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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 Middlebury Campus Profiles the Collegiate Way

— Today’s edition of The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper of Middlebury College, features a profile of the Collegiate Way website and its author by undergraduate Charlie Goulding. The text of Goulding’s article is quoted in full below.

Commons Expert Signs On to Middlebury at the Perfect Time

Students in “Genetics and Evolution” know Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Robert J. O’Hara as “the new biology professor.” Since joining the College this fall, however, O’Hara has provided Middlebury with more than his expertise in science and his acclaimed teaching ability. O’Hara is a bona fide residential college connoisseur—an expert on the very sort of commons-style college structure currently being developed here at Middlebury.

O’Hara got his first taste of the residential college system as a graduate student at Harvard University. There, O’Hara served as a resident tutor in Dudley House, and quickly became enamored with the myriad social and academic benefits of the commons system.

O’Hara then went on to teach at the University of North Carolina (UNC)–Greensboro where he helped set up the university’s first commons, Cornelia Strong College. For six years, O’Hara served as head tutor at Strong College, which received high praise. One parent of a UNC student wrote to the college: “Each time I see my son I am again impressed with his happiness and fulfillment as part of Strong College … He is learning so much and is benefiting from his relationships with faculty and students. Your caring efforts are evident everywhere.”

Perhaps the most telling sign of O’Hara’s commitment to and faith in the residential college system is the Web site he maintains, called The Collegiate Way (collegiateway.org). The Collegiate Way functions as both a tribute to and educational resource for the commons system. The Web site is a highly informative, well-organized and compelling exposé of the past history and current social value of the residential college system.

An excerpt from the homepage, which critiques the standard University structure reads: “The real crisis in higher education today does not have to do with the curriculum, it has to do with the poverty of student life. At many large universities in the last 40 years the faculty have given up all responsibility for the lives of students outside the classroom, and the resulting vacuum has been filled by non-academic residence life departments. Out-of-control and endlessly rescrambled dormitories, alcohol abuse and vandalism, social isolation, institutionally-promoted segregation and a complete lack of connection between the classroom and student life outside the classroom—all these troubles have for a generation plagued institutions that advertise themselves as ‘caring’ and ‘student-centered.’”

Clearly, O’Hara stands out as one of the country’s most outspoken and dedicated advocates of the residential commons system. But what exactly are the benefits of such a system, and can they apply to a comparatively small liberal arts college such as our own?

“Harvard and Yale were the first to experiment with a residential commons-type system, and they did so when they were schools of roughly 2,500 students,” said O’Hara, “which is only a few hundred more than what we have right now at Middlebury. The funny thing is, at that time, students at Harvard and Yale were complaining how large the universities had gotten and how they wanted to recreate the small college feel.”

According to O’Hara, a student can realistically hope to be able to identify 400 to 500 students in a college by the time he or she graduates. This equates to about 100 students per year, and renders the hope of truly knowing most members of even a small college such as Middlebury futile. The residential college system, therefore, is far more conducive to better cultivating the limited number of relationships a student can conceivably develop.

From a less theoretical standpoint, O’Hara firmly believes in the residential commons’ ability to strengthen the social fabric of a school, and to breathe life into a school’s academic and social ethos. “Residential colleges allow students and teachers to interact on a much more personal level. They give a context in which students can develop meaningful relationships with each other and can also be an enormous outlet of creativity, as students construct their identities in relation to their commons.”

O’Hara also called attention to two of the most overlooked advantages of the commons system. For one, “People underestimate the importance of the commons system to faculty, in particular,” said O’Hara. O’Hara further explained that new faculty often encounter the same phenomena as new students. Thus, the socially accommodating nature of the commons system does much to ameliorate the struggles associated with being new.

Secondly, O’Hara identified a misperception of the very purpose of a commons system. “It’s a mistake to see the commons system as being solely for the betterment of any one group, such as the students. It should be seen as a strategic way of arranging the college as a whole. [The] faculty sometimes looks at certain social events or traditions and say ‘they’re just fooling around, playing games with one another.’ In doing so, they miss comprehending the true work the system as it strengthens and invigorates the environment as a whole.”

O’Hara’s view of Middlebury’s nascent system is an optimistic one, noting that it usually takes five to six years for a newly implemented commons system to “hit its stride.” He thinks some outstanding feats have already been accomplished by the system, and looks forward to the completion of the new facilities. O’Hara identified residential dining halls as a core component of a healthy commons system, and believes that in a few years’ time, Middlebury will be better equipped to reap the benefits of this facet of commons life.

He also stressed the importance of “little things”—minor events and traditions—that do more to sustain the life of the system than big events. The Brainerd dinner bell, rung every Wednesday night, is O’Hara’s brainchild, as are the commons journals, which can be found in each commons office and are accessible to all students.

Undoubtedly, in what Jean Piaget might term the college’s “critical period” in terms of the development of our commons system, Middlebury appears to be an excellent fit for its newest biology professor.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016