CUL housing proposal has merit

I will readily admit that until this past Wednesday’s College Council (CC) meeting, I had been pretty oblivious regarding the ideas for residential change that the CUL is considering. Regardless, I had always been of the opinion that there is something wrong with the housing system here. Is there not something amiss when Williams students, on a campus as small and intimate as this one, can hole up in their dorms and limit the amount of interaction they have with students from different backgrounds?

The Admissions Office exerts a lot of energy, after all, towards maintaining a certain degree of diversity in each incoming first-year class, but is anyone the better for it if the entire campus subsequently self-segregates into homogeneous groups? To me, it has always been clear that something must change, but until now I really could not come up with any wonderful ideas for how to bridge these ever-widening chasms.

This year, the CUL is working overtime in an attempt to discern the best path for the future of residential life at Williams. When they came to present their ideas to CC last week, however, their reception bordered on hostile. Students at the meeting frenetically responded based upon the perception that their autonomy and self-governance would be removed from them under the new system. Often, Tom McEvoy, representing the CUL along with Dean Norma Lopez ’95 and Medha Kirtane ’00, simply had to reply, “no, that’s not how it would work.”

It seemed like the whole room was overflowing with anxiety and an eagerness to reject any possible changes to the current system. Operating under these conditions, the discussion was intense, but in the process, the CUL clearly emphasized time and time again that they are not committed to any one idea yet and that they are open to student input. So please just give them a chance.

With that said, I want to expound upon one of the ideas mentioned at the CC meeting that I think might be rewarding for Williams to investigate more thoroughly. McEvoy, after assuring CC that (contrary to popular belief) the CUL is not sold on the cluster concept, proceeded to introduce the idea of a “hybrid cluster.” In this system, houses scattered throughout campus would be linked together via an “anchor house” (one of the old row houses). Students would convene on the anchor house for maybe one or two meals a week in the hopes of facilitating cross-campus interaction. My only question is: what harm is there in that?

Another important point that Lopez addressed in the CC meeting was that of housing lottery pick size. One skeptical CC member asked what criteria would be used for determining when a sufficient amount of diversity had been achieved. The CUL representatives collectively rejected that the changes would amount to a huge social engineering program. As an example of what would not happen, McEvoy said that the housing office would not look at a house, say, “there are no black students in this house,” and then place a black student in that house. Instead, diverse living interactions would be encouraged by reducing the housing lottery number from seven to four. This way, students could still pick into the lottery with their closest friends, but a particular group or team could not take over any one house. Again, I ask, “What harm is there in that?” Are we really that dependent upon those three extra people for emotional or social support? Would not the opportunities to interact with, befriend and learn about people of different backgrounds that could arise from increased diversity in the housing system enrich the Williams experience?

It is difficult for anyone who has been granted a certain degree of autonomy to relinquish any amount of that, no matter how small. A change to the current housing system would mean a different undergraduate experience for Williams students. However, I would urge students to be open-minded about who their potential future housemates are. Diversity in housing is not a bad thing. And we are not talking about “forcing” diverse living interactions here. I agree that at Williams, that would simply not work. We are talking about “encouraging” diverse interactions here. To this I would simply ask, what’s the harm in that?