With the first half of the semester underway, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) has yet to address many of the issues stemming from last year’s residential life reforms.
For the past two years, CUL has actively evaluated student life and offered the College recommendations for its improvement. Comprised of faculty and students, the committee began its study in the fall of 2000 at the request of President Shapiro.
“[Many] students, faculty and administrators believed undergraduate life, here at Williams, was not up to the level of academic life,” said Charles Dew, Charles R. Keller Professor of History and last year’s chair of the CUL. “Residential life is supposed to be a rich and stimulating experience, but instead the [College’s] housing system broke downâ€”the house presidents became party planners, while the students were shortchanged without community life and housing coordinators.”
According to Norma Lopez, assistant dean of the College, “It will take some time to get back on track.” She explained, “the biggest difference from last year was that the committee does not share the same urgencies because many of the members were not part of the discussions last year and do not have personal investments in them.”
The composition of the committee has changed considerably since last year, retaining only three of its former members. Henry Art, director of the center of environmental science and professor of biology, who was on sabbatical last year, has replaced Dew as chair of the committee. This year the committee also has included the Community Life Coordinators (CLCs), four full time employees of the College whose role is to promote community life on campus and to assist the housing coordinators in building house unity.
Though the CUL plans to review the outcome of the policies implemented last year on the basis of its recommendations, it has yet to do so. These policies, which aimed at unifying and diversifying the student body in order to encourage “social understanding and development,” include a blind room draw, gender balancing of houses and capping the number of students who pick in together at four.
Dean Lopez explained that it was hard to define the changes as a success or failure because most of the evidence at this point is only anecdotal. The committee intends to host group discussions and ask students to complete surveys about the new policies later this year.
Dean Lopez said the CUL will not investigate whether students like the new changes but rather whether the polices will be beneficial for students in the long run. She explained that students often think about the effects of changes on the duration of their four years and not in light of the future of the College. She compared student reaction to the residential changes to the initial opposition to the installation of card readers (which allowed dorms to be locked) on campus when she was a student at Williams, pointing out how integral the readers are to student life today.
“The CUL instituted its plan with the aim of achieving residential diversity and increased interaction among students of different backgrounds,” said Ching Ho ’03, College Council (CC) co-president. While I do appreciate what the CUL was trying to accomplish and its good intent, its research methodology lacked wide scale involvement from the student body, and thus its decision was based on flawed data.”
“Another problem,” said Ho, “was the haphazard timing of the proposal. The process was rushed through for implementation, and given no real, effective process for serious reexamination. In that regard, what leverage the student body did have was very superficial.”
Ho believes the CUL and the College have failed in their attempt to diversify residential life on campus. In fact, he believes the College has added to the problem of certain houses being occupied by individuals bound together by a specific identity like a common culture or membership on a sports team. He identified Tyler Annex and the Dodd House as examples of this problem. Tyler Annex houses mostly athletes, while Dodd House houses a large number of the College’s minority population.
Moving away from homogenous housing groups was one of the goals of the new policies implemented last year. The success of these changes in diversifying housing seems uncertain, however. For example, Gladden and Tyler Annex have been tagged as athlete houses and the numbers support the rumors. In Gladden, 59 of the 85 residents are athletes, and in Tyler Annex, 30 of the 40 residents are athletes, ratios much higher than in other houses. Gender-balancing was more successful, with almost all houses meeting the gender balancing requirment. Exceptions at the housing draw were only made for final picks into large houses where the gender ratio would be altered only slightly.
Dew said he was unable to comment on the effects of the implementation of the four person room draw, since he is no longer the faculty chair of the CUL. But he did acknowledge that students will always find a way around the system, which ultimately makes it harder to break down the ‘traditions’ of certain houses being occupied by certain groups on campus. Dew emphasized that the College is doing all it can to address the challenges and the “tensions” associated with creating diverse residential halls.
“This is an incentive problem: the most motivated students will still find ways to manipulate a favorable housing situation, at the expense of the underclassmen and least knowledgeable students,” Ho said.
Some students believe that the number of athletes in a house is not indicative of the culture of the residence.
“I personally do not feel that Gladden is dominated by an athlete culture,” Aaron Wilson ’04, Gladden House housing coordinator, said. He said that the house has many athletes but that “being an athlete only places you in a nominal category” and “does not necessarily grant you an automatic kinship with every other athlete.”
The numbers also offer a skewed perception of the breakdown of houses because they do not reflect the variety of sports within one house or the students who play club sports such as rugby. The analysis of the count of athletes and non-athletes also is only one interest that could be studied. “We will look at the makeup of the houses but where we go from there is more difficult,” Lopez said.
Art explained that students pick into dorms based on the other house members, which tends to cause houses populated by relatively homogenous groups rather than diverse environments. This is especially true for the smaller houses. Professor Art suggested that under the present system the College may not be able to achieve a balanced community taking into account athletes and non-athletes, ethnicity and gender.
“Historically there has been a drift in towards less diversity in dorms and a lack of cohesion in residential life,” he said. Student identification with their houses has declined over the years, shifting social activity from residential life to academics and extracurricular activities. This may, in part, be why many upperclassmen have sought assistance from Psychological Services for issues revolving around housing situations. The trend towards seeking help from Psych Services was one reason why the CUL’s mission to create a stronger support network within the housing system became more urgent. Unintentionally “themed” houses tended to be unbalanced in both gender and ethnicity.
Concerned with the well being of all students, especially the needs of gay and lesbian students, Dew believes the decision to limit the housing draw to four people will create a “welcom[ing], safe and productive” environment for all students.
While the committee has not discussed these possibilities, Art offered
the solutions of groups of four picking into dorms and then being randomly assigned to rooms within the house or even students picking in as individuals.
According to Art, for this year, the only changes may be an increase or decrease of the number of students in a housing group.It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the blind draw policy since students could see where individuals were living once within the selection room. “I do not think that we achieved our goals by just having WSO be blind,” Lopez said.
Beyond the changes implemented, several proposals, specifically the anchor house affiliated system, the creation of more co-op housing and small residential units, as well as proposed renovations to Mission Park are still waiting a decision from College administrators, mostly due to funding and some logistical issues. Dew said that he was not able to comment directly on the financial issues surrounding the implementation of the CUL’s proposal, but he recalled President Schapiro’s promise during the planning phase that the CUL would not be constrained by a budget due to the ease of raising money to improve residential life at the College.
The renovation of Baxter Hall and the creation of a new theater and dance center have ultimately placed further implementation of CUL’s plans on hold indefinitely. Dew insists that funding is not the only issue: logistics also play a role.
In order for the anchor house affiliate system to work, the College would be forced to supply each row house with adequate kitchen facilities and a member of the Dining Service to cook meals for faculty/student functions. At this time, this plan is not feasible. Dew believes it is important to see the effects of the changes that have already been implemented before other changes occur.
Over the summer, the College began the first phase of renovating Mission, starting with transformation of the dining hall and the lobby. Next summer, the College plans to restructure the building, increasing the common space in the building and reconfiguring the stairways to promote more student interaction. Dean
“The goal is to make [Mission] more student-friendly, appealing to live in, and to make student interaction easier,” Lopez said. The construction also will bring the building up to code and improve handicap accessibility. The renovations of Prospect are not slated to begin until 2004 due to other building projects on campus.
Many of the CUL and administrators’ proposed changes have been met with a great deal of controversy. CC has written a letter, supported by a 600-person petition presented by Josh Ain ’03, addressing the points of the CUL proposal, which they believe have not benefited the student body. Ho hopes to work on behalf of CC, talking directly with administrators to re-examine the CUL’s plan for revamping undergraduate residential life.
“Change [is] uncertain and threatening,” Dew said. He maintained that the student body’s criticisms are rather premature and that the College is doing everything within its powers to improve and enhance the undergraduate experience for all students at the College.