Neighborhood reform replaces Baxter Fellows

On Wednesday, Office of Student Life Director Doug Schiazza announced via an all-campus e-mail that the current neighborhood leadership system will be restructured starting with the 2013-14 academic year. Volunteer-based Neighborhood Leadership Teams (NLTs) will oversee each neighborhood’s operations. The new system will replace the Baxter Fellows program, which consists of approximately one compensated student per floor of each residential building.

The decision to switch to NLTs came as the result of an evaluation initiated by Steve Klass, vice president for student life, who asked the Office of Student Life last fall to look into improving residential programs.

“Programs like this are under continuous evaluation, so it wasn’t so much about seeking to change things as much as it was about seeking to understand more clearly the program’s contours, effectiveness, impact and attractiveness to qualified candidates,” Klass said. “It’s also true that programs that are characterized by significant student participation provide us with embedded feedback loops via the student leaders themselves from whom we learn a lot every year. In the case of the Baxter Fellows program, I’d been closely involved with the program for the past year-plus and Patty Leahey-Hays [assistant director for student involvement-residential programs] had been here for a year or so, so I thought it was a good time to step back and take a careful look at the program to re-articulate its goals and to evaluate if those objectives were being met by the current iteration.”

The Upperclass Residential Life Ad-hoc Advisory Committee (URLAAC) was formed to carry out this work. URLAAC consisted of students, faculty and staff, most of who had previously been involved in neighborhood leadership. Issues the URLAAC considered included how to organize leadership across neighborhoods to ensure that students felt represented and supported and the rebranding of the upperclass housing system.

According to Schiazza, the decision to move away from Baxter Fellows was made for a myriad of reasons, including confusion about the responsibilities of the job, complications regarding supervision of Baxter Fellows, issues with the use of program funding and a generally unfavorable response from the student body.

“Over the years, we’ve had some very strong Baxter Fellows who made the most of their experience as leaders and in facilitating residential community,” Schiazza said. “I applaud them and believe that they exemplify what’s been working in the program. We believe the new Neighborhood Leadership Team is an opportunity for this kind of positive student involvement and leadership experience to be more comprehensively realized.”

One notable change comes in the form of student compensation. Baxter Fellows were compensated for their roles, while leaders in the new system will be volunteers. This decision required deliberation; although Schiazza and URLAAC were aware of many students’ need for campus employment, the committee eventually chose to make the new positions volunteer-based in order to bring in the most enthusiastic students and help to build a positive reputation for the new program.

“On one hand, very few student leadership positions on campus are paid, including JA; thus the value of the typical leadership position comes from the experience gained and the service provided,” Schiazza said. “On the other hand, many students need campus jobs to assist with their finances, and most colleges in the country pay students for this type of role. In the end, we decided to go [with volunteer positions] because we felt it was the right thing to do at [the College]. We’ll get students who want to do this important work for the value of the experience, and the perception will no longer be that students only do the job for a paycheck.”

Schiazza said that students on the URLAAC are confident that the new programs will draw in a “good turnout” of self-nominations.

“Sometimes, because of that high value placed on volunteerism, there can be a perceived tension between motivation and compensation for these roles,” Klass said. “I’ve never questioned the motivation of our Baxter Fellows because I know how much they do and how small the compensation [is], but if we want these roles to feel like a naturally integrated point along that arc of residential life work that I mentioned earlier, it’s critical that we count on the same volunteer ethos to inform all phases of the system. And, if you look across campus at the various student leadership opportunities, they aren’t compensated, yet they’re consistently filled by highly engaged, deeply dedicated students.”

This new program is also a scaling-down; the current system has 80 Baxter Fellows in total, across four neighborhoods, while the NLTs will have a combined 38 members. This lower number is intended to provide more “face-time” between students and administrators, according to Schiazza, as well as promote student engagement.

Under the new system, neighborhoods will be led by NLTs, with a student Neighborhood Director at the helm. Leahey-Hays will work alongside Neighborhood Directors as an advisor. Each neighborhood will have two elected representatives and a Faculty Program Director, as well as six or seven House Coordinators. Within this team, specialized roles will be assigned. These positions currently include ACE Representative, Secretary and Finance Manager.

The goals of the College’s residential system are outlined in depth in “Guiding Principles for Students’ Residential Experience,” a document generated from the Residential Sector Planning Workgroup of 2011-12. These principles include emphases on providing students with opportunities for “intellectual growth and development of emotional intelligence,” “the cultivation of community” and safety on both the physical and emotional levels. It also asserts that students should be challenged to “celebrate the uniqueness of the individual,” “enhance learning about new ideas and cultures,” “become active listeners and socially mature problem-solvers,” and “uphold Williams College’s commitment to sustainability and lessening our environmental impact.”

“We need House Coordinators who can act as the facilitator and supporter of the community being created and developed by their house’s residents,” Schiazza said. “This will require these student leaders to realize that some of their residents will want more involvement at the house level or Neighborhood level, and some will find or create it in various other ways – perhaps through their former entry, a student organization, an athletic team, study partners, etc. The House Coordinators will need to adapt their approach to their particular residential community appropriately.”

URLAAC will continue to work on ironing out aspects of the new system until at least Thanksgiving 2013.