NRC concludes work

Yesterday, the Neighborhood Review Committee (NRC) released Part II of its final report, offering last words and summarizing thoughts on issues such as sophomore housing, changes to the Baxter Fellows system and the need to continue evaluating and considering the College’s residential system. With the final report, which concludes the work the NRC began in April 2009, the NRC will disband.

The NRC wrote in its report that Part II serves the purpose of bringing together some of the NRC’s discussions that were not included in Part I. The report states that its goal is “to provide the campus with [the] committee’s thoughts and suggestions about residential life that either could not be incorporated in this year’s room draw or were at a scale that require further exploration by the College.”

The NRC had released two interim reports and Part I of the final report in October 2009, January 2010 and March 2010, respectively. According to Dean Merrill, the NRC had not initially planned to break the final report into two parts. Part II of the report came about because the NRC had identified pieces of the neighborhood system that they wanted to recommend for further analysis.

“For students who just dislike the Neighborhood system as a whole and wanted it overhauled, I assume they’re disappointed,” Merrill said. “But our work suggests that we’ve addressed many students’ concerns about upper-class residential life with the recommendations we made in Part I, and that we’ve now identified a number of issues that emerged in our work that would benefit from more discussion.”

Merrill added that going forward in the absence of the NRC, she and Steve Klass, vice president for operations, will work with President Falk; Sarah Bolton, incoming dean and professor of physics; and others in considering “the best way to forward with issues raised in the report.”

Sophomore housing

A large section of the NRC’s report focused on sophomore housing and the Baxter Fellow system as areas that require careful consideration going forward. The NRC discussed sophomore housing in depth, following support from first-years and sophomores for a residential model that included sophomore housing.

According to survey data, 74 percent of 144 first-years agreed or agreed strongly when asked if they would choose to live in sophomore housing. Of 92 current sophomores who were asked if they would have chosen to live in sophomore housing, 48 percent agreed or agreed strongly, and another 32 percent disagreed strongly.

The NRC reported differing opinions and perspectives on the prospect of sophomore housing, concluding that the issue is “worthy of further study.” The report said that while some members of the committee believed that sophomore housing could encourage class unity and help students through what some consider a “difficult transitional year,” other committee members voiced concerns that sophomore housing would cause students to miss the opportunity to forge bonds with upperclassmen. Other concerns revolved around how sophomore housing would fit into institutional goals and whether a residential life with three distinct systems (for first-years, sophomores and upperclassmen) would be too complicated.

“We recommend that the College investigate the sophomore residential experience in conjunction with a review of the first-year entry system and that any future sophomore housing system be carefully articulated with first-year housing,” the report states, adding that the College should emphasize the “same values of diversity, community building and a robust social life that have guided our review of upper-class housing.”

Baxter Fellows

For the Baxter Fellow system, the NRC recommended “a significant re-conceptualization” of Baxter Fellows’ roles in houses and dorms. A large portion of Part I of the report suggested restructuring Baxter Fellows and Neighborhood Governance Boards (NGBs). Early work by the NRC fielded concerns from students that Baxter Fellows had an ill-defined role and were an underutilized resource. As such, Part II recommended that Baxter Fellows’ roles should focus on conflict resolution and community building.

The report suggested that the Baxter Fellow system become “proof” of students’ ability for self-governance and pride in autonomy. “To fill this role, the Fellows need their responsibilities to be better defined and better publicized, and they need support and training from the College,” the report states.
According to Merrill, she is working with Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life, on how the Baxter Fellow program will be recalibrated. Schiazza, in turn, is working with other members of Campus Life and involved students.

Neighborhood system

The report contains a lengthy summary of more general thoughts on the neighborhood system, recognizing that the committee’s mission was inspired in part as a result of widespread student dissatisfaction with the neighborhood system, as corroborated by survey data. According to the report, however, much of the dissatisfaction could be attributed to causes other than the system itself. Indeed, survey data suggested the students agreed with many of the goals of the neighborhood system. “What had been identified as dissatisfaction with the neighborhoods was a complicated phenomenon,” the report states.

The  NRC  identified two “lingering questions” with respect to the neighborhood system. First, the NRC wondered about the necessity of breaking the campus into four decentralizing clusters, particularly when students have a tendency to gravitate toward centralized locations like Paresky. Second, the NRC noted problems regarding the “physical layout and infrastructure of upper-class residential life,” namely geographic boundaries and differences in the quality of “programmable space” and communal spaces among neighborhoods.

In sum, the NRC report concluded its thoughts on the future of the neighborhoods by saying that there are no easy answers to the issues they had discussed. “We do believe that the long-term success of the Neighborhoods will require the College to think about them in the context of future capital improvements to College housing,” the report states. “As the financial situation improves, we hope that long-range planning can address the physical infrastructure of our residential life system.”

The NRC’s final report concluded by recommending areas for further evaluation. The report suggested that faculty-student interactions within neighborhoods be taken up next year as an independent question, perhaps by the Committee on Undergraduate Life. It also recommended continued research into the co-op system for seniors.

The report also noted the importance of evaluations in the middle of next year of Part I’s recommendations: gender-neutral housing, quiet housing, the revised Baxter Fellows program, the end of penalties for changing neighborhoods and the removal of predetermined neighborhood affiliation for the Class of 2014. “This work should just be the start of what would be planned, periodic assessments of residential life that explore whether our structures both express institutional values and meet student needs,” the report said.