Neighborhood committee begins systematic review of residential life

The neighborhood evaluation committee, a group formed after spring break of faculty, staff and students, has met three times so far to begin the process of assessing the neighborhood system on campus. Thus far, the committee has been gathering and sharing information about the history of the system.

The committee has not yet reached any conclusions, but co-chairs Dean Merrill and Steve Klass, vice president for Operations, hope to create a baseline report over the summer that will dictate the direction in which the committee will take its work in the fall.

The committee’s research and discussion has focused on looking at the way housing has worked at the College in the past.
In particular, the committee has focused on the original goals of the current neighborhood system.

“Our next task will be to analyze whether we feel those goals are still appropriate for the College,” said Fiona Wilkes ’12, one of the student members of the committee. The assessment of those goals will constitute a large part of the committee’s report in the fall.

Members from a variety of sectors, including Facilities and Dining Services, serve on the committee, with the goal of trying to encompass all aspects of the neighborhood system. “We are trying to get the broadest perspective possible,” said Diana Prideaux-Brune, associate vice president of Facilities.

The group, which consists of 14 total members, has also tried to use the variety of participants to make discussions as illuminating as possible. “We are learning a lot about the neighborhood concept from each other,” said Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services.

During the second meeting, the committee focused on how dining halls affect neighborhood culture. Volpi presented a report detailing the percentage of students eating in each dining hall who live in the neighborhood closest to that facility.

The committee has acknowledged that dining options play a key role in defining housing systems, which change over time. While in the past fraternities had their own dining halls, the current neighborhoods are more loosely allied with dining halls.

Sulgi Lim, assistant director of Admission, also serves on the committee to help analyze the neighborhoods from the angle of the prospective student. According to Lim, the Office of Admission does not currently emphasize the neighborhoods as a unique, differentiating feature of residential life, partly because the system has not existed long enough to become a defining element.

“It takes time for a new residential program to really develop an identity and anchor itself within the school culture,” Lim said. “If I had to pick the top five unique aspects of the Williams experience, I wouldn’t include the neighborhood system.”

The four students on the committee shape discussions by providing direct insight.

“Because the faculty and staff are very aware of the fact that they don’t live in the neighborhood system, they very much take our input into account,” Wilkes said. However, the group has also been working to solicit feedback from the student body in general.

Merrill cited senior exit surveys as a key source of student opinions; additionally, the committee has begun to work on a Web site where students can express their opinions.
Joya Sonnenfeldt ’10, another committee member and College Council (CC) Class of 2010 representative, will begin talking to CC today about targeting key student groups for feedback.

In progressing with its task, the committee will spend time creating a concrete plan that will outline their work over the coming months.
The committee members who are on campus will meet roughly every two weeks throughout the summer.
“We really have just begun our work, and we’ll know a lot more once we’ve had the chance to sift through all the information and synthesize it in our report to the community,” Merrill said.