Residential life at Williams

Over the past three years a revolution has been underway at Williams College. The transformation may not be particularly apparent to those new arrivals to the Purple Bubble, but it exists nonetheless. The changes that I speak of have occurred, and will continue to, in the residential life system with the overarching goal of greater “community building.”

While some would argue that, outside of the Theatre Complex, little has been constructed, many changes have occurred which generally have been positive for current students as well as those of the future. The merits of the current system relate to its ability to break down rather than erect barriers among students, but successes of past reforms are not indicative of the need for continued structural change. Persistent pressure for more radical modifications, based on the Board of Trustees and administrations’ implicit policy of “learning by discomfort” in residential situations, virtually guarantees encroachment upon student autonomy in housing through unwarranted restrictions on living choices and the evolution towards a RA-like arrangement within upper-class houses.

The foundation for this “revolution” in student housing lies in the new positions of Director of Residential Life, House Coordinator and Community Life Coordinator; accompanied by changes to the way in which housing is allocated to students each year. These positions and regulations were all designed to confront the fact that during the 1990s, Williams began to flag in its mission to create multiple layers of community for each student on campus. While many tried to ignore the reality that Williams had become polarized along the lines of athlete/non-athlete, male/female, gay/straight, white/black, the College was in fact characterized by a de- facto system of theme housing. This polarization runs contrary to all that Williams stands for in terms of promoting interactions in living spaces among students from different backgrounds in their hopes of transcending labels like “jock,” “nerd,” “preppy” or “activist.”

While the HCs and CLCs have struggled to define themselves, their mere existence signals a commitment on the part of students and administration to creating residential communities characterized by an identity outside of gender, class background, team affiliation or race. Granted, the process will be slow, but as long as students are able to cultivate new friendships and social connections through house events during the year, the programs must be judged as a successes.

Though the implementation of the changes in the housing draw accompanying these new programs has been less than smooth from the students perspective (i.e. four person housing groups and gender balancing in the row houses that splits up groups of friends), the result has been a residential life system that more actively promotes interactions among a wide variety of students. Many students, including myself, can relate a story of how the housing modifications have adversely affected them specifically, but there exists a balancing number of anecdotes concerning groups of students engaging in positive interactions that most likely would not have taken place under the old system.

The current residential structure still affords students a great deal of freedom in their housing choices and also creates the opportunity to forge new relationships in that setting. Furthermore, HCs support the system as facilitators for these interactions while for the most part staying removed from students’ personal lives. But will this delicate balance be maintained in the future? The new Director of Residential Life should continue his focus primarily on adequately funding HCs and CLCs so as to give them the resources to design meaningful programs and on educating them on how to build bridges within their houses, particularly in the larger areas like Mission and Greylock. What must not occur is the more radical implementation of administration’s unspoken policy of “learning by discomfort” that further shrinks the student housing groups or continues last year’s trend of moving underclassmen into traditionally senior housing (i.e. Brooks full of sophomores).

Furthermore, the role of the HC must not evolve into an upper-class JA that seeks out students within their houses to counsel on the dangers of their weekend drinking or recent weight loss. These concerns are far from unfounded, as the current HC training continues to focus on the “warning signs of eating disorders” and how to confront a student who might be suffering from depression. While programming is certainly a part of HC training, the presence of these other topics portends of things to come in terms of what is expected of HCs.

The recent “revolution” in residential life has been successful because of its ability to free students from what was at times a socially and intellectually restrictive living environment. But more radical changes (or even incremental reform) could lead to a system that represses student choice in housing and infringes on their private lives. In that case, the positive steps already achieved would be overshadowed by futile attempts at dictating every aspect of students’ residential experience through a process of “social engineering”.