Neighborhood assessment released

After six months of work, the Neighborhood Review Committee is releasing a report today containing its preliminary evaluations of the neighborhood residential system. The report contains an overview of the goals of the neighborhood system and evaluates its success at meeting them, citing survey data that capture the concerns of many students. The Committee will spend the next four to six weeks soliciting student feedback on the report’s findings and is waiting to make its final conclusions and recommendations until after that point.

When the neighborhood system began in fall 2006, the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) had set a number of goals for the new system: the creation of a diverse house or dorm population, the encouragement of inter-class mixing, the fostering of friendships based on residence, the opportunity for students to interact with faculty and staff outside the classroom and the provision of diverse and decentralized programming and activities for students.

With these goals in mind, the Neighborhood Review Committee, made up of students, faculty and staff, was charged in April with the task of evaluating the neighborhood system, especially in light of prevalent student dissatisfaction. The Committee developed a survey that was sent to students on May 20. Thirty percent of the student body completed the survey, answering questions about the degree to which the neighborhood system achieved its goals, the importance of the goals set for the neighborhood system and their overall satisfaction with the system. The Committee also utilized data from the March “Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences” (PULSE) survey and from the 2007 and 2008 senior exit surveys.

The 30 percent of students who responded to the survey left little question as to whether or not they were satisfied: 70.5 percent of students reported dissatisfaction with the system. Indeed, 22 percent of the students who participated in the survey could not list any aspect of the neighborhood system that satisfied them when given an open-ended question. Only 17 percent of students reported being somewhat or very satisfied. Although the survey responses suggested that students value the goals of the neighborhood system at least in theory, the drawbacks in practice seem to outweigh the goals.

The Committee identified six main student contentions made apparent by the survey data: a lack of freedom to live with friends or near classes; a questioning as to whether residential life is the appropriate place or means for the College to pursue diversity; a feeling of isolation on the part of minority student groups; a sense that heavy drinking is now more spread out across campus, infringing on quieter students; questions of neighborhood inequality; and a feeling of unfair housing allocation.

The report notes several other related points regarding dissatisfaction with the neighborhood system. First, the Committee found that many complaints regarding the neighborhoods have been raised in student surveys unrelated to housing, suggesting that problems may not result from the residential system but from other dynamics on campus. Second, the surveys showed a questioning of the goals of diversity in housing, criticizing attempts at “social engineering.” Third, some minority students found the neighborhood system “disempowering,” or felt threatened at some point by insensitive dorm mates.

The Committee hopes that these issues will become part of the discussion. Dean Merrill cited the complaints regarding substance abuse and alcohol policies as problems not specific to the neighborhoods. “If it’s true that parties were continually confined to a few specific places in the past, that’s not an ideal situation,” she said. The Substance Free Housing Committee, formed last semester, is already investigating the role of substance free housing at other institutions and the feasibility and usefulness of such a program here.
When the Committee was formed in April, part of the impetus behind its work was the specter of financial uncertainty. Merrill and former President Schapiro had always thought that a formal review of the neighborhood system should take place three years after its fall 2006 inception, but because it was unclear whether budget cuts would affect areas of residential life and dining, members of the administration felt that it was important to understand how the residential structure affected life on campus in the event that cuts would have to be made.

While the financial situation of the College now seems less precarious than originally feared, the Committee’s mission of evaluating the neighborhood system in terms of student satisfaction, and also in terms of whether it has met the goals set for it, remains relevant for future decisions regarding the system.

Going forward, the Committee will spend the next few weeks holding campus discussions and gathering student input. College Council (CC) plans to play an involved role in the discussion, organizing all-campus student forums and encouraging student participation. Merrill said that the Committee will meet with specific constituencies in smaller groups, referring to Junior Advisors, Baxter Fellows, faculty members, varsity athletes and groups of minority students.

According to Merrill, there are several questions that only students can answer for the Committee. “When students say ‘I just want to live with my friends,’ we want to know exactly what that means. Is the neighborhood design too inflexible to allow friends to live together?” Merrill said. “We want to know how students live their lives, and what role returning to their dorms plays in their lives.”
“A residential system should be in keeping with an institution’s larger goals,” Merrill said. “We want to be revisiting the goals and seeing how students are living. As the conversation progresses, we should be asking what a residential system can and can’t do.”

After the period of discussion and consideration, the Committee will reconvene to discuss the input received and write a final report offering recommendations. According to Merrill, the Committee hopes to complete its work by the end of the semester.

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