The Committee for Undergraduate Life (CUL) presented its proposed changes to residential life at the College to the College Council (CC) on Feb. 6. While much of the proposal is still in draft form, two changes will go into effect this year, specifically the implementing of gender balancing in houses and the decrease of room draw groups to four students.
Charles Dew, chair of the CUL, was the main presenter, going over the proposal’s three main points and answering the majority of questions put forward by the CC representatives.
The first major aspect of the proposal is the creation of a community life staff at Williams. Dew said that “we are the only college out of a very long list [of similar schools] with no residential life staff.” This provision would include naming a director or dean of community life along with four or five community life coordinators, who would be recent graduates of either Williams or a similar school. Their responsibilities would vary from arranging intramural sports and community service to simply providing another leadership and support figure for students. Dew said that “it’s a byzantine labyrinth” for students to figure out how to plan events and other activities and that such coordinators would “make things genuinely better” at Williams.
The second crucial part of the proposal would be the creation of a system of anchor houses. Nine houses, including the row houses as well as buildings such as Dodd and Tyler, would become central parts of the social scene on campus; each would provide space that can be used for major social events and host weekly meals for students affiliated with the house. Each student would be assigned randomly to a house before arriving on campus as a first-year. Students’ affiliations with their anchor houses would be strictly social, and students would not be required to live in their anchor houses.
Dew said that “there are issues that are still on the table,” in terms of the anchor house affiliation system, specifically the sense that it would “be taking away from residence halls and community building there.” While he sees anchor houses and residence halls as being complementary in terms of community building, he said that other members of the CUL fear that the two would come into conflict with one another.
The final element of the proposal includes several changes in the room draw process. Dew said that the CUL had discussed what he termed the “fragmentation or balkanization” of the housing system at Williams and found that it does not represent the values of the campus. According to the proposal, changing the room draw process “can strengthen the residential community and foster social development and understanding, thus increasing the opportunity for learning outside the classroom.
“While we believe it can be beneficial for small groups of friends to room together, larger group sizes can lead to homogeneity in houses, which we consider contrary to the mission of this residential college,” the proposal read.
Therefore, the CUL has proposed that room draw groups be reduced to four, that gender balancing be put into place to prevent single sex houses, and that a blind room draw be instituted. Also, the CUL suggested that “students with seniority for the campus room draw not be penalized with a lower point average by having underclass students in their group.”
Dew told the CC that the “room draw [change] has pretty much been called by the dean…. the number is four and gender-balancing is in place.” Dew reported that the blind room draw will not be instituted this year due to concerns voiced by Nancy Roseman, dean of students, that community life coordinators will not be in place in time to deal with potential conflicts arising from this change. The other changes, Dew said, will ensure that “the possibility for stacking or creating a theme house [in this year’s room draw] would be minimized.”
After presenting these various aspects of the CUL’s proposal, Dew opened the floor to questions and comments from the CC members. Much of the discussion focused on the issue of how anchor houses would be run. As Dew put it, “many of the physical details of implementation” still need to be worked out, so there is a great deal of room for change and discussion. For example, there are numerous ideas for the implementation of anchor house dining. It is even unclear when exactly the anchor system would be put into place, if at all, which caused some concern among CC members. Caroline Messmer ’02 said that “it is important to introduce the two [room draw changes and anchor system] at once” in order to make the whole new system more cohesive.
There was also a great deal of concern about the changes to the room draw system. CC members voiced fears that students would be less inclined to take risks in picking their roommates since the groups were so much smaller.
The blind room draw, which will not be implemented this year, was also an object of contention. Scott Grinsell ’04 argued that at a small school like Williams, people will inevitably know where others are picking, and a blind room draw will simply encourage more extensive planning and strategy throughout the entire process.
Others worried that the system would foster discomfort and create excessive conflict, which would be contrary to Williams’ values.
Dew responded that the goal of the CUL was “to preserve as much of [students’] autonomy as we can” while preserving the values of the school, particularly diversity. He went on to say that when he attended Williams, it was what he termed a “white bread school” and that he feels shortchanged by this lack of diversity.
Craig Tamamoto ’02 commented that the provision that students not be penalized for picking in with underclass students could lead to underclassmen “buying” higher picks and decreasing the quality of housing for seniors. Dew later said that the CUL would most likely look at this provision in light of Tamamoto’s concerns, since those possible problems had not been discussed.
CC members raised many other issues over the course of the meeting, including the worry that the anchor house system could undermine the current JA system and questions about exactly how the system of community life coordinators would work.
The meeting adjourned after a great deal of discussion on the relative pros and cons of the proposal. The CC did not hold any votes, since the CUL’s proposal is essentially an administrative issue and the main goal of the discussion was for the CUL to discern the opinion of the CC on the issue.
Near the end of the discussion, Steve Floyd ’02 cited the Williams handbook, which states that “as a residential college, Williams believes that for each student the experience of living with other students has an educational importance that should parallel and enhance his or her studies.”
Floyd went on to say that Williams is not fulfilling this goal with the current housing system and that the CUL’s proposal works to better fulfill it. Dew later said that this was a “very telling moment” in the meeting and that “[Floyd] put his finger right on the values that we’re trying to develop.”
Sarah Barger ’02, co-president of the CC, s
ummarized the reactions of the CC. “On the whole, CC members remain critical of the blind room draw (less so now, in its revised form) and the reduction of group size,” she said. While the anchor affiliation system seems very promising, CC members expressed concerns about the details, such as how to lure people to their anchor houses and whether the community life coordinators would be able to incorporate alcohol into the events the planned.
Dew characterized the meeting on the whole as “quite constructive” and said the CUL will most likely “rethink some of the things we talked about.” He said that “there’s a good deal of student thought about how anchor houses will or won’t work and we need to think about that and maybe think about a phased introduction of some portions of the program rather than trying to go sort of immediately into the full series of proposals.”
Barger said that based on the way the meeting went, she thinks the CC should spend its time petitioning the administration regarding any problems with the proposal, “since they will be deciding how, if, and when to implement these suggestions.”