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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.

Harvard Residential College Proposals from Years Past

— People planning residential colleges today or reviewing current residential college operations can benefit from studying older models. Harvard University was the first American institution to create a residential college system, and the final creation of this system in the 1930s had been preceded by many years of discussion and debate. I have been preparing for the Collegiate Way website a series of documents from this period of debate, and two more are now available.

The first is an 1894 essay by Harvard alumnus Frank Bolles titled “An Administrative Problem.” Bolles was deeply concerned with the unwieldiness of the university as it was increasing in size, and argued that decentralization into residential colleges was the only way to manage this growth:

In 1840 the College [the entire campus undergraduate population] contained 250 students; in 1850, 300; in 1860, 456; in 1870, 600; in 1880, 800; in 1890, 1,300; in 1894, 1,600. What will its membership be in 1900 or in 1950? At the latter time, if the rate of growth and our present administrative system are maintained, the Dean and Recorder of Harvard College will be personally caring for 6,500 individuals, with all of whom they will be presumed to have an intelligent acquaintance.

The second document is a 1904 essay called “Dormitories and College Life” by Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Lowell, as Harvard’s president in the 1930s, finally brought the residential college system into existence with the help of a gift from educational philanthropist. Edward Harkness. It was Lowell’s conviction that the social life of students was as much a matter for educational concern as their classroom life. A university must either choose to educate its students as whole persons, or it must give up the ideal of liberal education:

We are come to the parting of the ways, where we must either make up our minds that the social life of the students is none of our affair,—and in that case we had probably better give up the college as an institution altogether, and confine ourselves to the work of the schools which prepare men for practical life; or we must bring our men together into a real community, with a common life,—a true college life.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021