A darker future for campus life?

“So out with the old and in with the new: If Williams were to stop changing, it would never be the same.” Those words, which I wrote in May 2004 as part of the Record’s farewell to Baxter Hall, paid fond tribute to the past and looked ahead to the promise of the future. “It’s a shame to see the old girl go,” the editorial read, “but at the same time, it seems a fitting testament to the way the College reinvents itself every year for 500 bright-eyed new Ephs.”

Two years later, with graduation just weeks away, I look back on that moment and wish I could recreate the hopefulness of that vision of Williams as a beacon and vehicle of positive growth. Instead, I am frustrated by many of the ways in which the campus has changed, most particularly the sudden prominence of the well-intentioned but detrimental Office of Campus Life, which is locked in a stagnating cycle of its own design. By in effect naming itself “the decider” when it comes to student life, the campus life office has alienated the College’s best leaders. As a result of this rift, the office has become inwardly-focused, self-promotional and deeply resistant to constructive criticism. Student life is student-driven no longer.

When I arrived on campus, director of campus life Doug Bazuin and his staff were a distant idea, not a reality. Barb and Gail administered activities on campus, helping students schedule events from their fishbowl office at the heart of Baxter Hall. Linda Brown administered room draw, her maternal warmth and firmness easing the process. Tom McEvoy (who has since departed) and Jean Thorndike provided big-picture support and served as liaisons between students and administrators. When students were moved to champion a new policy or party idea, Tom and Jean were willing to listen, and often to lend moral and financial support. The execution fell to students, but this sense of responsibility fostered greater ownership.

Gradually, however, the idea emerged that housing, extracurricular activities and other functions would be better served by a centralized office. Enter Bazuin et al, products of the introduction of a system of house coordinators (HCs) and campus life coordinators (CLCs). “The level of student autonomy and influence is greatest at Williams of all the schools I’ve worked at,” Bazuin told the Record in September 2003. But Bazuin’s understanding of students’ role seemed confused and uninformed, as he cited the HC system, then as now a weak, top-down force on campus, as his conception of student influence.

I will not dispute that in 2003 Williams needed a stronger support system for students looking to launch new initiatives and throw events open to the campus. For many, extracurricular activities had become a burden, with unreasonably long hours spent planning and preparing events down to the last detail. Yet today, some of the best and most innovative groups on campus remain far-removed from campus life, driven by highly motivated and talented individuals. Take Williams Students Online, for example, or 91.9, the student radio station: Their success lies in their student leaders, who have been willing to commit their time to making sweeping changes that have transformed WSO and WCFM, respectively.

Unfortunately, the Office of Campus Life and the Dean’s office, which oversees it, have not fostered this model. Instead, both offices have moved in the opposite direction, at times going so far as to render student involvement wholly superficial, as with the planning of this year’s Senior Week. The senior officers elected by the Class of 2006 do nothing more than choose tablecloth colors; it is assistant director of campus life Jess Gulley who runs the show. Hovering over student shoulders, the campus life staff of today is like a mother or father who wants to be your friend instead of your parent. The office should cast itself as an administrative support service, not the arbiter of cool.

Since Bazuin arrived, the balance of decision-making regarding student life has been thrown out of whack faster than I could have imagined. This year, while Dean Roseman, whose knowledge of Williams goes back more than a decade, tried out furniture samples for the Paresky Center, Bazuin sat on the Committee on Undergraduate Life, planning for the introduction of the Williams House System. Why, at a college that takes pride in its students and its particular identity, is someone with no knowledge and experience specific to Williams playing a prominent role in changes to student life? The logic may lie in a trend that I first observed junior year, as the administration began to prioritize its own interests over that of students and place greater value on spin than on transparency: the corporatization of Williams College.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted this trend at large research universities, and it is especially troubling to think that the culture of corporations has also permeated small liberal arts colleges. I have nothing against the corporate world, but so much is lost if Williams begins to behave like a business rather than an educational institution, setting performance targets (test scores and diversity measures come to mind) and looking to rankings as if they defined value, as a stock price would. Under this model, Williams students, who represent a generation increasingly aware of commercial relationships, branding and image, become mere products. Perhaps it is fitting that the campus will soon have a “modern student center, that shard of suburban mall wrapped around a ski lodge,” as professor of art Michael Lewis describes it, with prime real estate granted to the Office of Campus Life.

And perhaps a corporate culture with only surface-level student involvement is exactly what the classes succeeding me will demand. But when I wrote that Williams would never be the same if it were to stop changing, I had faith that student-generated ideas would lie at the heart of any future changes. Today I am less sure of that assumption, and as a result my rosy picture of the College’s future has darkened.

Record publisher Ainsley O’Connell ’06 is an English and political science major from Whitefish Bay, Wis.