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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 Washington Post Features Residential Colleges

— The residential college movement in the United States continues to attract attention from the press, and education writer Eliot Applestein has just published an excellent article about residential colleges in today’s edition of The Washington Post. “A Neighborhood in a Dorm” describes the virtues of a collegiate system, refers to the Collegiate Way website, and quotes a number of people on the Collegiate Way mailing list as well. If you’re trying to generate interest in the collegiate model at your own institution, circulating a copy of this story might be a good way to do it. Applestein has put a permanent copy on his own website, BestFourYears.com, and I quote the full text below.

A Neighborhood in a Dorm

Rebecca Cullers doesn’t play Quidditch. She knows nothing of casting spells and didn’t travel on the Hogwarts Express. But her life at Brown College, a residential college at the University of Virginia, has much of the richness and maybe a little of the magic of Harry Potter’s Gryffindor Hall.

“I didn’t understand before I came to Brown, the volume of community,” says Cullers, who lives in Long Portal, one of 12 tunnel-connected buildings at Brown. “Walking through the halls on my first day, everyone said hello and seemed very concerned about me. They have already decided that they want to be your friend.”

First developed in the Middle Ages at Oxford and Cambridge, and brought to America by Harvard and Yale in the 1930s, residential colleges are enjoying a resurgence. This fall, Middlebury College in Vermont opened the first of five residential colleges, or “commons.” Princeton, which has had a two-year residential college since the 1960s, is gradually moving to a four-year system. And Vanderbilt is converting the entire campus into residential colleges, with the first opening in 2006.

At residential colleges, 200 to 500 students from diverse backgrounds live together under the direction of a master or president (like Dumbledore at Hogwarts), who is in charge of administration and finances. A dean (like Professor McGonagall) is responsible for academic advising and counseling. Masters and deans usually serve five-year terms. The dean is elected or appointed from the fellows, professors drawn from academic departments. Below fellows are tutors. These are graduate students or upperclassmen (like Percy Weasley) who are in charge of a residence floor or wing, overseeing perhaps 20 to 40 students.

The master, dean, several fellows with their families, and tutors actually live in the residential college with students. Associate members, such as clergy, custodians and librarians, participate in dinners, lectures and student outings.

“It’s all about faculty-student interaction, a great deal of programming, and the creation of a vibrant intellectual community that takes teaching and learning outside of the traditional classroom setting,” says Susan Barge, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at Vanderbilt. “For students and faculty, it fosters a rich, balanced university experience.”

“It has been wonderful to say hello to faculty every day,” says Cullers. “I know students who have not met many professors. There are large lectures and it is hard to make a relationship. With Brown that makes it so much easier. I know professors who are not teaching in my content area.”

Matthew Scafidi, a University of Pennsylvania communications major who lives in Gregory College House, even knows the children of faculty members. Last year when he saw a bright red Little Tykes car in the hall, he was confused: Are there kids living in my dorm? Soon he learned that the car belonged to his next-door neighbors, Trevor, 5, and his sister, Taylor, 9, children of Lori Rosenkopf, an associate professor of management in the Wharton School.

“We often had our door open and the kids would sometimes knock,” says Scafidi. “They liked to play hockey in the hallway, and Trevor also liked to chase us down the hallway. It was a lot of fun. I think they gained a lot of the same benefits that we did.”

Robert O’Hara, biology professor at Middlebury College and principal founder of Cornelia Strong Residential College at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, is a big proponent of residential colleges. Age diversity is one of the reasons.

“This is the scarcest thing in a college,” says O’Hara. “After 5 p.m. you rarely see anyone over 22 or under 18. This is an unhealthy environment. Students need to see children and older people. This enriches their perspectives and fosters helping and participating with people.”

It’s important, believes O’Hara, to have a diverse mix of people, which is why he prefers residential colleges to theme residence halls, which “segregate students with similar backgrounds and interests together. Do you want to see a doctor who only spent his whole career with pre-med students or someone with a more humane experience derived from interacting with a mix of people?”

At Virginia, new students are admitted to the residential college after their housing applications have been approved by a student-run committee. But O’Hara prefers random selection to avoid a self-selecting process that creates a “jock college,” a “nerd college,” or an “arty college,” etc. How students are housed is so important, says O’Hara, that “any institution that puts student housing in the same administrative category with vending machines and parking shouldn’t be entrusted with student housing.”

At Vanderbilt, Barge hopes the residential colleges will counter the current system where students live together on campus freshman year, then pick up and move each year thereafter. The college system, she believes, “will turn this nomadic existence into a collection of neighborhoods that will enhance the overall experience here.”

That has been the case at Virginia’s Brown College, where first-years are mixed with older students.

“When you live in a first-year dorm, you are only with first-years,” says Cullers. “You become bonded with these people because you don’t know about other things going on. A lot of people think this is a good thing.”

But Cullers says that students who don’t live in the residential colleges move off campus, whereas most first-year residentials stay. Social stability is created, says O’Hara, by “social traditions and rituals and regular events that happen week after week, month after month; the rhythm of a place that people look forward to.”

Students are often in charge of these events. At Brown College, for example, three to six events a week are planned by students with a budget of $34,000. Cullers, treasurer for the academic and cultural events committee (budget $2,500), recently planned an international dinner for 50, with students as cooks and Latin dance taught by a student.

There are student-faculty teas and monthly formal dinners with “nicer food than normal,” an hour-long tutorial on African folk tales or cellular biology presented by fellows, or a presentation by an experimental film director.

At Penn’s Gregory College House, with two faculty members on each floor, there is hot chocolate night, Wednesday night study group and many other events, including the annual progressive dinner. Student managers decide which floor will make the appetizers, main course and dessert. Diners progress up each floor. Notes Scafidi: “It gets residents who may be on the first floor and not go upstairs to mingle.”

One of Scafidi’s neighbors, chemical engineering professor Talid Sinno, thought that “living in the dorm would be substantially more intrusive than it has turned out to be. Of course this is not a good environment for terribly private people! Issues such as late-night parties, loud music and the like are not a big concern in my particular case.”

Sinno, a faculty fellow, has gotten to know students through “Gregory Gourmet,” a weekly dining club that visits restaurants all over the Philadelphia area.

Though he wants “to contribute to the house’s academic mission in a way that makes use of my academic background,” he notes that chemical engineering “is not very near and dear to most of the students,” and he hasn’t figured out how to do that. “My role, so far,” says Sinno, “has been to give them some tangible contact with faculty outside of class.”

That’s worth a great deal, says O’Hara, who sees many of the ills affecting colleges today—alcohol abuse, vandalism, social isolation—because of “a poverty of student life where faculty have given up all responsibility for the lives of students outside the classroom.”

With all of the advantages of residential college life, why haven’t more universities made the transition?

O’Hara believes this is largely due to a lack of familiarity. “Many faculty today were students at large universities and didn’t have the experience of small college communities,” he notes. “In a way it was unfortunate that Harvard and Yale started residential colleges in America because it made it look like you had to have lots of money to begin them.”

Residential colleges aren’t expensive, says O’Hara. They just require a “rearrangement of resources that already exist. Teach the students by example that they can sustain a vibrant social life at little expense if they use their imaginations and borrow, donate, work, recycle, preserve, scrounge and improvise.”

But O’Hara sees a hopeful trend.

“If students can’t connect what they have learned in the classroom with the real world, we have failed them miserably,” he says. “Residential college life provides a more healthy and stable environment.”

Currently, 23 U.S. universities have residential colleges. A complete list can be found at www.collegiateway.org.

Eliot Applestein is an independent college counselor in North Bethesda.

© Eliot Applestein

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016