation of the house remains.

To this day, houses continue to segregate themselves along many lines, be they interest, background or class. For instance, this year, the majority of seniors in Spencer House are members of the Women’s Crew team, not one upperclassman lives in Mission and juniors dominate Greylock.

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