Translating the CUL’s aspirations to reality

When crafting the new residential life proposal, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) followed the often-debated assumption that the Williams College student body exists as a community fractured into small groups divided along athletic, class, interest-based and ethnic lines. Some members of the College community have concluded that these divisions pose a problem for strengthening the greater Williams community, and that these divisions must be remedied with decisive action. We can explore what is necessary to solve this problem from these basic assumptions.

In response to President Schapiro’s directive to “think big,” without being constrained by budgetary concerns, the CUL devised the recently-released proposal. The measures taken will go a long way to addressing the needs for a stronger feeling of community and an affiliation that will last throughout a student’s time at Williams and beyond. However, the committee’s deliberations continue to be constrained by the realities of our physical campus as it exists today. The shadow of the “new Baxter” and renovated Sawyer/Stetson complex keep many intriguing possibilities in the dark. Though resource-intensive, several ideas for dorm construction and renovation must be pursued as part of the strategic planning process; these changes would both improve housing and create a more vibrant community. The administration has consistently supported the CUL’s mission. At this critical juncture, the administration and the trustees must commit to physical changes that will enable the campus to realize its full potential.

First, one to two “row-house quality dorms” should be built in the area between Lehman, Mission, and Dodd. The single most limiting factor for the establishment of a successful anchor affiliation system is the lack of adequate space to accommodate row house dining for 200 students. Building two new row houses in this area (next to Parsons and on the Lehman lawn) would accomplish many necessary objectives. The creation of at least two anchors with ample space for dining and cooking would make the anchor proposal more feasible by reducing the number of people affiliated with each house to a more manageable number. Creating new dorms would also give seniors more options in choosing high quality housing and would shift the axis of senior housing away from the current concentration on Route 2. Finally, an increase in the total number of beds available would pave the way for more common spaces and bigger rooms in large dormitories like the Greylock quad and Mission.

Last year, the CUL chose to reduce the pick size from seven students to four. This year’s CUL has decided to uphold the decision, as it feels that, despite the problems that arise when people of clashing lifestyles end up living in the same suite, the advantages of the reduced pick size remain. Also, the problem of lifestyle clash can be solved with simple changes to existing support systems and to the dorms themselves.

The second critical change is the creation of spaces designated for louder and messier social activities. As more people share a common area, there is not only greater possibility for casual interactions, but also the increased chance of conflict over how it is used. If the creation of larger and nicer common areas can be combined with that of separately designated party spaces, both needs will be met.

I offer the example of the proposed renovations to Mission, by which rooms adjacent to stairway landings will be incorporated into the landings to create larger, more inviting common spaces for the four suites adjoining the stairwell. This would create a nicer common space than is found in any one suite, but would sacrifice some suite common rooms. However, if my friends and I wanted to throw a party, our only place to do so would become the common area shared with three other suites. Someone would inevitably be upset with our lifestyle choice because it would impinge upon his or her right to enjoy a clean and alcohol-free environment. This is exactly the type of problem that will be created by the pick size of four, and it is one that can be easily solved by the creation of “party rooms” in all the dorms where there are currently confined suites of more than four.

The third critical change is to realign the desirability of housing by room or suite rather than by dorm. Currently, almost every room in the row houses is more coveted than the rooms in Greylock, which, in turn, are preferred over Mission rooms. We cannot change the setup of room draw to allow a sophomore or junior to pick before a senior, but we can affect where they will want to pick. As more beds are created by the construction of new houses, we should knock down walls in Mission and create larger suites of double-sized rooms. Perhaps we could model suites after apartments replete with full kitchens, or connect two suites vertically with a spiral staircase in a manner reminiscent of the Fayerweather “Gold Coast” apartments during the early 1900s. Similar changes creating different quality rooms in a single building ought to be made in the Greylock quad in order to transform the way people view the dorms. Some seniors might then choose to live in Mission and Greylock, and we could expand the number of doubles in row houses to further mix up the class composition of the houses.

These are the sorts of changes that President Schapiro and the administration must be willing to commit to if they are serious about improving community at Williams. I’m sure that the numbers in terms of real dollars are out of my realm of comprehension, but Charles Dew, professor of history and CUL Chair, has said, “If there’s one thing that [the College] can raise money for, it’s student life.”

So I say, let the capital campaign begin. If there’s one thing students will work for, it’s student life. Some of us don’t even have exceptionally well-structured summer job plans at the moment, so put us to work in taking the decisive steps needed to make the image of an ideal Williams a reality.

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