The other schools: Housing in a comparative context

The complexity of the Williams community is one reason that it is so difficult to articulate a cohesive and clear vision for a new housing model. Proponents of change pinpoint the structure of residential life for non-freshmen does not foster community or facilitate interactions between people of different interests or backgrounds as the problem with the current system.

In refining the current model, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) has looked to residential models at other colleges for inspiration in crafting better housing policies here.

In its preliminary findings, submitted to President Schapiro in May 2001, the CUL included a section of statistics comparing the basic housing structures of other liberal arts colleges around the country to those of the College. The findings indicated that most peer institutions have more structures already in place aimed at building residential community than does Williams, whose open system focuses much more on student choice and autonomy.

In order to facilitate knowledgeable discussion on the topic, the Record has examined the residential systems of both some of the colleges on the CUL list and other small liberal arts colleges.

Amherst

Amherst’s system is similar to the Williams model, but it has more structure in place to build a campus-wide community. Ninety-eight percent of Amherst students live in college housing, and meals are served at a central dining commons, Valentine Hall. The rationale for a central dining area is that communal eating facilitates easy interaction between students living in different residence halls.

Students choose living quarters based on the outcome of a room draw, in which students are given priority according to class year. In order to facilitate inter-class interaction, all dormitories for non-freshmen are entirely mixed, and the variety tends to avoid creating houses that have unusually large concentrations of students of a specific class, as can be found at Williams in the Greylock Quad or Mission Park. Most campus buildings are coed, but single-sex floors are available.

Amherst’s 32 residence halls have many arrangements, including singles, doubles, triples and suites housing as many as 10 students. Residence hall events are facilitated by the presence of residence counselors (RCs) from the sophomore, junior and senior classes, who advise students and oversee the quality of life in the house. Other housing support staff includes four area managers, who work in conjunction with residence counselors to plan social, cultural and education events.

While the majority of the student body lives in the randomly mixed housing, Amherst also allows theme-housing, in which students of common interests can live together with the intent of conducting outreach programs that will educate the rest of the student body about their themes. Some examples include an Arts House, an Asian Culture House, an African, African-American, Caribbean, and Caribbean-American house, substance-free housing, and French, Spanish, Russian and German language houses. The structure of the residence halls and houses has been designed to facilitate social life on campus. According to Amherst’s Department of Housing, while all-campus social events take place two to four nights of the week, the majority of social events are conducted on a residence-hall level.

Bowdoin

As a NESCAC school, Bowdoin shares many aspects of campus life with Williams. However, its formula for residential life should be examined closely because Bowdoin recently conducted a re-evaluation of its housing system that led to a fundamental restructuring. In 1997, a Commission on Residential Life decided that the existing situation, in which fraternities existed in concert with college housing, was entirely unsuccessful in generating a cohesive sense of community. Determining that fraternity-organized events attract only a section of the student body and College housing events did not provide adequate social events for the remaining section, they proposed an alternative system in its place.

Thus, in 1997, fraternities were abolished and a house-based system established. In addition, the proposal called for large-scale construction to provide 250 new beds and increase proximity of the hitherto disparate buildings to facilitate student interaction.

As part of a plan to revitalize residential life by large-scale renovations and construction along with the restructuring of the system, Bowdoin offers the student body membership to a specific house to create a sense of identity and community within the houses. While freshmen live in large residence halls, they are all assigned affiliation with specific houses, which act as focal points for social interaction. At the moment, there are 14 college houses, but other housing options exist as well. Thus, while students may live in different buildings, they participate in social events according to their house affiliation.

The houses themselves are newly renovated structures that feature small kitchens and social spaces intended to act as centers for student social life. While the houses have kitchens, the bulk of dining is centralized to facilitate additional student interaction in large common spaces.

Houses also have faculty advisors, who help students with academic decisions and provide counsel if the need arises. They may also assist in the planning of educational events at the houses. However, elected members of the house organize the bulk of social events in the houses. Examples of events planned by houses include Freshman Orientation, cultural trips to museums and concerts, internal house events like movie nights and concerts featuring college and professional bands, organized volunteer events, theme parties, participation in intramural sports and faculty lunches.

Like the Williams system, Bowdoin students choose housing by a block lottery, in which groups of students are given a lottery number and then choose according to their pick. While theme housing has been abolished, students still have the options to pick into substance-free housing.

Carleton

According to Carleton Director of Residential Life Bucky Zietz, Carleton housing policies, designed to create a mix of students with a variety of interests, are quite successful. Unlike Bowdoin, Carleton does not have a house-based system that creates specific focal points for social events. In fact, the Carleton system is not unlike the current Williams model. Specifically, students are able to pick into the college’s various residences according to the results of a lottery.

Unlike the Williams system, however, students are not allowed to create initial groups to collectively pick into a certain house or rooms. Instead students participate in the lottery and receive individual pick numbers. The only way friends may live together is if the student with the lowest number (the best pick) draws a multi-occupancy room, and chooses the rest of the group with whom to share the space.

Other options for housing exist as well. Rather than creating exclusive theme houses, Carleton policies permit groups of up to 15 students to apply for group living based upon a common academic interest. If the housing department approves the proposal, the students are allowed to live as a group with the intent of pursuing a specific agenda. Zietz mentioned the example of a housing group that submitted a proposal to live together and pursue a common interest of ecology.

Despite the options for interest-based concentration, Zietz said that self-segregating housing groups were uncommon and mentioned that the system was successful in placing students of disparate interests and experiences in houses together. Within the houses, life is supervised by resident advisors (RAs), who also help organize social events.

“Freshmen are mixed within all the halls,” said Zietz. “Prior to the room draw, freshman rooms are set aside in all the residence halls.”

Also, in addition to mixing by class year, Zietz mentioned that gender balancing is used to ensure that gender-based groups, such as athletic teams, are not able to entirely take over a floor or house. Specifically, no floor is permitted to have more than 55 percent of one gender. According to Zietz, structuring the houses to ensure that there is an equitable distribution of students by class and gender, as well as the random sorting mechanism of the room draw, has been quite successful in fostering residential community.

“Students like the fact that we’re not a school where you’re a freshman, you’re a sophomore, [or] you’re a junior,” he said. “They can really interact easily with everyone at the college.”

Swarthmore

As Williams, the philosophy underlying the structure of housing at Swarthmore is that residence hall living is an essential part of education and contributes to academic, social, and personal development in the student. However, unlike many other colleges examined, the structure at Swarthmore is quite fluid and dependent upon the tastes of the inhabitants of the various residence halls.

Specifically, instead of having a group of students pick into a suite or groups of rooms together, individual students participate in a lottery for a room pick, which is based on seniority. As with the Carleton system, students enter the lottery alone. Once given a pick number, individual students must choose rooms in the College residential system. While students must pick individually, it is possible to choose a room and select a roommate simultaneously. In this way, friends may pick into multi-occupancy rooms choosing their roommates. However, since larger groups picking into suites is not permitted, Myrt Westphal, dean of housing at Swarthmore, feels that the system helps to ensure house composition reflects a diversity of student interests.

Also, all houses have RAs to help organize social events. Within the houses, few specific rules for living are enforced, but residents are encouraged to formulate guidelines catering to their particular interests. With the help of RAs, the students can tailor the social events to their wishes.

“The RAs have responsibility for both their own hall but also for building activities that create a wider community within the building,” said Westphal. She added that RAs are allotted funds to support activities that encompass more than a hall’s activities.

On the whole, Westphal felt that the structure is successful in forcing students with diverse interests to interact. “The combination of a new mix of residents and an intentional goal of creating community in a building helps our students to get to know a wide range of students, across all years and from all corners of the campus,” she said. “It seems to work in helping students get to know many people on campus and not just their own small circle.”

Pomona

Like many of the other colleges discussed, Pomona centers its community-building on affiliation to residences. A central part of the residence-based model is a mixing of students by class year. While first-year students are required to live on campus, no residence halls are reserved solely for first-year students. Furthermore, the sizes of the residence halls are small when compared to residences in larger, urban schools, which often may house as many as a thousand students.

Pomona’s 12 residence halls are all coed and range in size from 60 to 250 students, with an average of approximately 120 students each. Pomona’s housing philosophy holds that this number is large enough to bring together students with a variety of interests, but small enough for students to recognize each other and act as a cohesive community. Within the houses, RAs, who are usually seniors, serve as administrative liaisons and peer advisors.

Like Swarthmore, however, internal governance of the residence halls is left up to the students at the beginning of the year: residents must choose what type of governance system to employ and are responsible for organizing their own house-based events, such as parties, dances and participation in intramural sports leagues.

Thus, students are permitted a large degree of latitude in constructing the atmosphere of a residence hall. However, the Oldenborg Center for Modern Language and International Relations, is more structured. The Oldenborg Center is a langauge residence housing 140 students and includes a library, offices, a theatre, and a dining hall apart from the other residence halls.

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