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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Residential College Deans Meet at Middlebury College

— Middlebury College in Vermont is a pioneer among American liberal arts colleges in that it recently established a system of residential colleges within itself. Although liberal arts colleges are usually small in comparison to universities, many of them today number their students in the thousands and have outgrown the truly small college atmosphere they once had. In its continuing efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate life, Middlebury College will host a small conference for residential college deans to discuss their common concerns and to share insights and experiences that may be of help to Middlebury as it continues to develop its own residential college system. Middlebury’s official press release about the deans’ conference, written by Travis Fahey, appears below.

MIDDLEBURY,VT—A conference for residential deans will be held at Middlebury College from June 10–12 to give college administrators across the country an opportunity to discuss a gradual nation-wide shift toward a living and learning or “commons” residential system.

The commons system, as it is known at Middlebury, groups students, faculty and staff into “neighborhoods” of the college by creating mini-campuses bound together by dorms, dining halls and academic spaces. Currently, Middlebury College is completing the first in a series of renovations and additions to its commons system at Ross Commons and is working on major improvements to Atwater Commons.

For colleges like Middlebury, the commons system is a relatively new and exciting way to create smaller communities within the larger campus. But for some of the nation’s oldest universities, such as Harvard and Yale, their house and college systems are a tried and true method of binding students, faculty and staff together. Yet college officials from universities both familiar and new to this kind of residential model rarely, if ever, share their vision on a national level, a gap Middlebury College officials are trying to bridge.

“Residential deans from different campuses don’t really talk to each other that often, and there’s a lot to talk about, especially as we work to complete our commons system,” said John Mangan, dean of Ross Commons at Middlebury College.

For Mark Ryan, professor of international relations and history at Universidad de las Américas–Puebla (UDLA) in Mexico and a recognized expert on the development of residential commons, the importance of bringing the deans together relates directly to the increasing awareness that education is about more than intellectual development.

“There are colleges all over the world that are starting to recognize the importance of the Anglo-American educational model started by the British and adopted by the early American universities. The Anglo-American model provides a far-reaching concept of education that goes beyond educational training to the concept of developing the student on a personal level, i.e. developing not just the intellectual side of the student but the whole person,” he said.

Ryan added that the conference will allow administrators to begin networking, which will not only benefit universities in America, but those in China, Africa, Russia, Germany and Mexico that have recently expressed an interest in adopting the commons model.

Currently, 33 residential deans from universities across the country, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale, plan to attend the Middlebury conference. Speakers of note will include Middlebury College President John McCardell, who will discuss the commons system at Middlebury, and Ryan.

Ryan was dean of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University for more than 20 years prior to joining the UDLA faculty in 1997, where he was also asked to develop a residential college system. Ryan is also the author of “A Collegiate Way of Living,” which is widely regarded as the preeminent book on residential colleges. Ryan will lead a discussion on the complexities of developing a new residential system.

Dr. Robert O’Hara, who served as a resident tutor at Harvard University’s Dudley House and was the principal founder of Cornelia Strong College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), will also speak at the conference. O’Hara is an evolutionary biologist and serves as a consultant to colleges and universities establishing residential commons. He will present a slide show highlighting his development of a new commons at UNCG.

The three-day event will culminate with a tour of Ross Commons and closing remarks by McCardell.

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