CUL Proposal: a promising stepping stone

The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) has produced a provisional proposal (fully reproduced on page 10) for overhauling student life at Williams – a proposal that we are confident places the College on a springboard towards building a vibrant community. The CUL has done an extensive amount of research and approached its task in a manner that should be applauded; the Committee was told to “think big” and its work has led to a proposal that will serve as an important stepping stone towards a system that will greatly enhance student life. Changes in room draw procedure, establishing an Office of Residential or Community Life and creating an anchor/affiliation system are highlights of the proposal. In these overhauls, we find both brilliant advances and crippling side effects, but we are encouraged by the openness to change expressed by the CUL and are confident that a strong and effective proposal, well-suited to Williams, will arise from their efforts.

The CUL has identified, and solved in the best way possible, the fairly intuitive concept that it is beneficial for small groups of friends to room together, but that larger group sizes can lead to house homogeneity and, in turn, campus fragmentation. Thus, we support its recommendation that group size in the room draw be reduced to four students. As the report notes, while the reduction in group size will work well in the majority of campus housing, it is crucial to find a solution to the problems created by the awkward Mission Park architecture. As suites of five are common in Mission, single students forced to pick in with an established group of four friends could create irreconcilable problems. While the CUL attempts to solve this problem by renovating Mission Park, those changes will take time and a temporary solution is essential. We also urge the CUL to consider grandfathering in a provision for current upperclassmen so that a group of six juniors, for example, who have lived together since their first year at Williams, are not required to choose who among them will be forced out of the group for senior year. We support the gender balancing of houses, as the domination of one gender can be intimidating.

Though the idea of a blind room draw may succeed in theory, we do not feel that is a procedure that will work given the realities of Williams housing. With many suites constructed to house more than four people, it is unrealistic to require a group to live, sleep and bathe in proximity to another group with whom they feel uncomfortable. “Difficult learning” can only go so far and it is entirely inappropriate to make a student feel unwelcome or distressed in his or her own home. Further, such a change would aggravate the problem of social fragmentation. If students are not capable of knowing the makeup of a house, the only way to decide where to live is based on the past reputation of a house. Thus, a house with a quiet reputation will see that reputation self-perpetuate each year until the campus is left with a “study” house, an “art” house and a “drunk” house.

Also, a crippling aspect of the CUL proposal is the elimination of housing penalties for seniors living with juniors and sophomores. The proposal creates too many loopholes that will, in the end, penalize all seniors and destroy the integrity of the housing draw. Two seniors could easily pick in with two sophomores with whom they have no intention of living. The sophomores would then split from the group and receive equal or better housing than other seniors. Collusion, bribes and other favors would become a commonplace, if not necessary, manner by which rising underclassmen could acquire preferable housing.

We are excited by the recommendation to create an Office of Residential or Community Life. A community life coordinator could serve a valuable role in helping students plan parties, organize intramural teams and negotiate disputes within a house. To assure the success of the system, we urge the CUL to be extra cautious that they do not become residential advisors, unpopular at many colleges, who are forced into an adversarial role due their disciplinary obligations. We are confident that the CUL is aware of this danger and that a productive balance between the students’ and the College’s demands on a coordinator will be found.

Finally, the CUL’s recommendation regarding anchor houses is the most dramatic and intriguing. We are excited about the Committee’s attempt to create a “more formalized and institutionally supported program to better integrate members of the Williams Community.” If successfully implemented, the anchor system has the potential to create a vibrant community for a diverse group of students. These groupings could complement other social circles, such as sports teams or extra-curricular organizations, which currently dominate the campus social scene. In an ideal situation, we see this system as a way of giving upperclassmen some first-year-entry-like benefits, particularly for sophomores as a way of combating the “sophomore slump.”

While we are convinced the CUL proposal sets the College on the right path towards achieving this goal, the lack of a strong “magnet” to bring students to the anchor house on a frequent basis ultimately keeps the proposed system from achieving all that it could. The current system calls for each anchor house to hold a weekend brunch or dinner along with two lunches each week. Members of each anchor would also host social events and participate in intramurals together. Though these measures are a good starting point for the anchor system, it must go further. Merely putting 180 students together for meals three times a week will not encourage them to reach out to members of the anchor they wouldn’t otherwise know. At each meal, a student will merely dine with a few of his or her close friends, which will prevent the formation of new relationships at meals.

If, however, there were a stronger draw to each anchor that made the house active on a continuous basis, rather than merely a few times a week, the community would create stronger ties. The goal of the CUL should be to find a way to get students into their anchor house on a regular basis and encourage them to stay and socialize with the other members of the anchor. Creating a top-notch lounge in each anchor would go a long way towards achieving the second goal. The College should spare no expense giving anchor lounges comfortable furniture, entertainment devices and other incentives to congregate.

The CUL must find a concrete solution to assure participation and interaction within the anchor houses. Two potentially effective measures that the CUL considered, but couldn’t recommend due to logistic constraints, were daily lunches and shifting mail delivery to the anchor houses. Either of these measures would create stronger magnets. It is essential that the CUL once again “think outside of the box” on this matter and propose a workable and effective solution.

A concern that has consistently plagued the CUL and will be more salient if the anchor system is reinforced, is the potential side effects these proposals may have on the vibrancy of Baxter. While the addition of student groups and services will give Baxter a lively atmosphere, the CUL must reconcile the inherent social de-centralization created by the anchor system with the centralized social features in Baxter. Should Grab-and-Go exist in Baxter if deli lunches are served in anchor houses? While mail delivery may draw students to houses, would that kill Baxter traffic? The answers to these questions are crucial and time-sensitive.

If only in its existence, th
e CUL proposal is highly encouraging as it presents a template for change in a housing system that has remained stagnant for nearly thirty years. It holds the potential to bring together diverse groups of students engaged in an exciting, and currently unavailable, social scene. The anchor system could reinvigorate the flagging concept of house identity and attack social fragmentation of the campus. There should be no doubt that the CUL has admirably handled the task assigned. We urge the Committee to take the full leap into the anchor system and find a way to make what is now simply adequate into something truly meaningful.