Fragmentation: the plight of housing

Though there is no official theme housing on the Williams campus, fragmentation and separation of various types of groups within the residential system have caused the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) to rethink the College’s housing system. Many houses are now tremendously unbalanced in terms of gender, race or athletic affiliation of the members, such as the largely male Tyler Annex, the largely female Spencer house and the mostly minority Dodd Annex.

“We think the campus has been balkanized into enclaves where houses have taken on ’themes’ much like in the fraternity era,” said Charles Dew, professor of history and chair of the CUL. “We tend to group ourselves by gender, by ethnicity, by athletic team. . .What we’re hearing from a lot of students is that the sense of community is not what it could be.”

Dew further emphasized the necessity of diversity in housing, referring to a comment from a trustee he met at a retreat last January in Annapolis, Md. According to Dew, the alumnus said to him, “If you’re not turning out a student body where everybody is comfortable with everybody you are shortchanging your student. When you graduate from Williams you need to be able to do the job both intellectually and socially.”

Tom McEvoy, director of housing, had similar sentiments. “I think in the long-run students are short-changed,” he said. “In retrospect, many students I know who are now alums would say that they wished that had formed relationships with other students at Williams who were less like themselves. It’s a matter of growth and personal development and is not that a big part of being at a place like Williams?”

However, of the students who agree that the current housing situation poses a major problem, many believe that the fragmentation problem extends beyond the individual houses mentioned and to other facets of campus life in general.

“The fragmentation of housing is only a manifestation of larger issues on campus,” said Natalie Bump ’04, a member of the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC). “Generally, I feel many people are not comfortable with people who do not share their backgrounds, and they therefore choose not to live with them. These living divisions make meeting and getting to know new people extremely difficult.”

The CUL hopes to fix the fragmentation problem through housing reform, potentially involving a cluster system. Though the cluster idea is only one possibility, it is currently the most developed vision.

Each cluster would be comprised of several houses on campus, tied by a social affiliation and connection to a row house, or “anchor house,” which would house the seniors and host cluster social events. Through their housing pick groups, students would be given a cluster sophomore year and remain there until senior year, building house identity through various house activities. The cluster system could potentially end the housing fragmentation problem, as clusters, and thus houses, would be balanced by factors such as gender, race and team affiliation.

Students also emphasize the importance of having a comfort zone and feeling safe in housing, even if they disagree with the current house division problems. Khurram Ahmed, CUL member and house president of the entirely minority Dodd Annex, said that as Dodd Annex house president, “I do—not too proudly—stand as the poster boy for concentrated diversity (which is really a lack of diversity, isn’t it?) and representative of all that’s wrong with the housing lottery/pick system.”

Although Ahmed agreed that there was a problem with the frequent lack of diversity in housing, he did emphasize the importance of having a comfort zone.

“Living with 11 friends definitely has its benefits,” he said. “Each one is [someone] who I don’t have to worry about class, race and gender issues with. . .There is comfort in knowing that someone else knows the road you’ve traveled before.”

Tim Patterson ’04, a house member of the almost entirely male Tyler Annex, also argued that the current housing experience is not entirely negative. “While the Annex may feel like a fraternity house much of the time, fending for ourselves on the fringe of campus has made us more responsible than we might be otherwise,” he said.

Mentioning the downfalls of living in an environment with those similar to himself, Patterson said, “Not everyone would feel comfortable in the Annex. While I’m having a blast here, I miss the diversity of people and the supportive atmosphere of the entry experience.”

According to Margaret Dizerega ’02, a resident in the almost entirely female Spencer House, Although gender diversity is by no means more or less important than other aspects of diversity that Spencer does have such as various interests, various classes, and some international students, it is an aspect of diversity that is lacking and would likely be beneficial if it was more evenly mixed along gender lines.”

As a result of this lack of gender diversity, however, she added, “There is such a comfortable atmosphere this year in Spencer…If/when housing groups are limited in number, you will see less of this phenomenon, whereby one group sets the tone for the house and any people who fill in the remaining rooms know sort of who runs the house or at least who is the majority. Earlier in the housing lottery, the fact one group had nearly an entire house and I would be in one of three remaining rooms ultimately deterred me from living there.”

Nevertheless, houses do not maintain identities from year to year and in many cases, the domination of houses by single groups occurs by pure coincidence. Therefore, although one group may overrun a house, the house is not necessarily being exclusive, or even interacting at all.

“I really don’t know how Armstrong ended up being almost completely female,” said Hayley Horowitz ’04, a resident of the largely female Armstrong House. “My suite had a really high pick, and picked in before it was almost all women, in fact, when I think it was almost all guys. I don’t know if the other suites coordinated picking in together. . .I really haven’t had much contact with the people living in my house, not even those on my floor, except the ones whom I, or one of my suitemates, was already friends with.”

Though a new residential system could help remedy residential fragmentation, many question how much students would actually take advantage of this improved diversity.

“Putting people together does not necessarily make them embrace difference,” said Susan Engel, professor of psychology and a member of the CUL. “It is a long process.”

“I also think simply living with people of diverse backgrounds and interests cannot increase everyone’s comfort and tolerance levels,” Bump said. “In order for [students to interact] in [a house] and eventually across the campus, the administration and house leaders must offer a diverse array of activities for many different kinds of people: formals, dinners, intramural sports, faculty sponsorship and so forth. . . I realize that not everyone is going to like all of their peers. I also know that our divisions have caused us to miss great friends.”

At a joint meeting last week, members of the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) and the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC) discussed these issues and how a new residential system could help alleviate perceived problems.

Beyond the residential life divide, the CUL and the CDC also discussed other ways that division is manifested on campus. Major topics discussed included freshmen orientation and faculty diversity and community. The freshmen experience was also emphasized, along with the importance of having diverse, and informed, JAs.