Why student opinion matters

Though it may be a while before we have precise quantitative data, it’s fairly clear that the students on this campus are strongly and often angrily opposed to the CUL’s plans for a blind lottery system with pick-in groups of four. I hope that the CUL is asking itself the big question: what does this opposition mean for the future of residential life reform? I want to suggest some answers to that question, ones that I think will have important implications for the process as it goes forward. My aim is not to run down arguments for and against the proposal, per se, but to talk about the ramifications of student opposition to the plan.

On the most basic level, the CUL should regard it as deeply troubling that students are mad at the CUL and are losing faith in the process. I’m sure that the members of the CUL understand that they need active campus help in deciding how to reform residential life. No matter how many other schools they visit for a day, or how many perky student body representatives from other colleges they talk to, they need the students on this campus to give them useful information.

We students are, after all, a more representative source of information than administrators at other schools, and only we can help the CUL to understand the unique needs of Williams students. Without the active participation of the general campus, the CUL simply can’t get the representative, broad-based information that it needs to make good decisions. If the majority becomes too angry to say anything helpful or too alienated to say anything at all, the reform process will be deeply compromised.

But this problem goes deeper than the fact that the CUL needs us to cooperate in providing them with information. They need us to be eager participants in their renovation of campus life. After all, it should go without saying that building community takes effort from the members of that community. Anchor-based activities, for example, require students who actually want to participate in them. If we hate the idea of anchors, we’ll form our social life around something else. So if the CUL is going to get the help it needs from this campus, it needs to make us want to be a part of the process by earning our trust and our respect. I don’t think they’ve done a good job of that thus far.

When students have offered their opinions, the CUL’s responsiveness has left a lot to be desired. Last year, the CUL proposed lowering the pick size to four. Students reacted with massive, reasoned disapproval. But rather than giving us a real say in the process, all the CUL did was come back this year with the same lottery size reduction. Just for good measure, they tacked on an unpopular blind pick-in system as well. I hope that it comes as no surprise that students don’t feel that their opinions have had an impact on the process.

The way the CUL passed its plan didn’t exactly encourage students to trust it either. They announced their latest proposal and then passed it a week later, before students had a chance to organize a response.

Their public relations strategy was similarly questionable. They tried to look “responsive” by inserting a few public meetings in between the time they released the proposal and the time that they passed it. Responsiveness, however, took the form of passing exactly the same proposal that they started out with. As a result of all this, the CUL has lost the spirit of cooperation and support that it needs to effectively do its job.

There’s also a broader implication here for the slew of campus reform plans going around. The administration must know that it needs our active participation and knowledge in all the upcoming reform plans. The danger for President Schapiro is that we will come to feel that the CUL’s utterly non-responsive behavior is a sign of the way things are done at Williams, which will cause us to lose faith in both the general reform process and his administration. The consequences for future reform would be disturbing indeed.

Moreover, I think that campus opposition, in and of itself, should cause the CUL and the administration to wonder about the merits of their plan. We’re not high school students. They can’t just dismiss our opinions as being irrational or ill-considered. We’re a population of people whom they selected as the brightest and most rational young adults around. We’re experts on housing: unlike some members of the CUL, we actually live in it. The fact that we’ve had a year to think about their housing lottery plans and we still disagree should make them wonder if the plans are really as good as they seem to think.

I don’t think it’s enough for the CUL to respond by saying, as some have, “of course students are going to be mad when we take away their freedom.” Members of the CUL, ask yourselves this. Let’s say that the state of Massachusetts was going to pass a law that would restrict your freedom to choose where and with whom you lived. If you opposed it, would your opposition be wrong merely because it was your own freedom that you were defending? I think not.

In the end, the implications of student opposition to the CUL’s lottery size reduction and blind pick-in system are clear. Our opposition in and of itself is evidence that there is something fishy about the plan. After all, we’re reasonable people who are experts in the area. If they can’t convince us, something is wrong.

But even if the CUL thinks that its plan is right on the money, it still needs to change its behavior. Reform won’t work if the CUL sits in its conference room, convinced that it’s “doing the right thing in the face of opposition” while students are alienated from the process. The CUL needs our thoughts and our active support in order to make its drive to change college life a success.

The CUL can’t legislate that support; it has to earn it. The Committee needs to start by actually being influenced by student opinion. If the CUL’s proposals are rammed through in their current form, the consequences will be profound indeed. Not only will the reformers be frustrated, but a campus that has been criticized as apathetic will have more reason to believe that activism doesn’t pay.