The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


The Collegiate Landscape of the Future

Here, as in furnaces of boiling gold,
Stars dipt, come back, full as their orbs can hold
Of glitt’ring light.

—Richard Blackmore, Prince Arthur (1695)

I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, a large public institution not unlike hundreds of others across the United States and around the world. As a freshman I lived in a crummy 1960s-era cement-block dormitory where I had to walk around pools of vomit to get to the bathroom, where I never saw anyone under 18 or over 22, and where I met about five people. I moved out at the end of my freshman year and never went into another campus dormitory again. In the end I received a good classroom education at UMass, and as a zoology major I made friends with many other zoologists, both students and faculty. But after four years of college I didn’t know any artists, I didn’t know any business majors, I didn’t know any philosophers, I didn’t know any chemists, I didn’t know any musicians.

Twenty years later as a faculty member at another large public university, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I asked the students what it was like living in campus dormitories. I heard answers like these:

I have spent one semester here and can honestly say that it has been the worst living experience of my life.… At any moment early morning or late at night I might be woken up, kept awake, or kept from studying by people screaming and running down the hall, a stereo cranked with the door wide open, or a party going on in the room beside me.

The noise and commotion from the residents makes studying impossible and has affected my academic progress severely.… I feel that the pests, inconsiderate neighbors, and the noise factor would discourage anyone from living [on campus].… I found the conditions to be unbearable and unacceptable.

This is the first time I have ever lived in a dorm, and in many ways it has not been a very pleasant experience. Beer is everywhere. The noise lasts until two or three o’clock in the morning on some days, not counting weekends. My fellow residents have been very inconsiderate—leaving trash and other filth all over the building, especially the bathroom, blaring music at all times of the day, and just generally being loud.

It is not uncommon to get up in the morning after receiving little to no sleep to find the hall vandalized and floor covered with beer, blood, glass, and other filth.

Over the many years that these disgraceful conditions have existed, where have the adults been who were supposedly in charge of student life? Many of them have been on the other side of campus in well-appointed offices, from which they emerge a few times each year to exercise what one of them referred to as “symbolic leadership.” And lest anyone think this problem is confined to public universities, William Willimon and Thomas Naylor have reported the same situation at a large private university in their important book The Abandoned Generation.

An entire generation of students have been cheated out of the college experience they deserve. This should be a source of embarrassment to university faculty, and a source of outrage to students, parents, taxpayers, and state legislators.

1. Seeing the Light

My first experience with residential colleges began in graduate school when I became a member of Dudley House, one of the residential colleges at Harvard University. In Dudley House I made friends with writers and doctors, had lunch with physicists and Shakespeare scholars, discussed literary theory around the pool table for hours, and was presented with a wide range of opportunities to do good by serving the college community. These experiences opened my eyes: why weren’t my undergraduate years like this? Why don’t all students have this sort of experience at every university? It was obvious from what I saw that this could be done anywhere. Harvard is a wealthy institution, it is true, but the only things needed were dining rooms, and dormitories, and students and faculty, and most universities have all these things. What Harvard did that my undergraduate institution did not do was arrange its resources correctly.

Some years later at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro I had the opportunity to establish a new residential college named Cornelia Strong College in a renovated but fairly generic dormitory. In just a few short years, with little institutional support and very few resources, a glorious community of students, faculty, and staff developed, a community filled with loyalty, tradition, generosity, wit, intelligence, imagination, and service, a community that stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the campus. The quotations that opened this section about beer, blood, and filth were replaced with comments like these:

It’s the greatest home-away-from-home anyone could ever have.

It’s a lot better than home. I’m having a great experience here. I love this place.

It’s so clean, so comfortable, so relaxing, so peaceful.

It’s like a family.

I never want to leave.

If we had ordered up something [for our daughter’s college experience] thirteen years ago when she first started school we couldn’t have picked anything better.

This success was achieved not because hundreds of thousands of dollars had been thrown at the problem, and not because a blue-ribbon committee had drafted a Master Plan, and not because a government agency had established a new grant program. It was achieved because one faculty member took a clear and well-established model—the residential colleges at Harvard—and directly copied that model as completely as the local conditions would allow, innovating, improving, and expanding as opportunities arose, and drawing students and other faculty along.

As the internal structures and practices of this new residential college developed, however, I began to encounter many objections within the university administration that I had not anticipated: it’s too hard, it’s too expensive, the faculty won’t do it, the students won’t like it, and on and on. I knew that these objections were easily answered, and there was plenty of empirical evidence that they just weren’t true. It became sadly clear, however, that underlying most of these objections were really two things: first, a “can’t-do” mentality that prefers comfortable mediocrity to the possibility of accomplishment (see Chapter 13 in Kors and Silverglate’s The Shadow University), and second, a veiled but deep-seated class bigotry. Better to have our students walking through broken glass on the way to the bathroom at night, the unspoken reasoning went, than risk poisoning them with snobby, elitist, Ivy-league ideas. (Ivy-league ideas, apparently, like a supportive home life, basic responsibility, and consideration for others.) As Strong College very quickly became the best-run building on campus, one high-ranking student affairs officer even went so far as to claim that the reason we didn’t have as many behavioral problems as other on-campus buildings was that we excluded black students. Needless to say, this claim was utterly false, and the proportion of black students in Strong College was the same as in the university at large. His reasoning seemed to be that since the buildings he had been in charge of for twenty years were out of control, and since it obviously couldn’t be anything he was doing wrong, it must be the black students. His accusation exposed not only his incompetence, but his racism as well.

Those who love learning and love students can transform the landscape of higher education and create the kind of vibrant, intelligent, and socially rich campus communities that everyone deserves. And they can do it anywhere by sweeping out the broken, wasteful structures that have caused so much damage, and replacing them with small, cross-sectional, faculty-led residential colleges. We owe nothing less to the future. As one of the cleverest students I have ever known once asked, “Why are we here if we’re not magic?

When this transformation has been accomplished, what will the landscape of higher education be like? It will be a landscape of small, stable homes that are academic and genuinely diverse, and that have long memories.

2. Small and Stable Homes

For at least a generation, universities have been placing their students in broken homes. Any environment that does not have basic civil order—where people don’t feel safe and can’t sleep, study, and relax in peace—cannot support anything richer. The quality of life on large university campuses, and especially the quality of life in dormitories, has declined so far in the last generation that it is scandalous. There is even a monographic study, Violent Crimes and Other Forms of Victimization in Residence Halls, that outlines many of the details—things that university publicity offices don’t want students and parents to know about.

The collegiate landscape of the future will reverse this decline. The colleges that make up this landscape will first of all be small, each having perhaps 400 members. They will be small because only within small communities can all the students be known as individuals, which is how they deserve to be known. In these small colleges the students will be known by their interests, their quirks, their talents, their fears, their hopes, their ambitions, their successes, and their failures. And not only will the students be known as individuals, but the faculty will be also, both by each other and by the students, which will be to the students’ benefit, and sometimes to their amusement. The students will learn that whenever Professor X expresses an opinion in conversation, Professor Y will surely contradict it. They will learn that Professor A dislikes early morning classes just as much they do. They will learn that Professor B, a scientist, is a semi-professional musician on the side. They will learn that Professor C is something of a parasite. They will learn that Professor Z grew up on a cattle ranch and still loves the smell of manure. The hopes of your local Chamber of Commerce notwithstanding, perhaps, each of the colleges in this landscape of the future will be, in Cardinal Newman’s words, “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.”

In contrast to the big, centralized universities of today, the collegiate landscape of the future will provide many more opportunities for all students and faculty members to become important contributors to the community. There can be only one campus-wide student government president in a big university, but there will be five, or ten, or twenty student government presidents in the collegiate systems of the future, and just as many secretaries, social chairs, welcoming committees, art shows, coffee bars, movie clubs, writing contests, croquet champions, computer helpers, literary societies, boat races, jazz bands, library monitors, and gardening crews. All students will have opportunities to develop their personal abilities and to try out different roles within a supportive community that knows them and that will appreciate their service. As Harvard’s President Lowell observed when he established the Harvard collegiate system in the 1930s, it is more valuable in the formation of character to become a man of mark in Ravenna than to belong to the mob in Rome. The collegiate universities of the future, by replacing the anonymous campus mob with small and stable homes, will raise up generations of men and women of mark who will serve not only their colleges, but also the greater society throughout their lives.

The smallness of these collegiate communities will make them wellsprings of innovation and experiment. Just as the states of the United States are laboratories of democracy, so also will the colleges of each university be laboratories of education. Successful ideas developed in one will spread to others; unsuccessful ideas tried out in one will be avoided by others, or modified to be successful. The bureaucratic snarl that one encounters when trying to accomplish anything on a large campus will dissolve in the small, face-to-face environment of each independent residential college.

The smallness of each college will promote stability, because the greatest breeder of violence and vandalism is anonymity. Many people decry the influence of peer pressure on young people, but peer pressure, and the social pressure exerted by the presence of faculty in an environment, will be one of the most powerful forces for good in the collegiate landscape of the future. The resident faculty in each college, simply by being there, will dampen the effects of the occasional troublemaker, and the responsible students, thus emboldened, will do the rest. The first semester after Strong College opened, its membership was made up of students who had applied to join as well as a number of other students who had been assigned to the building during this first year to fill the remaining spaces until the college became established. A campus baseball star who was in the latter group, who regularly came in drunk late at night, who was abusive to staff members, and who stole clothes from the laundry room, came to my office with a friend one evening to ask about changing rooms. When I addressed him by name, his friend turned with a start and said, “He knows who you are.” He didn’t mean it in the happy sense of, “How nice, he knows who you are.” He meant it in the worried sense of “Oh no, he knows who you are”—we aren’t anonymous here, and that’s going to make it harder for us to get away with things.

The smallness of each college will contribute greatly to its social stability, but social stability requires more than just the civil order that comes from a lack of anonymity. It should go without saying that each college will have faculty in residence throughout the year—this is fundamental to the idea of a residential college. The heads of the house will be there (a master and a dean, along with their families), as will one or two other resident faculty—perhaps a distinguished university visitor for a term, or perhaps a retired professor emerita and her spouse. All these senior staff appointments in each college will be for terms of five years at least. How cohesive can any family be if its parents are switched out every one or two years?

The social stability of each college will also grow out of a consistent pattern of life to which all the college’s members become accustomed: a weekly, monthly, and annual rhythm that becomes familiar and comfortable, and that allows everyone to know what is ahead. This familiar rhythm will also allow the older students—the sophomores, juniors, and seniors—to play an important mentoring role to the freshmen, telling them about the regular events that will take place during the year, and regaling them with nostalgic tales of those same events in years past. New and one-time events will be added as circumstances dictate of course, but the annual framework will be very stable. Many parts of that framework will be linked to the annual cycle of nature by reference to the migrations of birds, the blooming of flowers, and the turning of the dome of the sky. This localization of each college will be an important antidote to the widespread McDonaldization of higher education that is beloved by efficiency-minded campus business managers. (“Have you been to our campus?” “I think so. Your campus is the one with the Chik-fil-A and the Pizza Hut, right? Or was that some other campus?”)

By virtue of being small and stable homes, the residential colleges of the future will produce a remarkable intensity of life. Deep education does not come from watching sensitivity videos and attending panel discussions; it does not come from spending a couple of hours each week in a classroom; it comes from shared experience and sustained conversation in close quarters for years at a time. The student of the future, when she graduates, will say of her college that it “has been like a family.” And when she returns many years later as an elderly alumna, she will remember her college years as a “small time, but in that small most greatly lived.”

3. Academic and Genuinely Diverse Homes

The collegiate landscape of the future will be an academic landscape led by faculty, and it will be a place where all college members integrate their classroom work with their lives. The integration of formal learning with life is not difficult to accomplish in a collegiate environment, but to do it successfully does require a little experience. The means through which this integration will take place will include things like informal literary societies, star-gazing evenings, regular student-faculty lunches, concerts and plays, word-of-the-day contests, museum excursions, poems-of-the-week, nature walks, and all manner of other things that good parents do with their children. And just as the relationships between members of a family should be mutually beneficial and not simply relationships of provider and consumer, so also will the relationships between all the members of a college—students and faculty alike—be mutually beneficial. It is a fundamental mistake to see residential colleges as student affairs “programs” that “we” set up for “them.” You will know your colleges are successful when you hear faculty making comments like these:

[Strong College] has been one of the richest experiences of my professional life.

I came to UNCG as a new faculty member, and Strong College saved me. It made me feel like I was part of the community.

One of the most fun things to me about Strong College, in addition to the students, is meeting faculty from outside my area.

[Strong College] has given me hope about what higher education can do.

Each college in the landscape of the future will be a cross-section of the university to which it belongs, and as such will manifest the deep, pied beauty that every human population manifests. Far more important than the simple-minded diversity that university administrators in the United States love to quantify in Black-White-Asian-Hispanic tables, each college in the landscape of the future will display the full range of qualities—temperaments, interests, passions, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, talents, and experiences—that make all of its members unique individuals.

By virtue of being cross-sections of their universities, the residential colleges of the future will also overturn the damaging trend toward thematic residential buildings—the “arts dorm,” the “science dorm,” the “health dorm,” the “sports dorm”—and all other forms of segregated housing. It is one of the paradoxes of our time that universities require students to study a range of different subjects so that they will become liberally educated, and then actively encourage those same students to segregate themselves according to their interests or backgrounds in their housing.

As cross-sectional communities, the residential colleges of the future will also erase the most consistent form of segregation that exists on every university campus: segregation by age. In every college, undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and their children, elderly alumni, parents, and grandparents will all play an important role. I have heard housing officers declare that students neither like nor want to have children and older people around them in dormitories. The claim is that students are only comfortable relating to their “peers.” To discover the foolishness of this notion one need only watch what happens when a small child is introduced into a room full of undergraduates who haven’t seen their own younger brothers and sisters in months.

The academic character of every residential college will not only allow the members of those colleges to get to know each other well, but it will also allow them to get to know the ways in which they each see the world, and the ways in which others have seen the world in ages past. It will be here that the true value of deep, temperamental and intellectual diversity will be realized, and that eyes will be opened and ears unstopped. In the profusion of the college grounds a biology student will tell a poet what he just learned about Darwin’s principles of natural selection, first published in 1858, and the poet will suddenly understand the Malthusian brilliance of Emily Dickinson writing in 1862:

How many Flowers fail in Wood –
Or perish from the Hill –
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful –

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze –
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight –
It bear to Other Eyes –

At the dark of the moon a physics student will take out the small college telescope and will show an accounting student the rings of Saturn. A philosopher that night will come to understand why the starry vault above was one of only two things that filled Immanuel Kant with awe, and a novelist watching the moons of Jupiter will see how Galileo shattered the crystal spheres. And perhaps in the college garden that night a troupe of theater students will give an impromptu reading from Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.

In the college dining room the students and the faculty alike will complain about the food, and a faculty member may tell the students (or may fear to tell them, lest they Get Ideas) about the “Butter Rebellion” at Harvard in 1766 when students went on strike over rancid butter and the Governor convened a hearing to decide how they should be punished, or about the “Stomach War” at Yale in 1828 when students threatened to strike over worms in the cabbage. (“Oh who, save with a quaking heart e’er looked / On wormy cabbage though by Homer cooked.”) Thus inspired, the students might even compose their own culinary verses, as some of mine once did around the dinner table with me when they found two large feathers still attached to their nightly serving of fried chicken:

A Feast of the Classics
And cake.
Sitting on top of my poetry.
Sticking out of my chicken.
No cake.

At tea in the common room the students (and some of the faculty) will learn the art of conversation, and how to meet new people and make them feel welcome. A few of them may even learn manners for the first time. Through the rich opportunities that become available in residential college life they will learn the intangible rewards of service to others. They will learn how to be teachers of new students, and how to recover from their mistakes. Into the commonplace books in each room their lives and fears and joys and resentments will flow, revealing in some the same compulsion that has driven diarists in every age. In college elections, which will become as hotly contested as any national race, they will learn the art of politics and the potential for power both to corrupt and to do good.

And in the collegiate landscape of the future, much as we may hope they will not, some of the students will learn about suffering, and they will learn that Aristotle may have been right when he said that the study of tragedy should be at the center of liberal education. Here it will be most important that the colleges be small and stable and strong so that those in pain will not be alone, and so they will be able to find friends not only in the present but also in the past. The Asian student whose father is losing his fight with cancer will not be alone when he makes friends with an Welsh poet who begged his own father to rage against the dying of the light. The brilliant writing student who discovers her mental illness will not be alone when she makes friends with Lord Byron as he sails in the wind’s eye. The frightened freshman, never away from home before, will not be alone when he makes friends with a Greek soldier who died two and a half thousand years ago:

How many times,
How many times,
On the gray sea,
The sea combed
By the wind
Like a wilderness
Of woman’s hair,
Have we longed,
Lost in nostalgia,
For the sweetness
Of homecoming.

The business student from an immigrant family who is struggling to pay her bills and fears she may have to drop out of school will discover she is not alone when she makes friends with Langston Hughes writing from Harlem in the voice of his mother:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, don’t turn back,
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you find it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

And the present-day friends of all of them, afraid to help and not knowing what to do, will discover that they also are not alone when they see the fear of e.e. cummings’ Good Samaritan who “staggered banged with terror through / a million billion trillion stars.”

Every human community experiences joys and sorrows. As diverse academic communities, the residential colleges of the future will not only be able to offer the personal support that all their members deserve, but will also be able to bring their members into contact with the joys, sorrows, and support offered by the men and women of the past.

4. Homes That Will Remember

The problems facing higher education today arose in the post-WWII era, and in the 1960s in particular, eras that were contemptuous of history. But history—the past—is desperately needed by young people. They must feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, a tradition that has come before them, and that will go on after them, and to which they can make important contributions. And to those who reflexively assert that traditions are stifling and prejudiced, I reply that no one is more in need of strong traditions in their education than the aspiring young radicals and subversives of the future, because they more than anyone need something challenging to push against. They need “teachers of athletes” who will show them respect by arguing with them and making them strong, not spineless educationists who will tell them “whatever you want to believe is fine”—a disrespectful and self-serving excuse for a lack of real engagement. As a future world leader of my acquaintance once asked, “Why not live in place where I can have professors as friends? Why not live in a place with a network of support, advice, love, respect, melodrama, and laughter? Why not live in a place where you feel like a part of something bigger, something deeper, something more?” The collegiate landscape of the future will be a landscape that is filled with history and memory, where every student is part of something bigger, something deeper, something more.

The memory of each college will be embodied in a rich array of live traditions, noted above as contributors to social stability. The social stability that these traditions produce will not merely be a stability of the moment, however: it will be a stability through generations. Some of the traditions of each college will be serious, some silly, some local, and some global. Colleges in temperate climates will have ceremonies honoring the opening of the first rose of the year on the college grounds, or the arrival of the first swallow in the spring. One of the most famous collegiate traditions in the world is the sunrise hymn sung each year on the first of May at Magdalen College, Oxford, beautifully dramatised in the film Shadowlands. The celebration of national and international anniversaries, though not specific to any particular college, will also play an important role in placing college members into the context of the greater society to which they belong. These public acts of memory—whether of events in the near or the distant past—are vital to the long-term health of any community. And clever members will track down more exotic things to celebrate perhaps, like the ancient Roman holiday of Lupercalia, or the birthdays of little-remembered poets.

The history and traditions of each college will be carefully preserved in a wide range of material objects, as well as in public events. Even before each new college is opened, the college’s archives will have been established—far less importantly for the preservation of administrative paperwork than for the preservation of the accomplishments of college members. Newsletters will document the life of each college, and will be carefully preserved. From each annual art show the winning piece will be selected for permanent display in the college, so that students in future generations may wonder at it. The souvenir artwork designed for each new entering class will be signed and framed and likewise displayed, and in every such case a few extra dollars will be spent to make sure that the framing is done with museum-quality materials. Members of each departing class will write to those who will take their places, and who they may never meet. Every public room will have its own commonplace book to record the late-night thoughts of its visitors, and these will likewise become permanent, carefully-preserved records of the college’s life. College members will build furniture, carve stones, embroider blankets, write poems, and paint pictures to pass on to their posterity.

The grounds of each college will be places of living memory. Each freshman class will plant flowers in their own honor, and watch them grow as they themselves grow. Seeds and cuttings from the college gardens will be made available to alumni around the world so they may keep a living part of their college with them. Commemorative stones will mark major events. The local community will be invited annually by the students to tour the college grounds at the height of the blooming season. The grounds will be the site of alumni weddings, and the fragrance of the trees that the students planted under their own windows will remain with them all their lives. And in cases where things in the college must be replaced or removed, fragments of the old will be incorporated into the new: old stone to new building, old designs to new paintings, old plants to new gardens.

The members of every college will someday grow old and pass from the scene. But they will know that their memory will survive, built into the fabric of the collegiate life that they themselves wove, and the promise of Sappho will come true for them all:

You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021