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Vanderbilt Residential College System Moves Forward

— One of the most significant residential college systems under development today is the collegiate system at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The print edition of the Nashville Business Journal for August 11–17th contains a fine article by reporter Erin Lawley that offers an update on the Vanderbilt project. Lawley interviewed me for the story, and a few of my comments appear in the text of the story below.

Uncommon learning

With College Halls project, Vanderbilt sets out to redefine student experience
By Erin Lawley
Nashville Business Journal

Vanderbilt University will swing wide the doors of Sutherland House and Crawford House residence halls this month, reaching its first milestone on the road to establishing a campus-wide residential college system: The College Halls at Vanderbilt.

The newly constructed dormitories, which will house more than 300 sophomores this year, are part of the 10-dorm living/learning community under construction on the Peabody College campus that comprise the first phase of the College Halls project known as the Commons.

The Commons, which will lodge the entire incoming freshman classes beginning in August 2008, includes the construction of three more dorms, the renovation of five existing dorms, an overhaul and addition to the Hill Student Center to create a dining facility, and the erection of a free-standing home for the Commons’ dean and his family.

Each dorm, or “house,” on the campus will include a first-floor private suite for a live-in faculty member, seminar rooms, study spaces, laundry facilities and double-occupancy dorm rooms.

Phase II will establish seven or eight “halls” that will house 400 upperclassmen each and, like The Commons, include faculty living quarters, seminar rooms, dining and other facilities.

Residents in each hall will represent a cross section of Vanderbilt’s four undergraduate schools and they’ll live in the same building from their sophomore through senior years. They will develop governmental systems and activity programs in each hall; they’ll have a “neighborhood” experience unlike the traditional, fragmented living arrangement currently in place.

Devin Donovan, a Vanderbilt senior and president of Interhall—a student government association for resident halls—says the long-term product will be a more cohesive college experience for students.

“It’s an exciting venture for us. Having all of the freshmen on campus will create the common Vanderbilt experience we’re all hoping for,” she says.

The idea of a residential college is to foster increased student-faculty interaction and a collaborative intellectual atmosphere—taking the perks of being a large academic institution and fusing them with the feel of a smaller school.

“A residential college system takes the big institution with all the advantages of excellent resources, broad curriculum, diverse faculty, large library and research opportunities, and breaks it down into small units with the advantages of a small liberal arts college and a real family-like atmosphere with a sense of security and identity,” says Bob O’Hara, a consultant in residential college life administration for more than 16 years.

Specifically, schools with residential colleges have more opportunities for student involvement through student government and programs, an increased sense of ownership that leads to reduction in vandalism and maintenance costs, as well as better student retention and recruitment, O’Hara says. He cites colleges with residential systems like Harvard, Yale, Rice and Oxford.

Donovan, who is majoring in secondary education, English and American studies, recalls her experience as a freshman resident being positive, but the layout of campus living quarters was less than ideal.

“I did feel a little bit disconnected from other freshmen because of the spread-out nature,” she says.

Susan Barge, associate provost for residential colleges and student life at Vanderbilt, says the community feel and the new facilities also will help attract bright students and faculty. She expects those effects should be felt as soon as the Commons are in place.

“The College Halls will reinforce (those effects),” says Barge. “But just the Commons alone is a huge home run for us as an institution.”

That home run has a price tag of $150 million, obtained through philanthropy and internal sources unrelated to tuition. It is Vanderbilt’s largest construction project on the Peabody campus since the university merged with the formerly independent teachers’ college in 1979.

University officials are not yet considering a time line or cost estimate for the whole College Halls project, says Barge, which will require the renovation, demolition and construction of buildings across the 330-acre campus. Planning and fund raising will advance after the completion of the Commons—which should be a powerful fund-raising aid—meaning it could be decades before the overhaul is complete.

“Each one will be different,” says Barge. “That’s why we’ll do it carefully and slowly in the spirit of Vanderbilt.”

Frank Wcislo, the newly-appointed dean of the Commons, expects the community will be an effective marketing tool for Vanderbilt.

“I anticipate that in six years time we’ll be drawing a good deal of national attention for the way in which we’re repositioning the undergraduate experience at the heart of a very high-powered and elite private research university,” says Wcislo. “Our market value is going to go up because people are going to recognize the value of people that are being educated here.”

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