Handing students the keys

What are the advantages of the “Purple Bubble?” As students at Williams College, we should all be familiar with the occasional realization that we are alarmingly dislocated from the outside world. Of course, as Thoreau famously pointed out, this isolation has its advantages. We place ourselves in this bubble so that we might take advantage of its scholarly conveniences: namely, the convenience of a serene environment swept clean of all distraction – save for that of the landscape’s arresting beauty.

It seems that over time this mantra has broadened its application; “distraction” no longer simply applies to the noise pollution of the city – it applies to all those tasks of self-maintenance that vitiate our devotion to more aspirational activities. In other words, why do employees of the College clean our bathrooms for us? Ideally, the answer goes something like this: so that we can pour ourselves into Plato’s Republic, or Cantor’s proofs, or the intricacies of the genome. As a rough approximation, if Williams employs 1500 people full-time between Dining Services, Facilities and other administrative positions, this means that 30 work-hours per week are performed on behalf of each student. Just a little math reveals that Williams’ greatest gift to us is the opportunity to actually exhaust the energy of our passions. Some might object to the word “gift” here, arguing that all of this is simply a paid-for service. But Williams is not a for-profit venture; implicit in its business plan is a spirit of altruism toward the scholar. In other words, to present such an economic argument is to present a world strictly ordered by the business transaction – a world in which Williams could never exist.

Like all great gifts, so much relies on how it is received. Williams students don’t seem to be aware of this gift on the sort of level that sustains a common ethos of respect and gratefulness. One wonders if Williams veils its generosity too well, and also if this concealment serves to inure us to a sense of entitlement that relaxes our engagement. Perhaps Williams ought to take more seriously the task of nurturing student autonomy. In other words, perhaps the administration ought to relinquish certain responsibilities to the students so that we might re-sensitize ourselves to our privilege. To be sure, this task involves a great deal of creativity.

It would be both unrealistic and inappropriate to assign administrative and custodial responsibilities to students on a large scale; rather, we need to isolate those areas of campus life where student ownership can be both functional and highly symbolic. By taking on a small portion of the College’s maintenance, we can find a meaningful source of renewal for our sense of privilege and, therein, a more active commitment to being better students.

Can we imagine, for example, students actually taking ownership of Sawyer Library: of opening, closing, cleaning, restocking, ordering and staffing – and all of this beyond the context of financial aid jobs? What we want is a building on campus that students are truly responsible for – a responsibility of just enough stature to affect everyone on campus, but also invoke the possibility of serious (but not catastrophic) failure. This shift wouldn’t involve replacing Sawyer’s staff members, but rather turning them into mentors – as well as librarians. Nor would this be an abrupt change, but instead a gradual transition, a project that students and the administration can collaborate on together over the next several years.

We asked several administrators how they would react to such a proposal. Of course, while most approved of the spirit behind this initiative, they seemed very uncomfortable with the possibility of putting students in control of such important property. Only Mike Reed, the vice president for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity, voiced enthusiasm when he responded, “Yeah, it makes you responsible. You’ve got a $130 million piece of property.”

It’s easy to imagine other activities that wouldn’t so much deprive us of our privileges as renew our sense of gratefulness. Perhaps students could organize a week of role reversal, when they would clean dorms for a week and choose one night to put on a dinner for Dining Services. This sort of student initiative would obviously require College resources and organizational support; the challenge is then to negotiate between student impetus and administrative guidance.

In our questions to President Schapiro, we made a connection between increased vandalism and decreased student engagement. Schapiro responded that “some folks will do some really dumb and offensive things” and that our goal should be to “continue to educate us all” in these matters as they arise. By accepting the reality of occasional embarrassments on campus, President Schapiro refrains from infringing on our freedom, and there’s a lot of wisdom in this position. There’s a difference, however, between prodding students toward a sense of responsibility and creating spaces on campus that encourage students to mature towards holding a constructive sense of privilege.

We want to be confident that, if students venture into a somewhat uncharted path toward a better Williams, the administration will be brave enough to give time and resources to something that, in all honesty, could possibly fail.

If you’re interested in this sort of project, e-mail us at either david.weimer@gmail.com or wallyboudway@gmail.com. We’ll email you back with the date of a future meeting with administrators.

Wally Boudway ’08 is a philosophy major from Phoenix, Ariz. David Weimer ’06 is from Williamstown, Mass., and will be pursuing graduate studies in English next year.