House presidents should learn from past

In recent weeks, a large portion of the campus has become concerned that its voice was not heard by the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) before it released its comprehensive campus plan. If students on campus want to get riled up about a lack of participation in forming new proposals on campus, however, they should look no further than the House Presidents Council (HPC) and its new House Coordinator (HC) proposal.

Almost one year ago, the Housing Committee (now known as the HPC) represented students in a protest of the CUL proposal to reduce housing draw group sizes. The logic behind the protest was that student input had not been solicited. In a letter to the CUL, the Housing Committee stated: “We, the Housing Committee. . .who represent all the residents of Williams College strongly reject the CUL proposal to reduce the group size. . .We invite [the] CUL to meet with us to discuss our disagreements.” Regardless of the merits of the CUL’s proposal, the Housing Committee’s cursory response was nothing more than a knee-jerk indictment.

This year, following the CUL’s presentation of a well-researched and comprehensive plan for the advancement of residential life at the College, the HPC has created its own proposal that mimics the purported faults of the CUL last year. The HPC’s recommendation regarding a redefinition of the House President role may ultimately defeat its own noble efforts. The proposal on the table does not reflect a broader understanding of the issues at stake. Further, there is no indication of any attempt to garner input from the student body. In light of last year’s criticism of the CUL, the HPC’s proposal is the epitome of hypocrisy.

The HPC proposal makes no attempt to define how a HC will function in the broader context of a changing housing environment at Williams. The HPC tells us that HCs are to be “resources and community builders within a house,” but provides no explanation to the community as to why the proposal will change the current system or contribute to community building.

Based upon the information given in the woefully-inadequate proposal, any student with a modicum of self-interest would logically apply to be a HC as it appears to be little more than a way to jump to the front of the housing lottery and get paid $900 in the process. In theory, the selection process will weed out most of these students, but compensation should still not be the means by which we find student leaders on this campus.

One needs only to look at the JA system to recognize that Williams students can have a strong current of volunteerism and desire to give back to the College. The JAs have a respected and well-established role on campus. Their position certainly entails the same or more work than that of a HC, given the HC role outlined in the proposal, but the only compensation JAs receive is the prestige of the position and the knowledge that they are making a positive impact on campus.

The HPC proposal details a number of obligations that HCs would have. HCs would be responsible for attending training sessions, being a resource to fellow students, keeping the house informed of college issues and events and organizing a range of programs within the house, including activities with faculty associates, social events and snack breaks, community service programs and activities with other houses. And yet there is not a single responsibility outlined in the proposal that goes beyond the duties that current House Presidents should already have.

The argument in support of compensating HCs is that to provide the adequate incentive and accountability for the job to be done properly, HCs must have the specter of cash and the best room in the house looming large over their heads. Yet is compensation a way to properly counter a campus increasingly disinterested in traditional roles of authority and power, such as the house presidents and College Council?

In a recent e-mail to the Record, Dean Nancy Roseman correctly said, “While [the administration] greatly value[s] student opinion in many areas of College governance, and in many respects students do – and will continue to – govern themselves, in the realm of housing the institution cannot cede authority to the students. We are making changes because it is our strong belief that in some areas of student life the College is not fulfilling its mission.” Indeed, one reason that we come to Williams is that we place a certain amount of trust in the administration; as students, we recognize that administrators have the experience and skills necessary to improve residential life at Williams. But one must ask whether paying students to do a job to improve residential life is really the approach this school should be taking. If there are not 35 suitable candidates for an unpaid house coordinator role on the Williams campus, perhaps that is an indication of a larger fundamental problem at Williams right now.

The Record is pleased that the administration has taken a proactive role in helping solve student concerns at the College. But in some aspects of student life, it remains the responsibility of the students to recognize what is essential to Williams. At this college in the past, there has been pride in structures such as house presidents and pride in the identity that the houses have. Rather than paying students in a quick-fix attempt to solve underlying campus problems, the community needs to determine why students are eager to be JAs, but not to assume any other roles of responsibility.

The success of the ambitious CUL proposal and any reform of the House President system lies most fundamentally in dealing with the apathy many students feel when it comes to helping to promote a more intimate and lively community.