College to hire live-in residential staff, implement affinity and special-interest housing

WSU, HCs criticize components of plan

Megan Lin

Four Area Coordinators will be hired to live in student dorms with two in first-year housing and two in upperclassmen housing. (Ella Marx/The Williams Record)

The College will put in place two major initiatives for residential life starting fall 2021: hiring live-in residential staff and providing affinity and special-interest housing.

These changes come a year after the Learning Beyond the Classroom strategic planning working group published its report on residential life. Essence Perry ’22, a student representative on the Residential Life Working Group, said the report showed that the College needed affinity spaces to close cultural gaps on campus, as well as staff to help Junior Advisors (JAs) and Housing Coordinators (HCs) after-hours in dorms. In response to the issues the report raised, the working group has spent the last few months developing a plan for live-in staff and affinity housing and is now conducting student outreach.

These changes have sparked student criticism in some student groups the working group has met with. HCs have brought up concerns about residential staff living with students and the Williams Student Union (WSU) sharply criticized the required programming component of the College’s plan for affinity housing.

Four area coordinators to live in student dorms

Starting with the 2021-2022 academic year, the College is planning on hiring live-in staff called Area Coordinators (ACs) as support for student residential leaders like JAs and HCs. A change the working group is considering is that student HCs will be paid for their work.

Justin Connell ’22, a JA and student member of the working group, said the ACs would be there to help resolve conflicts that the JAs and HCs could not. They would also prevent the escalation in conflicts that might otherwise arise if students turned to Campus Safety and Security (CSS) or the deans. 

“This isn’t meant to disrupt or reshape the programs that we already have in place, just to really add another rung in the ladder,” Connell said. 

He also stressed that the role of the ACs would not be disciplinary. “This is someone who’s here to resolve problems in the dorm, help support efforts in the dorm, [and] build a better residential community, but it’s not CSS in the dorms,” he said.

Reducing CSS’ role in residential life is part of the goal of the AC program. Connell said that along with reducing CSS’ disciplinary role, it was important for CSS to not be the ones conducting wellness checks on students about whom others have raised concerns. 

Senior Associate Dean of Campus Life Doug Schiazza also emphasized diminishing CSS’ role in dorms. “Relying on CSS in this manner is challenging both for CSS as well as students,” he wrote in an email to the Record. “We’ve heard for many years now that the presence of a uniformed police-like entity within student residential spaces results in significant anxiety and misunderstandings of purpose and roles.”

He also added that the ACs would be there to “bolster” and provide support for student residential leaders rather than act as a form of discipline. “The Area Coordinator positions are not designed to surveil students, nor to replace student leaders; rather, they will support, advise, and augment, and their roles will make it easier for students and student leaders to work together to address low-level community issues how they should be addressed — with and amongst students,” he said.

According to Connell, ACs will also help to include more diversity and inclusion programming for entries and houses. 

Next year, the College will ease into these changes by beginning a pilot program with the ACs before fully implementing them. The ACs will live off campus but be given offices in four dorms: on the ground floors of Dennett House and Williams Hall and in two undecided upperclassmen dorms. According to Schiazza’s Feb. 22 all-campus email, it may take a few years to move from this pilot program to the final plan of ACs living in the dorms.

Following years of student advocacy, special interest and affinity housing to be implemented

Theme/Affinity/Program/Special Interest (TAPSI) housing is another key change to residential life for next year, following in the footsteps of many of the College’s peer institutions, including Carleton, Amherst, and Wesleyan. According to Perry, the Black Student Union (BSU) and other Minority Coalition (MinCo) groups have been advocating for affinity housing for some time. It will come to fruition next fall, along with more general special-interest housing that can center around any shared interest among students, rather than just identity. 

“This kind of hybridized approach has worked really well at our peer schools, and we’re actually the outlier for not having integrated it yet,” said Aria Mason ’21, a student member of the working group. 

Schiazza also stressed the importance of affinity housing. “I believe it’s critical at this point in the College’s history, as well as this point in our national dialogue around inequity, to ensure we are doing everything we can to support all students through our residential life program,” he said. “We have heard loudly and clearly that providing TAPSI housing as an option is an important step forward in doing so.”

To start a special interest or affinity house, students will be asked to assemble a leadership board and solicit signatures. Once approved, interested students will apply to join the house, and the leadership board will evaluate each application based on its set criteria. Each affinity and special interest house would be required to have a certain amount of programming and special events each semester. The particular houses and floors reserved for affinity and special interest housing have not yet been decided.

“This is really an opportunity for Williams to evolve its residential system,” Mason said. “I just really feel that this program would allow students across different interests and identities to really build and form community, and that they can take those experiences and share them with a broader campus … and build a more cohesive Williams community.”

Student feedback and criticism

Schiazza’s Feb. 22 email detailed two campus-wide forums on the changes and solicited feedback from the community in a survey, asking students what they would like to see from the AC role and how TAPSI housing should be structured. Schiazza did not respond to the Record’s request for the survey’s data. 

The working group has already spent the past few weeks on student outreach and gathering opinions from various groups on campus, including JAs, HCs, Williams Student Union (WSU), and MinCo groups. 

However, some students have criticized the working group’s student outreach efforts. Arielle Nathan ’23, an HC, said the AC program was brought to HCs too late in the process and that they weren’t consulted on whether the program should exist in the first place. “When they brought [the idea] to us, it was pretty much they wanted to know what the Area Coordinator could do to support our role rather than ‘should there be an Area Coordinator? What should that role be?’” she said.

Catherine Powell ’22, a Residential Director, echoed these criticisms. “I think initially we were a little fed up with the way that ACs were presented as something that was decided on, particularly when there were so few students in the residential life working group,” she said. However, she added that she recently changed her mind when she was told there was room for the role of the ACs to change during the pilot program.

In terms of the changes themselves, community members raised issues about the required programming component to affinity housing. “A concern that we’ve heard, and a concern that I share, is whether we’re asking people to have to perform and supply their identity to others on campus in order to have their space,” Connell said.

While WSU supported the idea of affinity housing, it was also concerned about affinity housing’s requirement for programming. “Students with marginalized identities want affinity housing out of the basic necessities of feeling safety and belonging,” WSU wrote in a statement shared with the Record. “To require them to do programming for the benefit of their peers is to require students of marginalized identities to perform their identity. This is completely inappropriate to require those seeking the shelter from the tokenization they face outside the system.”

WSU also cautioned that special interest housing needed to be implemented in a way that would not result in a fraternity and sorority-like system, as it could have “great repercussions” for student residential life.

According to the working group, the student response to ACs has been mostly positive. “The groups I’ve talked to have seen it as a really good opportunity to better [interact] with students, have better channels of communication … with students for any questions, issues, [or]  concerns,” Connell said.

Not all students feel positively about the idea of ACs living in student housing, however. Nathan said it could detract from the unique first-year experience the College offers. “I think that that would be a really disastrous thing because I think one of the things that Williams does best is the first-year experience … like having the JA position instead of an RA position where they’re not mandatory reporters where it’s safe to come to them and learn and make mistakes,” she said.

Nathan noted that while she approved of the idea of ACs being there to provide support for HCs, she felt it was unnecessary for ACs to live with students. “They should be living somewhere nearby so they can get there if there’s an emergency, but just not in the dorms,” she said. “I think it’d be really detrimental for them to be living in the building just because the benefit of them being two minutes quicker is not worth having students feeling like their privacy is not entirely their own anymore.”

Powell agreed. “I don’t exactly see why it’s completely necessary,” she said. “It seems like we should use the least restrictive means and the way that … invades students’ space as minimally as possible.”

She added that a few reasons she had been given about why the ACs needed to be in student housing was that they’d be more accessible and could get to know the students better. “But a lot of those things could happen outside of actively living with students,” she said. Powell suggested the College keep the pilot program’s plan of ACs having offices in dorms while living off campus, allowing students their privacy but also giving students a chance to see and talk to the ACs if they chose.

Connell also said some of the feedback the working group has gotten from JAs about ACs centered around boundaries between ACs and students. Some JAs raised concerns that ACs would be intruding on their living space and would be obligated to report what they saw. He said that though ACs being required to report what they saw was a legal issue and beyond the reach of the College, ACs would not overstep boundaries. 

“There’s not just going to be some adult popping in when they feel like it,” Connell said. “They’re not going to be showing up in your common room or knocking on your door just to say ‘Hi.’ That kind of dynamic would be out of the picture.”

However, Perry stressed that some criticism arose from a lack of understanding of what the initiatives would really look like. “There’s a lot of misconceptions because our systems are very much student-autonomous, and any encroachment on it I think is not necessarily appreciated at first,” Perry said. She said she believed that once the position was fully explained as more of a “liaison” and an extra layer of support for JAs and HCs, students may be more receptive to it. 

“I think what most of the criticisms come from is the fact that there’s not a really clear understanding of either of these programs at Williams,” Perry said. “So a lot of it is just educating people that this is the plan that we’re considering and it’s not a lot of the things that you’re thinking of.” 

But some students feel the mere presence of ACs in dorms would change residential life drastically. “I think that the really cool part of Williams is that students have a lot of independence and are able to have students like HCs and JAs who they’re able to turn to if there’s any sort of conflict that they need help with,” Nathan said. “I think the effect of having [the AC] living in the building would make [it] feel a lot less of a student community and much more of a school-supervised space. And I think that that feels sort of like taking away some student agency in some way.”

Correction: This article was updated at 4:39pm on March 4, 2021 to clarify that student HCs being paid is not currently part of the working group’s final plan. Paying student HCs is being considered and advocated for by some members of the committee, but the decision has not been made. We regret the error.