Over the past year, the Residential Experience Working Group has been conducting a comprehensive examination of how Smith College, as an educational institution, can improve the residential experience to build community and support inclusion.
The group spent the fall 2018 semester reviewing recent institutional survey data, new survey data from more than 700 students, best practices at peer institutions and findings from discussions with students, faculty and staff on how to improve the quality of living in the houses. In January, the working group submitted a set of eight recommendations to President Kathleen McCartney that aim to improve the well-being of existing communities within houses, increase the number of healthy communities within houses and increase the number of housing options available to students.
The recommendations were approved by President McCartney and supported by the board of trustees at their February 2019 meeting. Implementation is expected to begin in the fall.
Theme One: Conflict Resolution
While Smith cannot prevent identity-based conflicts, the college can have dedicated expertise and appropriate protocols to support students who are trying to resolve identity-based conflict.
Recommendation 1: Expertise in identity-based conflict resolution
Staff in both the Office of Residential Life and the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (OIDE) should review existing mediation protocols and create, if necessary, additional ones whose sole purpose is to help students resolve identity-based conflicts.
Recommendation 2: OIDE programming in houses
The college should transfer the responsibility of teaching diversity, inclusion, social justice, and equity in the houses from students to experienced staff in OIDE and residential life.
Recommendation 3: Revise the role of Social Justice and Equity Reps in the houses
Staff in residential life and OIDE should change the mandate (and possible name) of the Social Justice and Equity reps so that the burden of resolving identity-based conflict is not a student responsibility.
Theme Two: Connections
Students expressed concern about not being able to connect to a community within their house. The committee recommends creating more opportunities for them to find a community, for example by connecting Smith houses to co-curricular programs.
Recommendation 4: Co-curricular programs linked with the house system
The college should investigate ways to link the first-year seminar program with residential life in order to create co-curricular communities that span across the houses.
Recommendation 5: Better use of common spaces
The college should investigate ways to connect co-curricular centers with common spaces in Smith houses in order to foster faculty/staff/student interactions.
Recommendation 6: Student mentorship program
The college should create a formal mentorship program where seniors and juniors ensure that sophomores and first-years are well connected within the house.
Theme Three: Student-Driven Affinity Houses and Communities
The desire among students for more affinity and interest-based housing has grown significantly at colleges across the country. For example, Wesleyan has 28 affinity houses, Amherst College has 12, and Mount Holyoke College has 10. Among the Five Colleges, Smith is the only institution that offers only limited affinity housing options (examples include the French-speaking community, substance-free housing, Ada Comstock housing, and two food cooperatives). Eighty-six percent of respondents to the student survey support the idea of Smith offering expanded affinity housing as an option for some students, especially students of color. Faculty members who participated in the small group meetings also support affinity housing, with the understanding that affinity housing will not serve as the solution to identity-based conflict in the housing system.
Recommendation 7: Affinity housing
The college should provide additional housing options by piloting a two-year identity-based, interest-based affinity housing program. Proposals from students will be sought this spring.
Recommendation 8: Affinity communities
The college should investigate ways to link living spaces to community spaces with the hope of creating affinity communities within the house.