A look into the Learning Beyond the Classroom working group

Arrington Luck

Earlier this month, the College released the draft report of the Learning Beyond the Classroom working group, alongside 11 other draft reports from its strategic planning groups. The release of these working group draft reports represents the latest development in a process that began in September 2018 and is expected to have wide ranging effects on many facets of the College’s operations.

Last spring, the Learning Beyond the Classroom working group was formed following an outreach and drafting process that had begun the previous semester. From its inception, the working group was charged with “articulat[ing] the guiding principles for future development of the optimal student-facing programs, services, staffing and facilities to enhance the aforementioned qualities and competencies with which we aim to arm our students,” according to the report.

The working group comprised two student members, two faculty members and two staff members. Essence Perry ’22 and Brenda Xu ’20 served as student members; Head Coach of Swimming Steve Kuster and Asian Studies Professor Li Yu were the faculty members; and Bilal Ansari from the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and Meg Bossong ’05 from the Dean’s Office were the staff members.

Vice President of Student Life Steve Klass also served on the working group in a role he described as a “convener.”

According to Klass, who spoke to the Record on behalf of the entire working group, one of the most daunting aspects of the process was the breadth of the team’s charge.

“It [felt] formidable in terms of calibrating the scope of our work, especially given the ambitious timeframe for the process,” Klass said. 

Klass said that to tackle the working group’s charge, the members first “identified a list of individuals, organizations and departments whom we felt were essential to advancing our understanding of key issues … and also participated in larger fora.”

Over the course of devising the draft report, Klass says that the group hosted 25 outreach initiatives in order to garner perspectives and feedback.

“Our outreach audiences included student leaders, members of the Board of Trustees, a wide variety of administrative offices, two sets of faculty members (Athletics and the Arts Academic Initiative Working Group), open-ended conversations with the President’s Administrative Group, community meetings at the Log and multiple Strategic Planning group retreats,” the report read.

According to the report, one of the most frequently referenced elements of the learning beyond the campus experience was the residential life system. The working group made numerous recommendations about the operations of residential life at the College. Among the most notable is a recommendation that the College “assess the elimination of the current off-campus housing option for seniors.”

This recommendation grew out of a finding by the working group that “off-campus housing becomes de facto available only to a) those students with disposable income to place such a large deposit so far in advance; and b) those students whose social networks are likely to remain fundamentally intact over that time period,” according to the report.

The working group also recommended that the College begin to look into affinity housing as an alternative residential opportunity. “Peer schools have developed many successful programmatic variations on what Williams students are calling affinity housing,” the report read. “We strongly recommend that Williams assess and adapt the best attributes of these programs as alternative residential opportunities within a future housing system.” 

Discussions of affinity housing came to a head last year after a Black Student Union town hall and subsequent campus activism raised the issue.

Furthermore, regarding first-year residential life, the working group “recommend[ed] locating robust co-curricular programming in housing, starting with a seminar curriculum that connects all first-year students.” The working group also wrote that it heard “strong support for the development of a programmatically integrated four-year residential program.” 

In addition to these proposals, the working group made numerous smaller recommendations regarding student wellbeing and envisioning living spaces that further integrate staff and faculty.

Klass said that he and the members of the working group were ultimately encouraged by the feedback and outreach that comprised the strategic planning process.

“There is something truly special about living and learning at Williams, and we worked hard to underscore that fact while identifying areas we can improve upon collectively to ensure everyone feels as if they can thrive and have the opportunity to positively experience Williams in the same way,” Klass said.

He continued, “We found it extremely heartening that most people were genuinely invested in the future of the liberal arts and of imagining what a Williams of the future with a thriving residential community would look like.”