Neighborhoods need all hands on deck

A driving goal of the neighborhood system has been to build and foster smaller communities within the larger Williams one. Since houses within the same neighborhood lie scattered across campus, the task of creating a sense of solidarity within neighborhoods is a daunting one, and Baxter Fellows have been charged with helping. Yet a survey from Campus Life, as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence, indicates that many Baxter Fellows are falling short. Some have simply stopped trying or never began, while others have been running up against problems within the program. Though some of these failures can only be attributed to Baxter Fellows, the ultimate blame lies with the lofty goals of the system itself, coupled with the unrealistic means taken to achieve them.

Sixty-six percent of survey respondents indicated that they did not feel a strong sense of community within their houses. Such a vague and intangible quality is certainly difficult for anyone to foster, but half of the respondents also answered that their Baxter Fellows do not organize house snacks or inform their residents of neighborhood and house events. As employees of the College, Baxter Fellows are paid to carry out a job; failing to undertake these duties – the role’s most basic – is unacceptable. While several Baxter Fellows point to a lack of enthusiasm among residents as a discouraging force, residents are not paid to attend snacks; Baxter Fellows are.

Regardless of whether their efforts fall short of building community, an effort is required nonetheless. Minimally, Baxter Fellows serve as liaisons between the administration and students, as well as between neighborhood governance boards and students, and keeping residents informed and encouraging interaction are responsibilities they must commit to.

Furthermore, Campus Life Coordinators should hold Baxter Fellows accountable for fulfilling their roles and serve as mentors. CLCs are expected to meet regularly and work closely with Baxter Fellows, advising them on issues that arise within the house and providing fresh ideas for improving house dynamics. As with any paid job, Baxter Fellows must adhere to a certain standard, and the onus is on the CLCs to establish that standard.

Even with the commitment of Baxter Fellows and the oversight of CLCs, the program comes up against several significant barriers. Baxter Fellows are asked to bring together random groups of students with little in common – established and theses-writing seniors and sophomores still finding niches and figuring out majors are forced together with little incentive to cross the social divide. The neighborhood system already divides classes across campus, and the room draw system only further separates students, as gender caps and designations of singles and doubles often prevent groups of close friends from living together.

Particularly with the small houses in Dodd, the restrictions imposed by room draw only create fragmented dorms. Because these restrictions prevent larger groups from living together, what results is a compilation of further subdivided groups with little common interest to inspire intra-house interactions. Asking Baxter Fellows to build communities out of these fragments is not just a difficult request; it’s an unrealistic one.

Communities need to form organically. Instead of forcing arbitrary groups of students to live together, neighborhoods should make it easier for compatible ones to pick-in near each other. When the desire to create community comes from those living in the house – as opposed to only from a Baxter Fellow – the ideal will become attainable.

An incentive to form bonds with other residents will arise only once students are given more control over who they live with. Eliminating some of the restrictions in room draw, such as gender caps for small houses, could help pave such a path. Currently, gender caps in smaller Dodd houses present a frustrating predicament, as once the first group picks in, gender caps are quickly met, often making it impossible for groups bigger than six men or women to live together.

We believe localizing decision-making is the best means of achieving cohesive residential communities. Neighborhood decisions should be made by those most in tune with the neighborhood, namely, neighborhood governance boards. The current arbitrary standardization across neighborhoods so different in size and spread makes little sense.

Neighborhoods should take the lead in reevaluating their houses, assessing what works and what doesn’t and catering their decisions to specific dorms. Following the example of Dodd President Peter Nurnberg ’09, who spearheaded the movement last spring to transform more doubles into singles, NGBs should adopt a more hands-on approach in developing their neighborhoods. Given that neighborhoods vary significantly, it’s unrealistic to expect the same policies to work for each.

Furthermore, more active and direct decision-making on the part of NGBs would allow each neighborhood to craft its own identity. Spencer may decide that forming larger pick-in groups for some of its bigger houses would improve inner-house dynamics, while Dodd may want to transform some of its houses into all-single ones, allowing upperclassmen to solidify their bonds.

It’s important to note that while the cluster system has encountered some choppy waters, it is not a sinking ship. The dissatisfaction expressed in the Baxter Fellow survey certainly implies that neighborhood housing has failed to foster a sense of residential community, but some changes may yet salvage a sense of flagging cluster life. Baxter Fellows actively promoting house fellowship and CLCs committed to holding them to a higher standard would certainly be a start. But we’ll only really begin to live in our clusters – not just our houses – once we look past the limited influence of Baxter Fellows. When each cluster takes ownership of its housing and caters to the specific needs of its residents, maybe then our dorms will become our homes.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *