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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

The Boston Globe Reports on Residential Colleges

— The residential college movement is part of a larger trend in higher education, a trend that is manifest not only at institutions that are establishing complete colleges and college systems, but also at institutions that are adopting one or more components of the collegiate model. The Boston Globe, one of the leading metropolitan newspapers in the United States, takes note of this trend today in a front-page story by Jenna Russell on residential colleges and the faculty-in-residence programs that are being established at many colleges and universities. The text of the story is reproduced in full below.

Some colleges find a bit of faculty life enriches dorm life

Jimmy Hauri doesn’t mind neighbors peeking in his open door to check out his apartment, or swinging by to ask for help with homework. Only the fire alarms, pulled as a prank in the wee hours of the morning, make the 32-year-old Assumption College chemistry professor wish he lived somewhere other than a college dorm.

“That’s the main drawback, especially when it’s rainy,” he said.

Hauri and his wife, settling in at the Worcester college, are among a growing number of adults readjusting to dorm life, as colleges around the country move faculty members back onto campus to make students’ home lives as rich as their time in the classroom.

Concerned, in some cases, about student drinking, or rising transfer rates, college administrators are looking to their professors to help bridge the gap between students’ academic and social lives. The faculty members add oversight and stability to dorms that had become cut off from the college mission. And with the cost of college rising—and online courses widely available—schools feel pressure to prove that paying extra for room and board is worth it.

“Research shows that the strongest influence in student success, and institutional loyalty, is the relationship with faculty,” said Catherine WoodBrooks, Assumption’s vice president for student life. “From an educational point of view, of course we want to further students’ development. From a marketing perspective, we want them to feel they’re getting the most out of their investment.”

Colleges have turned to old models in the quest for new ways to satisfy students and keep them safe. A handful of American universities—Harvard and Yale best-known among them—have long had groups of students live and learn together with resident faculty leaders. Based on the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the “house” system has seen renewed interest in the last decade.

The University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Virginia are all using the model to regroup students into small, closer-knit communities. In Vermont this fall, Middlebury College unveiled the first of five planned mini-colleges, called “commons,” headed by professors who live nearby on campus. A second is under construction. Other small liberal-arts colleges are adopting a key part of the model by housing faculty and staff in some student residences.

At Assumption, where Hauri and his wife live, new student dorms were designed with more spacious faculty apartments on the first floor; the couple’s two-bedroom apartment includes a living room and kitchen. At Mount Ida College in Newton, a half-dozen college “coaches” live among students—most in traditional dorm rooms. At Wheaton College in Norton, a new dorm has a professor in residence, the school’s first in 30 years.

In the 1950s, when colleges played a parental role, adult supervision went hand-in-hand with curfews and single-sex dormitories. In the 1960s and ’70s, when students rebelled against their parents’ values, “the response of the institutions was to absent themselves,” said Sue Alexander, Wheaton’s dean of students.

Alexander says professors-in-residence are more easily accepted these days, because 18-year-olds have changed.

“This generation is more connected to their parents,” she said. “They look to the older generation as possibly having something to say.”

Even so, Wheaton students were initially skeptical of the plan for the new dorm, wondering who would want to live there. After making it clear the professor would not act as parent, and would instead help students pursue their own interests, administrators received 160 applications for the dorm’s 100 beds.

That left the task of recruiting the right professor—the biggest challenge, according to Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers.

“There’s a lot of interest, but it’s hard to make it work,” he said. “It’s hard to carve out enough space, and it’s even harder to get faculty to want to do it.”

Most professors don’t want to live in dorms, agreed Robert O’Hara, a Middlebury College biology professor and advocate for the residential college model, but it’s not hard to find a few who are willing. In his student days, O’Hara lived unhappily in a “cinder-block student ghetto” at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before going to graduate school at Harvard and discovering the house system.

On his Web site, created three years ago to promote the residential college model, O’Hara says the “poverty” of student life is a crisis in higher education, and he points to faculty disengagement as one cause. He said educators tend to overestimate the difficulty of making changes.

“The reaction you get is, ‘Harvard has a lot of money—we can’t do that.’ I don’t buy that argument,” he said. “It’s dorm space, dining hall space, students and faculty, and everybody has those. It’s how you organize what you have.”

To make its new residence hall appealing to professors, Wheaton designed the faculty apartment for maximum comfort and quiet. At first, there was competition for the spot, but most contenders dropped out. That left John Partridge, a 33-year-old assistant professor of philosophy, who moved into Beard Hall in January with his wife, Nicole, and their baby daughter, Hannah.

New to the college last year, Partridge hoped dorm living would give him an “accelerated understanding” of Wheaton. The couple was worried about noise and knocks on the door at 4 a.m., but neither has been a problem. Their door is decorated with a picture of Hannah in a Wheaton shirt; inside, an Oriental carpet, ample sofa, and toy-filled playpen make the space look like any young family’s apartment.

“I never would have imagined I would enjoy it as much as I do,” Partridge said. “I never would have imagined the sense of connectedness.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, loud music played behind closed doors on the floor where the family lives. A lacrosse stick and a pair of dirty socks lay abandoned outside one room. Students walked the halls barefoot or in flip-flops. When an outside door jammed, Partridge opened it for students.

Some schools ask resident professors to organize social and cultural happenings. Elsewhere, faculty need only be accessible to students, for casual chats or consultations on personal issues. Understanding is enhanced on both sides, proponents said. “It humanizes the faculty for students, and it ensures that faculty remember students are individuals, with their own concerns and lives,” O’Hara said. “As they get older, they can forget that.”

At Wheaton, where Partridge helps students plan events, the goal is a place where “intellect isn’t something you check at the door to the classroom,” said Alexander, the dean of students.

Cate Hunt, a senior who serves as a residential adviser, said Beard is sometimes referred to as “the academic dorm,” because of its serious students. But the closer she gets to graduation, she said, the more her exposure to the Partridge family seems important preparation for life after Wheaton.

“It’s exciting to be able to incorporate academics in a more casual manner,” she said. “It’s refreshing to go to their apartment and talk to them. It’s a different conversation than I have with my friends.”

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/30/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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