Neighborhoods to undergo first official evaluation

Financial concerns that have inspired budget awareness throughout campus have also accelerated the formation of the neighborhood evaluation committee, which senior staff will form this spring. The committee, which has been in the works for some time, will evaluate the merits of the neighborhood system itself as well as consider its financial efficiency. The evaluation process will also provide an opportunity for students to present opinions regarding the neighborhood system.

According to President Schapiro, the plans for a review have been part of the institution of the neighborhood system since its inception in the fall of 2006. “From the beginning of the new housing program, we had in mind a review a couple of years into it,” Schapiro said. “Some things seem to be working much better than others and our intention is to make changes that will address the various shortcomings.”

Dean Merrill, who is currently working on forming the committee, agreed that the neighborhood needs to be evaluated in terms of what has worked and what has not. “The committee will look at what the goals of the neighborhood system were and how the system has met and not met those goals,” Merrill said. “We need to evaluate the hopes and achievements of the system, as well as improvements that can be made.”
Merrill noted that conversations about the putting together the evaluation committee began prior to the financial crisis, but that the economic uncertainty has provided an impetus for action. “A tighter budget means thinking of all we do in terms of the best programming and appropriate spending,” she said.

Financial considerations that go hand in hand with the neighborhood system include the logistical use of dorms and dining halls, including “building and system maintenance, custodial work, utilities, sustainability and all the related operations,” according to Steve Klass, vice president for Operations. Klass spoke of optimizing investments in living and dining spaces to maintain student life to the degree the campus expects. “Because of these high expectations, we should be regularly monitoring and, as necessary, rethinking our delivery of these programs,” Klass said.

The other side of the evaluation, and perhaps the part that seems more relevant to students, is considering the neighborhood system’s effectiveness in providing comfortable, sensible living situations. The Office of Campus Life has a part to play on the committee that involves evaluation from the perspective of the neighborhood governance boards and the availability of housing.
“Campus Life has a vested interest in looking at the best use of the housing stock that we have,” said Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life. “After a few years of getting something going, it’s a good idea to step back and see how it actually is working.”

According to Schiazza, the department of Campus Life hears many of the student concerns about the neighborhood system. “There are things that have been on the minds of students since the beginning, especially with the way that housing has been allocated,” Schiazza said. “I know that there are things that can be improved.”

Student negativity toward the neighborhoods is not a recent development. During initial talks about the switch to neighborhood housing, students voiced their opposition. A Record poll conducted in April 2006 revealed that 67.5 percent of students were dissatisfied with the cluster housing plan, and 14.7 percent were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. In addition, 61.3 percent of students were dissatisfied with neighborhood and room draws that occurred that spring.

College Council co-Presidents Mike Tcheyan ’10 and Lizzy Brickley ’10 hope to give students a greater voice during this evaluation process. “The neighborhoods notoriously have been instituted without student input, and we want to change that trend,” Tcheyan said. “The key problem has been that they didn’t listen to students at the beginning,” Brickley added. “If they want a shot at this working, it’s important to educate students about their options and give people a chance to contribute.”

The recent release of neighborhood change application figures may indicate a dissatisfaction with the neighborhood, as approximately 20 percent of eligible students applied for a change. “The vast majority of students have a negative sense of the neighborhoods,” Brickley said. “The number of students who applied to change neighborhoods speaks to the problem.”

Student issues with the neighborhood include scattered housing, seemingly unequal opportunities for the “best” housing, and difficulties of living with friends who are in different neighborhoods. As Andrés López ’09 wrote in a Record op-ed last week, “If anyone knows anything about Williams, it’s that our friendships and not our physical location inform our social circles.”

Brickley added that sophomore class unity is jeopardized by the system that traditionally situates second-years on edges of campus. “The way that the neighborhoods scatter the sophomore class to the periphery of campus is a problem – there’s a loss of class identity,” she said.

Brickley and Tcheyan voiced a belief that while some of the goals of the neighborhood system were noble, and some of the effects have been positive, there are things that need to be fixed. “I agree with the goals of the neighborhood – not living in cliques, more campus unity,” Tcheyan said. “But there has to be a way to fix residential life while still maintaining class unity.”

Brickley noted that some of the student leadership that has been a part of the neighborhood system has been admirable. “We have respect for the neighborhood governance boards, and appreciate their efforts,” she said. “While we have the current system in place, we need to make the best of it, but at the same time, we need to be looking forward and looking for new solutions.”

The evaluative committee should be formed by later this semester, and will continue its work into next fall. “We’re still at the very early stages of thinking about the most effective, comprehensive approach to reviewing this important program,” Klass said. “I expect things will continue to evolve in terms of the scope and objectives of the review committee.”