Record Interview: Norma Lopez ’95 & Tom Wintner ’93

The Record sat down last week with Norma Lopez ’95, assistant dean of the College, and Tom Wintner ’93, associate dean of the faculty, to ask some questions about their experiences while students at Williams and now as administrators. Both Lopez and Wintner attended Williams as the old house affiliation system was coming to an end.

Where did you live on campus? What were your favorite dorms when you were students?

Wintner: I started out in the [Frosh] Quad, in Williams F, which was basically a great place to live, with JA’s and the whole works. It was pre-renovation, so it had its problems; overall, though, it was fine. My sophomore year, I lived in Mission; and then, my junior year I lived in the Quad; I was a JA in Sage C. My senior year, I lived in Susie Hopkins, which was by far – by orders of magnitude – the best experience I had. I sort of bypassed the affiliation system completely, because of swapping, JA-ing and then living in a co-op.

Lopez: I lived in Lehman as a first-year and Mission as a sophomore, in Mills. I lived in Prospect my first semester junior year and studied abroad in the spring. When I was a senior, I was back in Prospect because I actually took the housing affiliation system pretty seriously, and I thought I should stay in the Prospect-Fitch-Currier area. A lot of my friends were in that quad. By the time I was a senior, they had changed it to the lottery system, but we really didn’t know what it was, so we stayed in the same house.

Were you allowed to stay, to squat?

Lopez: Yes we were. But, my junior-year room in Prospect wasn’t that good, so I didn’t. So, when I was abroad, I had friends who picked for me, so we picked one of the nice first floor rooms. By that time, the housing affiliation system had really become a mess. When I was a first year, I didn’t want to live in Mission, so I chose a random affiliation, but then many of my friends were going to live there and I swapped so many times that I ended up in Mission.

What exactly was the form of the housing system when you were here? Did you try to get your affiliation as a rising sophomore?

Wintner: The way it worked was at room draw at the end of freshman year – I guess in April – you got together with a group of friends and ranked the five affiliations in order of preference, so there was Dodd and the satellites, Greylock, the row houses, the Berkshire Quad and Mission (which included the Old Infirmary [Thompson]); Tyler was in Greylock or Dodd. The vast majority of people chose the row houses as their first choice. Our first choice were the row houses, and our second choice was the Berkshire Quad because we’d seen how cool the rooms were in Currier and Fitch, and we thought they wouldn’t be that hard to get. To be completely honest, I don’t remember what [affiliation] we got, but we didn’t get our first choice. I picked in with a group of four people. I had a lot of friends from different cross-sections of the campus. . .The four I lived with were a good group of guys, but not my closest friends. . .By senior year, I got into the co-op draw [with a small group of friends] and got a relatively good pick. We really came into the house as two separate groups, one of four and the other, six. The people we ended up living with weren’t our closest friends, but we all ended up being very close—all eight men and two women. We’re very close to this day. The affiliation system was so arcane that you never really knew what was going on because you were always swapping back in forth. To the extent that there was any identity with the affiliation, I don’t think that existed. I think there is a value to that, but it really wasn’t achieved.

So, in general, people really didn’t have a particular affinity with their house?

Lopez: You knew from the beginning you didn’t have to stay there, that the backdoor wasn’t limited. On a whim, you could decide, “I don’t want to live here.” And you could swap back and forth as you may and that’s what people did. Originally, we didn’t want Mission – my friend and I (I picked in with one other person) – but we ended up swapping for a three person pick in a row house and then Greylock and then ended up in Mission.

How exactly did the swapping work?

Wintner: So what happened was, the ideal thing to get was to be affiliated with the row houses. . .

And this was done by chance?

…As far as I could tell, this was done by the decree of the housing office and they sorted it out by some sort of mechanism. Typically, if you got those picks in a row house, you were guaranteed a junior or senior pick there junior and senior year; and sophomore year, often there would be some hapless senior who really wanted to get [into a row house] because he or she wanted to get the hell out of wherever else they were affiliated. There were some exceptions; some seniors really liked the Old Infirmary, which was a really athletic place, and those who lived there were affiliated with Mission. Overall, though. there was a lot of horse-trading, [the process] as pretty chaotic, very drawn-out. There was no arbiter of the swaps, it was done on a one-to-one agreement basis. There was obviously complexity. . .it must’ve been a real nightmare to sort it out. There was no limit to the number of swaps you could get. It was never clear to me, what you were actually accorded when you were given a swap, whether it was a senior taking a sophomore affiliation for the year in a row house was entitled to a senior pick in the row house and likewise, a sophomore taking a senior affiliation in another house…My personal philosophy on it all is that students should definitely have freedom to choose some of the closest friends they live with; I’m not sure seven is the magic number – maybe four or five would be fine – there are obviously exceptions to that. Beyond that, just like anything in life, you have to deal with it, you can’t pick everything and can’t necessarily have it all. It’s nice to have some options senior year, though. A big problem is that junior year throws everything off because 30-40 percent of the class leaves. You were lead to believe you had these affiliations for life, but few students respected it. There were some groups that did, so there was a little more house identity because of this artificially imposed system, we thought of the campus in those five blocks with the five dining halls.

Lopez: Even by the end of my four years, it was such a mess that the whole thing was a blur. My friend and I sometimes talk about it and she says, “I don’t even know what we ended up with,” because we changed both our affiliation and our pick. We ended up splitting up. She ended up in Dodd and I ended up in the Berkshire Quad, our junior year.

Before the switch to the lottery system, was there some sense that the housing affiliation actually meant something or was it a way to just group housing?

Lopez: When the systems were switched over when I was abroad my junior year, I remember there being discussion about how the affiliations didn’t mean much.

Wintner: My general sense is that it probably meant a little bit more than what it is now. But it was simply a way to organize the campus…Houses primarily just took on the identity of the dominant group that lived there. There were sort of little blips on the screen in any given year, but I certainly never felt compelled by a strong house identity. Sophomore year, I wanted to live with as much as my class as possible; junior year was predetermined and senior year, I knew what I’d wanted.

Lopez: By the mid 90s, by the time I was a sophomore, the housing system really didn’t retain any of its affiliation characteristics. Mills didn’t do anything together, neither did Prospect. I remember in Prospect, the house president trying to call snacks and nobody would come.

Do you think the decision to change over to the lottery system has been an improvement?

Lopez: No, I think it’s really stayed very much the same. Because before we didn’t have the feeling of having a community within the community and I think it’s largely the same now.

Wintner: I think it’s hard to necessarily engineer a housing community. There are certainly ways to do it, with architecture for example. . .I would love to go to a room draw and see what happens, because I’m not sure I can judge whether or not it’s an improvement, all I know is what I hear anecdotally from students. In a sense, the process really hasn’t changed much because you still have students who try to engineer the process to their liking, just in slightly different ways—just different means to the same end. It’s nice to give students some choice, to let them decide where on campus they’d like to live. But, I don’t know if that necessarily works best.

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