No neighborhood magic

Support for the neighborhood system has too often sat squarely in the domain of wishful thinking. The world of Hogwarts was clearly in the imagination of the early planners of the neighborhoods: Campus Life separating incoming first-years into neighborhoods (“the magical Sorting Hat”) and inter-neighborhood competitions throughout the year for the Cluster Cup (“the House Cup”). Yet no matter how often tour guides say that the “Williams experience” is magical, life at Williams is not governed by magic. To serve the purpose for which the neighborhoods were created takes confronting real problems with difficult solutions, not an eager hope for more “school spirit.” Those looking at residential life need to consider life on campus in the ways that it actually exists. This means taking seriously the complaints collected by the Neighborhood Review Committee in its interim report.

According to the report, a significant number of students view Williams “as isolating, cliquish, and providing a social life exclusively based around alcohol.” Though these students do not attribute the problem directly to the neighborhood system, they do claim that the neighborhood system “has created an athlete-dominated culture in all housing, increasing the sense of isolation felt by non-athletes.” Such a claim is a rather scathing critique, but I don’t think that it is one that the neighborhoods can answer.

Neighborhoods, the report states, cannot be expected to answer because they only govern residential life, which is just one part of the student complaints. But the transition into “neighborhood life” gives us something that seeks not to govern how rooms are selected, but where people eat, sleep, study and recreate. The goals of the neighborhood system have not as much to do with room selection as they do with “a sense of community life.” They have less to do with allowing students to make a home and more with, as Morty said in the 2005 Committee on Undergraduate Life report, “making this excellent place even better.” Neighborhoods were made to address what, to many, isn’t so excellent about Williams – the “drinking culture,” the influence of athletics and student self-segregation, as the report points out – and have not changed any of the bigger issues that caused these problems precisely because such problems actually have little to do with residential life.

If the current system has such little impact on the factors that it was implemented to address, it seems that there is no reason to maintain it. Last year the neighborhood governance boards were given a cumulative budget of $100,000; surely that money can be put to some other good use. This report highlights some real complaints about Williams, and it shows that the neighborhood system has done little to help address those complaints. It does show, however, that there is a very concerned group of people, both on the Committee and beyond it, who are ready to do the serious work of concentrating on the problems that the neighborhood debate has revealed.

The important work comes in addressing the broader complaints that the report finds. Some students might feel “isolated,” but with over 70 percent dissatisfied with the neighborhood system, those students are hardly alone. The report grants an opportunity to think deeply about these issues, but the result might be a hard pill to swallow. It might mean the end of the neighborhood system, but it doesn’t imply the end of the conversation or the problems that give rise to it.

As much as we might wish it did, no magic wand can make the lives better of those who are dissatisfied on campus. The report shows that an overwhelming number of students are dissatisfied with the neighborhood system. However, it also shows that students are dissatisfied with more than just the neighborhoods: They are dissatisfied with the same issues that led to the creation of the neighborhoods in the first place. The problems that the neighborhoods are addressing run deeper than where people live. We need to look critically at the College’s strengths and weaknesses and address in earnest what this report shows about student experience in the Purple Valley itself, rather than in our imaginations.

Christopher Holland ’11 is an American studies major from Cullman, Ala.