A challenge compromise can surmount: Freedom and diversity are not mutually exclusive

After two interim reports and three open forums, students and Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) members are still at odds over what campus housing should look like. Although the staggering variety of opinions seem disparate, there remains one common thread: students want, and should have, more freedom in the housing draw. It is clear that what we as students seek from our housing system is quality living space near their friends, not a social assignment or a micro-managed community.

Yet as the community continues to ponder revisions to the system, we must turn to the tangled, tantalizing game of “What if?” to imagine what impact those revisions would have on the quality of student living, whether “quality” is defined by community ideals, comfort or some other measure. When the neighborhood system was instituted in 2006, demographic diversity was allowed to trump other goals. While wholeheartedly affirming the inherent value of diversity, we at the Record advocate for more nuanced metric: Numeric diversity may be a nice token, but it means little to students so disenchanted with their housemates that they colonize Schow. Whichever goals the College community chooses to pinpoint, the individual student experience must be the lens for investigation.

That said, we believe that intentional diversity can and should be integral to that experience. The Williams entry system, which purposefully places first-years from different backgrounds and with different interests in a residential unit, can provide insight into what we consider a successful housing system. Granted, the entry system is unique, and few would advocate its utility for upperclassmen, regardless of how much we might revamp the Baxter Fellow program. Nonetheless, the value that our community ascribes to the entry system is revealing: We broadly agree that there is some amount of worth in living with people different from ourselves. Even if an upperclassman does not become close friends with the person who happens to live next door, the experience of observing and accommodating lifestyles that seem vastly removed from one’s own can significantly broaden horizons.

In conceptualizing a housing system that has both liberty and diversity, certain variables warrant particular attention. First, there is the oft-cited phenomenon of enclaves, which still exist to some degree even in the current system. We must admit that reverting to absolute free agency would make it even easier for exclusive groups of students to claim small parts of Williams for themselves. Housing may not be the appropriate venue for breaking down entrenched social divisions, but our residential system should incorporate well-considered checks that prevent full-fledged enclaves. Anything less would be blind acceptance of the self-segregation that could result.

We must also acknowledge that issues will always arise in student housing. For example, a student who has a psychological problem with high noise levels may be unable to function in a house that frequently hosts parties. As such, we believe that the College must have an easily available, clearly defined resource for students who encounter debilitating discomfort in their living situations. Currently, the dean’s office and Campus Life assist such students on a case-by-case basis, but residential well-being should not be an ad hoc matter.

Finally, in framing campus discussions of housing, we as a community must separate the social functions of the current neighborhoods from the purely residential capacity of a housing system inherently serves. Social planning and physical living are two distinct issues, and we need not try to solve them both with one system. Further, while the basic residential aspect may sound like a less lofty goal than community programming, these functions do not need to be fulfilled by the same system.

In our considerations, we must not limit ourselves to the ideas generated by the NRC. For example, preserving the concept of allocating students to different housing lottery groupings while removing the Harry Potter-esque fixation on geographic clusters could facilitate more choice in modes of housing while maintaining randomized diversity. In such a system, the four buildings in Greylock quad might each belong to a separate grouping, as could each of the row houses. As a result, “desirable” housing would not be pooled in any one neighborhood. Moreover, the system would eliminate the pressure of the neighborhoods to provide close-knit community ties based on the proximity of their residents.
Regardless of what shape a revamped housing system takes, it will inevitably contain characteristics that will rankle some more than others. As pointed out in the NRC’s second interim report, a sophomore quad would be a boon to those who prize class unity but anathema to those who seek interactions with upperclassmen; a geographically scattered entry system would have the reverse effect. But even if the community cannot agree upon the details of a new residential plan, a general consensus does point towards a choice-based system. Such a scheme would still limit the possibility of segregated houses that the neighborhood system was originally instituted to prevent. And even if a general consensus is as far as the review process ever gets, we should appreciate both the extent of our agreement and the breadth of opinions about housing nitty-gritty. Compromise is a corollary of diversity, and there is no reason why it should be stifling rather than constructive.

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