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

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How to Build a Residential College

Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.

—Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College

This page presents a summary of my recommendations for the establishment of residential colleges and collegiate houses within larger institutions. The main links on the page will take you to more extended discussions of each of the major topics covered: (1) membership and administrative structure, (2) buildings and grounds, (3) college life and the annual cycle, (4) pastoral care, and (5) academic life. [The last two pages are not yet available.] A supplementary page presents (6) a brief “generative sequence” in the style of architect Christopher Alexander—an order in which the various collegiate components can be assembled and a new residential college opened in existing buildings with only one year of advance planning.

I have written this summary as a set of telegraphic instructions: do this, don’t do that, establish this, eliminate that. Every institution is different, of course, and the reader will determine when and how these recommendations will need to be adjusted to fit local conditions. All of these recommendations are, however, based on my direct experience or on the established practices of other residential college systems and house systems, and are known to be effective. For more general information about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

A note to readers outside the United States: My own academic experience has been mainly in the United States, and the recommendations on these pages have been developed with the existing American university structure in mind. That structure is typically built around a four-year undergraduate course and a collection of post-graduate masters- and doctoral-degree programs. The four undergraduate classes are termed freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Most American universities are headed by a chancellor or president, and they are commonly divided administratively into academic affairs, student affairs, and business affairs divisions, in a manner that unfortunately discourages cross-institutional cooperation. Oversight of student life is commonly independent of academic affairs entirely, and student housing may even be placed under a university’s business affairs division, along with the management of parking lots and vending machines—a very detrimental configuration. Each state within the United States has its own public university system which is made up of semi-autonomous institutions of varying sizes. My home state of Massachusetts, for example, has public university campuses in Boston, Lowell, Dartmouth, and Amherst—the largest, with 21,000 students—as well as a separate medical school and several smaller “state colleges” (teacher-training schools, historically) that have limited graduate programs. There are also many private (non-governmental) universities throughout the United States. These are often quite large, and many are very prestigious, but they are usually much more expensive to attend than the public universities. The United States also has many small, independent colleges that are usually termed “liberal arts colleges.” These private institutions award bachelors degrees only, and they have many of the same advantages that residential colleges within large universities have. Like private universities, however, these liberal arts colleges are often very expensive to attend (more than US$40,000/year). If the universities in your country differ substantially in structure from those in the United States you will need to adjust the recommendations on these pages accordingly.

Summary of Recommendations

This summary is divided into five numbered sections: Membership and Administrative Structure, Buildings and Grounds, College Life and the Annual Cycle, Pastoral Care, and Academic Life. Each of these sections corresponds to one of the linked how-to pages where the recommendations are described in detail. Although these recommendations have been written primarily for a university audience, they can be adapted easily, with a little imagination, to non-residential colleges and secondary schools, and even to online educational institutions.

1. Membership and Administrative Structure — The quality of campus life in large universities in the United States has declined sharply since the 1960s as the faculty have given up responsibility for student welfare outside the classroom and as institutions have become highly bureaucratized. Therefore: Create a system of decentralized residential colleges or “houses” within every large university, each college having about 400 members. Recognize that these colleges are societies (Latin collegia), not buildings. Divide the membership of each college into two classes: the senior members (fellows and associates) and the junior members (undergraduates and graduate students). Among the senior members the largest number will be fellows (faculty in the university); the associates will be university staff and members of the local community. Elect or appoint one of the fellows to be the master or president of the college, responsible for overall administration and reporting to the provost or the chancellor of the university. Elect or appoint another of the fellows to be the dean or senior tutor, responsible for student welfare and advising. Provide housing for the master and the dean within the college. Appoint the master and the dean for terms of five years at least, and make sure that they are hard-working educators with a genuine dedication to students, and not administrative careerists nor unproductive faculty in search of a sinecure.

Assemble the membership of the college so that it is a cross-section of the university as a whole. Select one or two fellows from each academic department, add a sprinkling of university staff as associates (a police officer, a librarian, a maintenance director, a computer administrator), and add a few members of the local community as additional associates (a rabbi, a business owner, a doctor, a lawyer, a government official). Draw the junior members likewise from all major fields of study, and from all undergraduate and graduate classes. Make about one-sixth of the membership freshmen, one-sixth sophomores, one-sixth juniors, one-sixth seniors, one-sixth graduate students, and one-sixth fellows and associates. At the beginning of each year publish a facebook with the names and pictures of all the college’s members, and preface it with an account of the history, traditions, and facilities of the college.

Craft policies that will encourage the junior members to remain in residence during their entire tenure at the university, and not move off campus. These policies will include things like providing single rooms to senior undergraduates and graduate students, offering exemptions from meal requirements, providing summer residence, providing employment within the college, and guaranteeing rooms to those who return from study abroad. Insure that those who do elect to move off campus remain full members of the college in every respect but residence.

Appoint a series of resident tutors from among the graduate members of the college, and provide them with room and board in exchange for overseeing the life of 20–40 students on a corridor or staircase. These resident tutors should be older than most of the other students, and should be mature and academically strong. They should report to the dean. Establish a student council to organize social and recreational events for the college, and have the junior members annually elect the officers of that body. The student council should carry out much of its work through committees (welcoming, travel, entertainments, birthdays, gardening, special events) that will provide every interested student with an important role. The dean should attend the meetings of the student council to offer advice and support.

Read more: The above recommendations are discussed in detail on the Collegiate Way’s page on the membership and administrative structure of residential colleges.

2. Buildings and Grounds — Although a residential college or collegiate house is a society and not a building, it must have a physical space of its own to carry out its work: a place that its members can help to build and to which they can develop a personal attachment. Therefore: Provide each college with one or more buildings which are under its year-round control. Unless the college buildings are being constructed from scratch, these will probably be existing dormitories. (If they are high-rise dormitories, begin by tearing them down and starting over.) Define the boundaries of each college’s property with hedges, walls, gates, and clear entrances, and have the members of the college landscape the grounds in a distinctive and meaningful manner, with patterns, colors, and scents that will stay with them their entire lives. Include butterfly gardens, collections of historic roses, beds of rare tulips and culinary herbs, stands of native shrubs and wildflowers, trees with edible fruits, and whatever else will make your grounds unique. Avoid “industrial-park landscaping” at all costs. Distinctive landscaping is one of the least expensive and most effective ways to establish college identity.

Provide living quarters in the college for the junior members and for the master and the dean and their families. Arrange the student rooms around staircases rather than long corridors when possible. Provide offices for the master and the dean, a Junior Common Room (the college living room, comfortably furnished for socializing, studying, card playing, napping, and holding receptions, but not for television viewing), a Senior Common Room (a private room for the use of the senior members), a library, a student council room, a game room, a guest room, and any number of other special purpose rooms as interest and space may dictate (a theater, a music practice room, an art studio, a garden shed, a carpentry shop). Install working fireplaces in the Junior and Senior Common Rooms. Decorate all these rooms with art, sculpture, and all manner of other objects that reflect the history and traditions of the college.

Establish a dining room for the college that is big enough to hold all the college’s members for special events. The dining room will be the most important common area in the college. If your campus only has large, centralized dining facilities, divide those facilities into separate rooms, one for each college. Like all the other common rooms, the dining room should be meaningfully decorated by the members of the college. From the ceiling of the dining room hang flags of all the countries or states from which the college has members.

Avoid fluorescent lights, unfinished concrete, cinder block, chain stores, and shopping-mall food courts everywhere. (Do you display a giant neon Pizza Hut sign in your home?) Emphasize wood, brick, stone, green plants, and warm, filtered light.

Read more: The above recommendations are discussed in detail on the Collegiate Way’s page on residential college buildings and grounds.

3. College Life and the Annual Cycle — An established social rhythm is essential to the health of any community, a rhythm that makes people feel comfortable and makes them feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Therefore: Establish a framework of weekly, monthly, and annual events that define the life of the college, and add occasional one-time events as needed. Never cancel the regular events, but hold them without fail, week after week, month after month, year after year. Serve food at every event. Food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college.

Hold a college tea every week for all the members, junior and senior, to socialize. Bring the senior members together every week for lunch, and individually invite a few students to join them each time. Publish a college newsletter every week. Convene the student council every week, and have the council sponsor a dimly-lit coffee bar and a movie night every week. Go every month on a trip to a local museum or historical site or mega-bookstore. Have a monthly nature walk around your campus or a monthly star-gazing evening. Hold secret rituals every month under the full moon.

Have a grand welcoming event for the new members at the beginning of each year, with lots of food and time for socializing. The student council should have an active welcoming committee that introduces all new members to the life and traditions of the college. Select a series of dates throughout the year to celebrate in some special way: national holidays, religious holidays, natural events, historical anniversaries. Sponsor two or three big outdoor events every year: a boat race, a croquet tournament, an open reading of the 1812 Overture, a hymn sung to the rising sun on the first day of spring, a reenactment of the Battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day.

Set up a college e-mail group for year-round chatting, and require the senior members to be on it, in digest mode at least, along with the students. Add incoming freshmen to the group during the summer before they arrive. Establish an official college website (including a complete archive of the history of the college), and allow any number of unofficial websites to link to it.

Design a coat of arms for the college. Make it dignified, with simple charges that students will be able draw on their own foreheads without too much trouble. Manufacture college stationery, holiday cards, neckties, pins, buttons, and scarves. Print your own paper money to pay student volunteers, and make the money redeemable in chocolate or some equivalent standard of value (if one can be found). Choose a light-hearted college mascot (something more imaginative than lions and tigers and bears: there are ten million species out there to choose from). Attribute human qualities to the mascot, and invite it to comment, preferably with much sarcasm, on the state of the world. Assemble around the mascot a company of acolytes in the form of other stuffed animals, and bring the entire menagerie to all major college events.

Adopt a college cat. Even if it is not technically allowed indoors, it will provide much happiness to the members of the college. Provide the college cat with its own outdoor living quarters, and provide amusement to the students by naming said living quarters “the cathouse” (if they themselves haven’t done so already).

Buy an archival-quality blank book for each common room in the college, to serve as a journal and commonplace book. Write an introductory page inviting contributions, and leave the book on a table in the room. When it is full some weeks later, have everyone sign a farewell on its last page and a welcome on the first page of the new book that takes its place. Carefully preserve each completed volume for posterity.

Read more: The above recommendations are discussed in detail on the Collegiate Way’s page on the life and annual cycle of residential colleges.

4. Pastoral Care — The personal welfare of every college member is of vital importance. Therefore: Establish a strong formal and informal network of support within every college or collegiate house. The master and the dean should be highly visible, especially in the first few weeks of every year. The resident tutors should not only provide support for their own residents, but should also act as “morale informants,” monitoring the temper of the student body. Listen very carefully to complaints, and never suppress dissent. Many students will talk to the custodians, maintenance workers, and security guards before they will speak to faculty members; make sure these support staff know that they play an important role in the college community, and encourage them to befriend and offer advice to students. Do not follow an approach that is popular in student affairs circles, an approach that sees every student as in need of “counseling” of some kind. This “deficit model” is patronizing and condescending. Students are not broken or defective, and they should not be talked down to. What students are is inexperienced, and so rather than “counseling” them, offer them encouragement, friendship, advice, and leadership by direct example.

Avoid as many disciplinary problems as possible in advance by having a clear, simple, and short list of college rules, and by insuring that no one in the college is anonymous. If the rule list does not fit on one page, simplify it. In any large community, some disciplinary problems will be inevitable, of course. When they do occur, handle them as one would handle problems within a family, and avoid legalistic proceedings. If person or property has been harmed, have the offender produce a written apology and make the damage right. When necessary in more serious cases, invoke whatever formal procedures already exist within the university or refer the case directly to the campus police or medical services. Establish strong friendships with the campus police officers who work on the ground in your area; they will know more about what is happening on campus than the entire university faculty and administration put together.

Spend a great deal of time walking the college corridors, staircases, and common rooms at night. Nighttime in every college is of special importance because the majority of college life takes place at night, and that is when students are most likely to be sad or lonely. Carry a dish of candy as you walk around. Talk with students, sit in for a hand or two in a card game, watch the evening news, read in the Junior Common Room, and generally provide “a little touch of Harry in the night.” A university that genuinely cares about the welfare of its students will allow the master and the dean to occasionally arrange their work schedules so they can stay up in the college until midnight every night. Require the fellows of the college to spend a night or two every year in the college guest room as a condition of their appointment, and on those nights have them participate in the evening life of the college. Students will be amazed and impressed when faculty spend time with them in the evening.

Publicly recognize the accomplishments of all college members. Human beings naturally want to feel important and appreciated, so never miss an opportunity to single out students and faculty for recognition. Do not make the college newsletter a vehicle for dry administrative announcements; make it a gazette of prizes won, trips taken, offices held, speeches given, flowers planted, stories told, pictures painted, contests entered, scholarships awarded, witticisms pronounced, clubs founded, planets discovered, and worlds conquered.

Do not leave students alone in times of tragedy. Any college that survives long enough will suffer the death of a member, or some other heavy loss. Make the grief communal. Forget your classes and your meetings; stay up with the students all night in front of the fire, singing hymns, reading poems, and telling stories. Plant a tree in memory of the friend lost, and place remembrances among its roots as you set it in the ground.

5. Academic Life — Education is the purpose of a university. Therefore: Fill every aspect of college life with academic opportunities, especially informal opportunities for “teaching with-out the curriculum.” Have words-of-the-day, poems-of-the-week, maps-of-the-month, and all sorts of other intellectual diversions. Have students keep lists of the birds seen from the college grounds, and calendars of the blooming times of flowers. Determine the longitude and latitude of your college and build a sundial to mark the hours (after students have investigated the history and design of sundials). Trace the history of the land your college occupies: who has owned it over the centuries and what it was like many years ago. Get a small telescope and have star-gazing evenings each month. Start a debate society to provide entertainment for the college one night each month. Have students maintain a garden of historic plants. Take field trips to local bookstores, historical sites, museums, and wildlife sanctuaries. Begin collections of coins and stamps from around the world and establish exchanges with residential colleges in other countries. Establish a literary society that sits together once each week to read plays, poems, jokes, and other forms of literature (sensu lato). Sponsor a short story prize or other literary award within the college or within the university at large. Present awards each term to those students earning top grades in their course work.

Place a magazine rack in the Junior Common Room and subscribe to several high-quality publications from a range of fields. Subscribe to one local, one national, and one international newspaper. Have students maintain a bulletin board with news clippings on events of interest. Leave a dictionary, a desk encyclopedia, an almanac, and a book of quotations in the Junior Common Room at all times.

Develop a small college library. One large room is sufficient, and it may double as a computer room. Appoint student librarians to monitor the room when the library is open, thereby providing an important opportunity for service. If you have no money, begin the collection with donations. Ask each of the senior members of the college to donate one book each year, a book that has been important in their lives. Ask retiring faculty in the university to make donations. Establish special collections within the library for autographed volumes, maps, music, and publications by college members. Place a plaque in the library each year with the names of that year’s librarians and donors.

Begin a series of small, one-hour courses called tutorials. Have the fellows teach these in the college as informal electives that investigate any subject of interest, from comparative grammar to game theory to African folktales to soil science. Create a special tutorial that all incoming freshmen must take, but do not make this freshman tutorial a content-free study skills course like the “University 101” courses that are popular on many campuses. Make it instead a substantive introduction to the idea of liberal education that is coupled with academically-oriented tours of the university and the surrounding community.

And lastly, shine light into darkness, strike fear into tyrants, discover stars, and sail in the wind’s eye.

Now you are ready to begin, dear reader. Combine all of the above, stir occasionally, add a drop of luck, and in a few short years you will find that you have changed your institution and your students forever.


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014