As senior administrators form a neighborhood evaluation committee, we urge them to consider the troublesome discrepancies between the ideals and the realities that define the system. The new neighborhood switching process, occurring tonight, is a selection process uncannily similar to the one in place pre-neighborhood. This paradox raises questions about what purpose the neighborhoods are serving outside of creating extra complications. We also hope that administrators will invite a significant number of students to join them in this reassessment committee and also consult the student body as a whole. An assessment of student housing without heavy student input will not contain the experiential insight necessary to fix the flaws and move productively forward.
The core intents of the neighborhood system are not without merit. Its formation strived to shatter large clusters of social groups in certain houses and thereby promote housing heterogeneity. The neighborhoods were supposed to function as four smaller communities to which students felt attached, getting to know fellow members and participating in neighborhood events with increasing loyalty over four years.
For students, it is common knowledge that none of this has happened on a large scale. Any small, positive realization of these hopes for housing has been severely overshadowed by the hassle neighborhoods have created, namely the separation of friends from one another. To mitigate this problem, the newest correction of the neighborhood switching process allows students to enter a lottery to select their neighborhoods. Barring some formatting specifics, there is a curiously strong resemblance between this new switching process and the pre-neighborhood room draw system, which let students form groups, enter a lottery and pick their housing; the difference is simply the added convolutions of the neighborhood system.
In 2006, the Committee on Undergraduate Life as well as President Schapiro and many faculty claimed that the neighborhood system was what was best for students, in spite of major student protest. They assumed that the anger and dissatisfaction with the system would die as dissidents graduated. Instead, the inanity of the system has engendered frustration from every incoming class. The institutional memory of student life may be short at Williams, but the neighborhood system is flawed enough to regenerate dissatisfaction within every new class.
The fact that any student can – and does – switch easily out of his or her neighborhood demonstrates the lack of intended loyalty engendered by the system. As Campus Life officials explained, students enter the neighborhood draw if they value living with their friends over living in their neighborhood. This newest round of the “so you want to leave your neighborhood?” option garnered 300 participants – 20 percent of rising upperclassmen at Williams. In comparison, 135 people switched out of their neighborhoods last year, and the year before, 127.
This time around, it is important for senior staff members forming the evaluation committee to admit that students are the experts on student housing and act accordingly. While students accept mandates from the College regarding things like the divisional requirements, they do so because they acknowledge that faculty and administrators are authorities on their academic life. With housing, on the other hand, it is students and students alone who must live in dorms at the end of the day. As it forms, this committee must recognize students as the voices of experience they are.
In the classroom, most students would seek a diverse range of perspectives over being with a tight-knit group of friends, but a different set of priorities applies to students’ desires for their living space. The dorm is the single location where students can escape from the rigorous standards of campus and instead comb their hair, eat single servings of Smart Start cereal with their fingers or watch Top Chef marathons with their friends. The reality of housing, which the neighborhood system ignores in its ideals but acknowledges in its switch-out loopholes, is that above all else, people want to live with their friends; dorm life is about the everyday and not about lofty discourse. Even if your neighbor’s home is halfway around the world from yours, the reality of housing is that you will brush your teeth next to this person – and that’s all.
Admittedly, the ideal of heterogeneous housing comes to partial realization in the entry system. By design, entries are equipped with common rooms and Junior Advisors – spaces and facilitators intended for cohesion – so that an otherwise disparate group of people has an excellent chance of getting to know one another. Upperclassman housing has neither the facilities nor facilitators to make a shadow of this cohesion happen again: Many dorms lack sufficient common rooms, and students simply do not look upon Baxter Fellows as leaders of socialization.
The entry system is also mandatory in a way that staying in a neighborhood is not. Savvy students can subvert neighborhood randomization – that unbiased statistical abstraction upon which the system is founded. The new switching process only widens the loopholes by allowing students to actively select which “random” neighborhood they’d like to enter. As we watch the neighborhood system heartily undermine itself every year with the switch-out process, we are reminded of how it has so far failed to promote community and only succeeded in annoying a significant portion of the student body that must jump through hoops to live with friends.
We hope the evaluation committee will take into account the 300 students trying to leave their neighborhoods, and the countless more who have done so before or voiced their disapproval. In matters of housing, we students need the final say.