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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.

Four-year Colleges for Princeton University

— The residential college idea in the United States began in the very earliest years of the 20th century with Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. Wilson proposed what he called “the quadrangle plan” at Princeton—an attempt to recreate the intimate life of a small college in what was fast becoming a large university. Wilson’s quadrangle plan failed at Princeton because of internal politics, but now, a century later, it is finally bearing fruit. Princeton has had a partial residential college system, supporting first-year and second-year students only, since the 1960s. The will and the resources are now in place to complete the expansion of this partial system into a group of complete, four-year residential colleges. Jennifer Epstein writes in today’s issue of The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student newspaper, that “Four-year residential colleges will usher in a new era of campus life”:

To decide how Princeton undergraduates can best experience residential life, German professor Michael Jennings and two colleagues hit the road.

Last summer, inside one of Harvard’s 12 houses—the residential hubs for sophomores, juniors and seniors—Jennings entered a dining hall bathed in natural light and chose from small platters of food cooked within the last 10 minutes.

“These dining spaces and systems were just so different from Princeton’s,” Jennings said. As the master of Rockefeller College for eight years, he was used to eating in a massive, orange-lit dining hall after choosing food from large platters.

Jennings is leading the way to the future of Princeton’s undergraduate residential and social life. As the chair of the Dining and Social Options Task Force, he’s searching for the best dining and social experiences colleges offer so Princeton can borrow from them when it opens four-year colleges in 2007. Starting with next year’s class, the University will begin phasing in a 500-student increase that will finish in 2010.

Last summer’s research took Jennings to seven colleges across the country, from Yale to Stanford.

His 15-member task force, appointed by President Tilghman in September, has equal numbers of professors, administrators and students. The task force will issue its recommendations next month.

These recommendations are already beginning to take shape. For 100 years, since Woodrow Wilson 1879 failed to create a residential college system, the University has tried to foster a more intimate dining and social atmosphere for all students. That has usually included attempts to make the social scene less focused on the eating clubs, which at least 75 percent of upperclassmen join. Now, as in the past, such moves are causing a stir on Prospect Avenue.

The task force aims to bring freshmen through seniors together by focusing campus social life on the residential colleges rather than the Street. Jennings said the new dining halls should dramatically improve the quality of food at Princeton, offering “some of the best places to eat in the country” in a more comfortable environment. Instead of being mass-produced, food will be cooked on the spot as it is ordered. The days of swiping a card to gain entrance to a dining hall may be gone, perhaps replaced by a point system like the one used in Frist Campus Center.

With that increase in quality, the University envisions underclassmen and upperclassmen dining together in more versatile facilities with tables for intimate conversation or group meetings. All students will retain an affiliation with a residential college under the new system, and the University hopes some upperclassmen will hold joint contracts with clubs and colleges.

The University will move upperclass advising into the colleges so that juniors and seniors can continue their relationships with college masters and directors of study. There will also be college trips focused on careers and graduate schools for upperclassmen in addition to the trips to Broadway that underclassmen take….

Fundamentally, administrators think it is important for upperclassmen to join the residential college system because upperclass-underclass contact is currently too limited.

“From the introduction of the residential college system, some [underclass] students have expressed greater desire to know more juniors and seniors,” Durkee said. “And the same is true the other way around—some upperclassmen want to be able to get to know more freshmen and sophomores.”

Woodrow Wilson must be smiling today.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016