Neighborhood report renews diversity dialogue

The release of the Neighborhood Review Committee’s interim report has prompted campus-wide discussion on the neighborhood system in and out of public forums, as the community grapples with the reality that 70 percent of students surveyed reported being dissatisfied with the system. Students have expressed a desire to have more choice in living with their friends, while the College considers residential diversity a paramount priority. However, despite the neighborhood system’s efforts to foster diversity and unity, the report found that among racial or ethnic minorities, as well as women and LGBTQ students, there exists a feeling of isolation rather than a strong sense of community.

The report, released last month, suggests discontent of minority groups with their residential lives. “In general, women, minorities, non-athletes, non-drinkers, and students from low-income backgrounds value the goals of the neighborhood system more highly than do their peers, but they are not necessarily more satisfied with the results of the Neighborhood system,” the report found, suggesting to some that the system has failed to address the key problems with residential life at the College – problems that the Committee on Undergraduate Life identified when it recommended the implementation of the neighborhood system to replace free agency housing in 2005.


Philosophy Professor William Dudley, who served on the CUL in 2005, spoke to the Committee’s findings that led to its recommendation concerning the formation of neighborhoods. “We already know what happens at Williams in the absence of a residential system that fosters diversity, because we have more than 10 years of data from the free agent era,” he said, referencing the seniority-based lottery system that allowed students to choose their housing. “[There was] significant self-segregation by class-year, gender, ethnicity and athletic affiliation,” Dudley said.

“The sanctioning of that kind of segregation by allowing it to continue would not have been in the educational interests of our students,” said Biology Professor Nancy Roseman, who was dean at the time of the CUL report.

According to the 2005 CUL report, 60 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses in which more than 80 percent of the residents were from a single class-year, and 45 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses in which more than 90 percent of the residents were from a single class year.

In 2001-02, 37 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses in which at least 70 percent of the residents were of a single gender. But after the gender cap was implemented in 2002-03, fewer than 10 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses with such a stark gender imbalance.

In the years right before the 2005 CUL report, approximately 60 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses with populations ethnically reflective of the entire student body, while 20 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses with significantly higher percentages of white students and 15 percent lived in houses with significantly lower percentages of white students.

Similarly, at the time of the survey, 40 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses with a population of athletes proportionate to that within the entire student body, 25 percent of upperclassmen lived in houses with significantly higher percentages of athletes and 30 percent lived in houses with significantly lower percentages of athletes.

The ideal of residential diversity

Since the introduction of the neighborhood system, the College has strived to foster diversity by class-year, gender, ethnicity and extra-curricular interest within the residential setting. The idea behind the neighborhood system, according to the 2005 CUL report, is that students of diverse class years, gender, ethnicity and interests will be able to form strong bonds not only with their small group of suite-mates, but also within their College neighborhood communities. Dean Merrill said that it is important to note that “diversity” carries a broad connotation, and does not just refer to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or extracurricular interests, but rather a complex mix of all the above.

“The importance of having diversity within housing is to make sure here at the College we have some experience which replicates what they’re going to encounter in the real world,” said Mike Reed, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity. “It enriches the whole learning environment.” Reed said that diversity within housing is necessary even if diversity already exists within the classroom, because diversity in living quarters is “authentic,” he said. “In the classroom, everybody is performing and they’re on their best behavior,” Reed said. “I think it’s important that you occupy the same space and in close proximity [with a diverse group of students].”

While Reed said that diversity is key in teaching students to navigate across differences and interact with peers with whom they may have almost nothing in common, he also said that sometimes when diversity is institutionalized, some students are made to feel uncomfortable. “Some of the things we’ve learned from international students and from some students of color is that in our attempt to create diversity, they’re isolated,” Reed said. He explained that while these students may benefit from the overall philosophy of diversity at the College, they often end up seeking out others similar to themselves outside their houses, neighborhoods or entries.

The entry as paradigm

According to Aaron Gordon, assistant director of Campus Life for residential programs and housing, entries are supposed to reflect the diversity of the College as much as possible. “This does require more manipulation of housing assignments than upperclass housing, which allows students to largely self-select in to their living situation,” Gordon said. “It allows students to live in an atmosphere that gives them a chance to interact with students who are more diverse than if they were randomly assigned and also starts each entry off on equal footing.” Gordon said that with random entry assignments, there exists the risk of having a large number of similar students clustered together, rather than a diverse mix.

Within the first-year entry, what many consider to be the paradigm of residential diversity at the College, students report mixed experiences. Mina Dinh ’13 said she often feels out of place in her entry, due to socioeconomic differences. Dinh said that while she is expected to feel close to her entry, “if they ignore me, I feel excluded.” She said that such exclusion occurs when her entry mates talk only about parties that she hasn’t attended, or when they talk about trips abroad “as if it’s an everyday thing,” she said.

Kerry Koehler ’13 said that sometimes the entry system doesn’t exactly work out. “Having such a broad spectrum of people who are very different from each other, I think sometimes what happens is you get a great group of people,” she said. “And then something else that happens is you get a group of people who don’t mesh.” Koehler said that part of the diversity that often exists within the entry is different from the real world, and that to her, it feels forced. “There is a pressure for the entry to replace the family,” Koehler added.

But Pedro Roque ’13 said the entry seems beneficial to promoting early, and hopefully lasting, friendships at the College. “People will make acquaintances and those friendships will grow,” Roque said.

Students weigh in

According to the report, students who responded to the survey felt that the neighborhoods had not succeeded in creating new friendships, and in particular, African-American and low-income students expressed strong negative opinions on this issue. Additionally, a significant number of minority students suggested that the neighborhood system made them uncomfortable in that they may have been one, or one of a few, students of color in their dorm.

“I think a lot of [minority students] feel this way,” Giselle Lynch ’12 said. “As we disperse people, a consequence that comes along with that is that you sort of silence people.” Lynch explained that some students need to surround themselves with people with whom they have something in common. According to Lynch, this is why many African American students go to Rice House to congregate. She added, however that some feeling of alienation doesn’t necessarily mean entries don’t work. “Last year I felt unable to identify with a lot of people in my entry,” Lynch said. “But that doesn’t mean I felt I shouldn’t be living with them. I was uncomfortable, but I think it was an opportunity for people to interact in a way they never have before.”

Lynch cited benefits and disadvantages of the current system. “It can create diversity, albeit artificial,” Lynch said. “But over time, [diversity] will become organic, if people actually do take the time to get to know each other,” she added. “Conversely, minority groups sort of feel isolated, separated from people that you usually have safe space with . . . but safe space doesn’t always mean living with your best friends.”

Students’ desire to live with their friends has been central to both past and recent discussions on the neighborhood system. Merrill noted the importance of reconciling two important goals of residential life: “The understandable desire among students to live with their friends as well as the College’s goals of supporting a residential community that seeks to bring all kinds of students together,” she said.

In recent discussion, students have highlighted the various ways in which these two aims come into combat. “Diversity fails when you’re living in a private setting,” Allan Gonzalez ’12 said. “I don’t have a problem with diversity, I just have a problem when you’re forced to live with people you don’t want to live with.” Likewise, Gonzalez said he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the neighborhood system, but feels that when more focus is geared toward students being able to live with their friends, the result is a friendlier environment that is easier to live in.

“Like habits together are good. The survey proves it,” Pat Chaney ’10 said in reference to the interim report’s findings. “People want to live with their friends. If the neighborhood system was making people be friends, that would be different. But clearly it is not.” But Chaney said he found the survey results, specifically the information about minority students’ dissatisfaction, disappointing. “I love this place and many of the people here,” Chaney said. “And the fact that people feel uncomfortable makes me feel unhappy.”

Chaney said diversity is not always the solution. “They let us choose our classes, they don’t diversity-cap classes, they don’t diversity-cap dining halls, they don’t diversity-cap sports teams,” Chaney said. “They tried it, and people hate it,” he added of the neighborhood system. “We don’t need to force diversity.”

Candace Gibson ’11 said that while some students may be dissatisfied, residential diversity is necessary to avoid clusters of, for example, all athletes or all students who like to party, from grouping together. “It’s just a lot easier for students to live with their friends,” Gibson said, but added that addressing issues of diversity in the residential arena “is a good thing and something is necessary because we are such a diverse campus.”

Ginette Sims ’13 emphasized an ideal of balance in devising the College’s residential system. “You should somewhat have the freedom you want to live with who you want to, but if you’re stuck in the neighborhood system, you only have so many choices,” Sims said. She added that because students are allowed to switch out of their neighborhoods, “you still have all the issues of the [like groups] living together.”

Ifiok Inyang ’11 believes that diversity works only if people take the time to get to know their neighbors. “You have to put a little pressure on people,” Inyang said. He stressed the importance of breaking up self-segregation, which he admitted occurs quite naturally on campus. “It just sectionalizes everyone. It increases the divides that already exist on campus,” he said.
Inyang added that self-segregated housing can be socially dangerous. “If you don’t fit the mold of the house because that mold is one group, that’s really problematic,” Inyang said. “You’re not going to get the best college experiences if you’re interacting with the same people every year.”

Review committee moves forward

The Neighborhood Review Committee is continuing discussion on the College’s residential system. In conjunction with College Council and the CUL, the review committee will host an open forum discussion tomorrow in Baxter Hall at 7:30 p.m.
Fiona Wilkes ‘12, a member of the review committee, said the forum, which is the second of its kind this year, will help in obtaining a clearer definition of what residential diversity really means. Wilkes expressed hope for this forum, unlike the last, to be one of constructive, rather than destructive, criticism. “I don’t think it’s necessarily our responsibility to push the forum in a certain direction,” Wilkes said. She explained that while the forum will be moderated, the groups behind its organization are not out to push an agenda. “Our goal is to see what it means to Williams students to be diverse and how they can apply that to the housing system,” Wilkes said.

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