NRC final report outlines short-term adjustments

On Tuesday, the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) released the first part of its final report, which recommends eight specific changes to the neighborhood system for the 2010-11 academic year. Interim President Wagner and President-elect Falk have expressed support of the proposed changes, and will make the final decision in collaboration with Dean Merrill, faculty members, administrators and students about which recommendations the College will implement this year.

The recommendations in the report provide ways for the College to work within the framework of the current neighborhood system. After spring break, the NRC plans to release part two of the report, which will take a broader look at residential questions that require further exploration. Part one recommends gender-neutral housing, a quiet housing option and the institution of a neighborhood affiliation lottery for all members of the Class of 2014. Its other recommendations include removing room draw penalties for students who switch neighborhoods, reinforcing the Baxter Fellows program, changing the makeup of Neighborhood Governance Boards (NGBs), incorporating neighborhood representatives into the structure of All-Campus Entertainment (ACE) and investigating the co-op system.

Gender-neutral housing

Merrill acknowledged that gender-neutral housing might be the most significant of the proposals. “Recommending the adoption of a gender-neutral housing policy seems big because it’s a policy shift, but other schools have already adopted it,” Merrill said. According to the report, houses will still have the same overall gender-balance requirements, but students will now be able to select roommates regardless of gender.
The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) and College Council (CC) both advocated gender-neutral housing last fall, following its proposal by the Queer Student Union (QSU). “I think there is a good chance that the NRC would have gone this direction anyway,” said Colin Adams, chair of the CUL and member of the NRC. “But the fact that CUL and CC supported and pushed for gender-neutral housing certainly helped to bring it to the forefront for consideration.”

Adams emphasized that allowing roommates of any gender is in accordance with “one of the goals of Williams College, [which] is to not differentiate on the basis of sexual orientation.” He noted that the policy also simply allows different-gendered friends to room together. “Although this was much less true 30 years ago, we now live in a world where, independent of your own sexual orientation, your best friend can be of any gender and any sexual orientation,” he said.

Adams foresees parental objections as the biggest challenge of the new change. “Some parents may not be comfortable with the idea of their child living with someone of the opposite gender,” he said. “The administration does have to consider that reaction, and how serious it will be.”

However, he expressed confidence that residential gender-neutrality will become a reality. “I believe it is only a matter of time,” he said. “I hope it happens now, but if it doesn’t, I expect it would happen in a few years anyway.”

Quiet housing

The NRC also endorsed a system that would allow students to apply to live in a select location with to-be-determined rules and a potential contract regarding quiet hours. Campus Life

would select students for this option based on their application, a process that would occur concurrent to the co-op draw in future years and around spring break this year.

The report outlines the committee’s logistical philosophy regarding this option: “We strongly believe that an individual building or buildings should be designated as quiet housing.” The NRC proposed that West College serve this function, adding that no student will have to live in quiet housing if he or she does not apply for it, and that students who take advantage of the option will become affiliated with the neighborhood to which the quiet house already belongs.

NRC member Jonathan Carroll ’11 discussed his view on this change. “I think all the recommendations of the report are important because they build upon and support one another,” Carroll said. “Having said that … this recommendation [for quiet housing] represents a departure from previous housing models and had significant support from the student body.”

Room draw changes

According to the report, “The Committee believes that relatively minor changes to the room-draw process can continue to balance the goals of creating student diversity within our upper-class residential housing, while also allowing for more student choice.”

The report recommends that the Class of 2014 be unaffiliated with neighborhoods until they enter the neighborhood lottery next spring. Pick groups for housing will remain at the six-student maximum. “Although some first-year students will not get their first-choice neighborhood, many first-years will, and we believe this could create more positive feelings about the neighborhoods and more opportunities for engaged programming,” the report states.

Merrill also spoke to the scope of the neighborhood affiliation drop. “To what extent it changes the neighborhoods and in what ways – these questions will, I’m sure, continue to be up for discussion,” Merrill said.

In addition, upperclassmen room draw pick numbers will no longer suffer because of neighborhood switches. Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life and NRC member, noted that Campus Life is “tentatively planning” to enact the neighborhood switch process immediately after spring break, and the regular room draw procedure will unfold after that. These processes are occurring at least a week after room picks usually occur.

Schiazza explained that because he and Aaron Gordon, the assistant director of Campus life who oversees housing, served on the NRC, they have been able to think ahead about some of these potential policies. “We’ll adjust to meet the changes, and publicize the process to students as we are given the go-ahead,” Schiazza said.

Baxter Fellows and social programming

The report also suggests that Baxter Fellows receive “improved training … to make them an effective first line of conflict resolution within student residences” and “clear guidelines about expectations and accountability for the position.”

“We will be working out the specifics, based upon the new, additional goals for the Baxter Fellow system, in the coming weeks once decisions are finalized,” Schiazza said. He added that Campus Life is already planning to begin Baxter Fellow training earlier for the upcoming academic year, thereby accommodating more preparatory workshops.

The NRC also proposed that Baxter Fellows serve on NGBs along with two elected students: a president who will hold fiscal responsibility for the neighborhood and a program coordinator who will have event-planning responsibility and will serve on ACE. “With these proposed changes, I believe we will be more successful in finding enough students to fill the leadership positions we have to offer, with less duplication of roles,” Schiazza said. “The changes are being proposed in order to improve communication and coordination of student events, which will benefit the entire campus community.”

Julianne Feder ’10, president of ACE, confirmed that she was aware of the NRC’s idea to put neighborhood representatives on ACE. “Although this proposal is still theoretical, I believe and hope that having the neighborhood program coordinators working with ACE will allow for better programming on campus,” Feder said.

Moving forward

According to Merrill, the NRC will to meet several more times to synthesize part two of the report, which it will release after spring break. Following the second report, the committee’s year-long work will conclude. Merrill emphasized that even though Tuesday’s report outlines concrete recommendations, the NRC still wants student feedback on it and will also hope that students provide input on part two. “It is my hope that part two of the report … will help inspire a productive, comprehensive, on-going conversation about campus life,” said Eiko Maruko Siniawer, associate professor of history and NRC member.

Merrill explained that different recommendations within Tuesday’s report might receive approval at different times. “Probably a decision on quiet housing is the one that needs to be made the soonest, as well as on the gender-neutral housing policy,” she said. “I’m hopeful that a fair portion of these recommendations can be implemented for next year, and that the whole slate will be implemented – that is, we’re set up to act on all of them if that ends up happening.”

Steve Klass, vice president for operations and ex officio member of the NRC, noted that the second installment of the report might bring up more probing questions about the neighborhood system. “It’s too early to predict reactions to the second phase of the report since it hasn’t been drafted and since it will most likely cover items that we recommend receive greater thought in the upcoming year,” Klass said. “Unless someone believes that certain issues shouldn’t be on the table, I don’t see those types of recommendations getting much pushback.”