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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 Chicago Tribune Reports on Residential Colleges

— The residential college idea is attracting more and more attention from the general public as well as from college and university officials. A fine article by education reporter Patrick Kampert on page Q3 of today’s Chicago Tribune, one of the leading metropolitan newspapers in the United States, focuses on the faculty masters in residence at the University of Chicago and wonderfully describes many aspects of residential college life, including the importance of faculty presence. The full text of Kampert’s story appears below; the accompanying photos are not included.

Is there a doctor of philosophy in the house?

A Hyde Park tradition—students and faculty living side by side—is spreading to other campuses

Sanver Deren is new to the country and new to the University of Chicago. He’s an 18-year-old freshman from Turkey and, well, getting used to America and being away from his family—it isn’t always easy.

He lives in Palevsky Commons, the biggest dorm on campus, and so do U. of C. music professor Martin Stokes and his family. A few Sundays ago, Deren wandered down the hall to the open-house brunch that Stokes and his wife, Lucy Baxandall, have for students every few weeks. And there was Stokes, a complete stranger, welcoming him.

Deren told Stokes, 40, about his adjustments—but he didn’t indicate where he was from. Stokes, an Englishman, could relate to the culture shock; he looked at Deren sympathetically—and started speaking to him in Turkish.

Hos geldiniz! Nasilsiniz? [Welcome! How are you?]” said Stokes. Deren was floored. “Siz Turkce mi biliyor musunuz? [Do you really know Turkish?],” he responded.

And so began a conversation that only two people in the room understood, in which the pair discovered that they both play the same instrument, the Arabic lute. (Stokes, an ethnomusicologist, learned Turkish as a youth and lived in Istanbul for a couple of years.)

“He speaks really perfect Turkish,” Deren marveled later. “It’s a sign that the professors are close to us.”

Although the Turkish conversation was a coincidence, the success of Stokes’ arrangement is no accident. He and Baxandall, a former teacher now pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia College, are what’s known as “resident masters” at the U. of C., and they are one of several senior professors and their families who live in the largest dorms to help build a sense of community among underclassmen.

The masters and their assistants (who are called resident heads) do this with brunches, dorm olympics and pumpkin-carving sessions—even a blues concert. In September, Stokes and Baxandall welcomed students by inviting their friend, Chicago bluesman Eddie C. Campbell, in for a concert and jam session.

“We blew all the fuses,” Baxandall admitted ruefully.

They also supply some cultural enrichment by leading trips to the opera, the symphony, baseball and basketball games, and even “Harry Potter” movies (which, come to think of it, shows the Hogwarts teachers living in the dorms too).

The setup is called the “residential college” system and, although it’s old hat down in Hyde Park, a growing number of colleges across the country are taking the RC plunge—or at least dipping their toes in the water.

“I do see a trend there,” said Robert O’Hara, a biology professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College and a leading proponent of the residential-college system. “My reading of it is that it’s a fairly widespread reaction to the lack of attention paid to housing, student life and campus life over the last several decades.

“I think the world is coming around again.”

A few professors have lived in U. of C. dorms for decades on a more casual basis, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the university crafted its meticulous residential-college plans and retrofitted faculty apartments into the larger dorms. In so doing, it was following the lead of Harvard and Yale in the 1920s, which had followed the lead of Oxford and Cambridge over in Britain.

Today, it’s not just the expensive, intellectual schools that bring willing profs into the dorm rooms and dining halls (although Rice, Princeton, MIT and Vanderbilt are recent converts).

To varying degrees, schools from Ohio State and the University of Pennsylvania to Murray State in Kentucky to the University of California at Santa Cruz have implemented parts of the residential-college program.

“For those who are a part of them, residential colleges really function as a second family,” said Mark Ryan, former dean of residential colleges at Yale University, who wrote “A Collegiate Way of Living” ($15, Jonathan Edwards College) for the school.

Yet the system does have some constraints, he said.

“I think some of the limitations are the number of people that a faculty member can really get to know over a period of time,” he said. “Personally, I think they should not be larger than 400 or so students.”

That would seem to be a problem at Palevsky, which has about 740 students. The size of newer buildings such as Palevsky, which is part of the university’s master plan, has been criticized by some, including noted architect and author Michael Sorkin, a U. of C. grad.

Sorkin, the director of the graduate program in urban design at the City University of New York, wrote “Other Plans” (Princeton University Press, $14.95) as an alternative to the U. of C. master plan after the college rejected his vision for, among other things, scaling down the dorms and ratcheting up the residential-college system.

“In the main quadrangle, there are a number of 19th Century buildings that are now obsolete for scientific laboratories but are incredibly well-dimensioned for conversion into housing facilities,” he said. “One of the charms of a collegiate campus is how the Gothic buildings sustain a certain level of eccentricity. It seems like all the eccentricity is being squeezed out of the campus.”

But Edward Cook, a history professor and former dean at the U. of C., thinks the system has worked pretty well during the 15 years that he and his wife, Lee, a real-estate agent, have served as residential masters.

“You go to class and, some days, the kids are really alert and really into whatever you’re doing,” Cook said. “And some days, they’re almost falling asleep, and you don’t know why. Well, actually, if you live here and you talk to them at meals, you get a better sense of what the rhythm of a student’s schedule is—what are the weeks in which they have a lot of midterm exams, and what are the kinds of courses that take up huge amounts of their energy.”

For his part, Stokes gets stoked by his glimpses into the American college student’s world.

“I like the undergraduate culture here,” he said. “The students are interesting, fun and intelligent and at the same time a quite serious bunch of people.”

The students say the brunches and other activities give them a break from the rigors of a U. of C. education.

“They help to bring people out of their rooms,” said Susan Au, a junior from Springfield, Mass., as she sat on a leather sectional in the Stokeses’ living room, where Middle Eastern instruments adorn the walls. “It takes you away from study, study, study.”

And that, in turn, helps the students develop friendships, added David Willey, a freshman from Elburn.

“The resident heads plan plenty of activities just to introduce people to other folks in their house,” he said. “You get to know one another. I think it does build a sense of community.”

Stokes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s fun seeing this space just absolutely packed,” he said with a grin. “It’s like a fabulous party.”

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