A Residential College for the University of Vermont
The reception area inside the main entrance to the new UVM residential college.
25 February 2006 (collegiateway.org) — This past week I had the pleasure of making my second visit to the University of Vermont in Burlington to talk with colleagues and friends about residential colleges and the renewal of university life. I first spoke about residential colleges at UVM two years ago on the kind invitation of Bob Pepperman Taylor, the dean of the UVM honors program. Bob was my host again, and this time he was able to show me around in his newly-expanded capacity as the head of UVM’s first residential college. The buildings just opened last month, and workmen were still painting and sanding as we toured the new facilities, but the excitement and pride of the students and faculty in the place was palpable.
The central couryard—as yet unfinished—of the new UVM residential college. The view in the opposite direction looks out on the Green Mountains.
The new college has a residential capacity of 407 beds—an ideal size. The buildings are all constructed on a very human scale, around a central courtyard that on one end looks out on a magnificent view of Vermont’s Green Mountains. (It’s a fine example of the refuge-and-prospect principle.) The common rooms in the college are not all completed yet, and one of the things we discussed was how to properly differentiate their functions. A fundamental principle of residential college design is that the common areas should belong to the whole college, not just to particular corridors or wings, and that the functions of those rooms should be differentiated so that they can support a diverse social and creative community. Unlike a generic dormitory building that is constructed on an elementary “floor+lounge, floor+lounge, floor+lounge” plan, a residential college should differentiate its “lounges” so that one is the college library, another is the college game room, another is the college art studio, another is the college exercise room, another is the college greenhouse, and so on. This increases circulation throughout the building, and it provides a wealth of opportunities for participation and involvement.
The well-designed game room, equipped at one end with cabinet space and a counter.
The new UVM residential college already has a beautiful game room, and it is furnished with a counter and storage area that will allow it to function as an ideal late-night coffee bar. The addition of a few decks of cards, a chess set or two, and some inexpensive board games to play along the side will make the room complete. The student council will latch on to these opportunities and will be able to create several more niches for service within the college: a Curator of the Game Room, a Despot of the Coffee Bar, an Instructor in Applied Statistics (a.k.a. College Card Shark). Instead of being just a room with a pool table, it will become a memorable center of activity and take on a life of its own. Every common room in a residential college should do the same.
The future library in the new UVM residential college?
Although it is a bit small, an airy room that looks out on the courtyard may be well suited to function as a college library. It has a lovely miniature spiral staircase, and the high walls could serve as a permanent gallery for college artwork. (Alternatively, high bookcases with a rolling ladder would add a memorable touch of distinction.) A similar room in a different wing might be made into a well-lit art studio for college sculptors and painters (the built-in sink will be a great advantage there). Yet another room could become a college solarium and greenhouse, ready to supply the college through the winter with bright light and fresh flowers for the front desk and for college invalids through the long New England winter.
Regular readers of the Collegiate Way know that I’m not an advocate of the “themed housing” idea. Unlike true cross-sectional residential colleges, theme houses segregate rather than integrate, and run counter to the idea of liberal education. Although it is the home base of campus honors program, the new UVM residential college isn’t quite a theme hall because it does incorporate a full cross section of academic departments and majors as well as a full cross section of student and faculty interests, backgrounds, temperaments, and ambitions. This sort of diversity is fundamental to the creation of a vibrant social and intellectual life. The only danger is that people outside the residential college will come to think of a collegiate arrangement as something only suited to honors students, or as a privilege to be accorded only to them. This is an incorrect view: decentralized, cross-sectional residential colleges are beneficial to all students, and collegiate membership should not be treated as a special privilege. UVM is planning to develop additional residential programs in the next few years, and I hope the success of this first complete residential college will serve as model that can be followed throughout the institution.
Hearty congratulations to Bob Taylor and to all his UVM colleagues on their wonderful new collegiate society. Legend has it that the University of Vermont’s first building was constructed at the end of the eighteenth century from timber cut down by the students and faculty themselves in the woods of Burlington, then little more than a wilderness outpost. Fashionable Burlington is no longer a wilderness, but who knows what sorts of legends may surround these founders of UVM’s new residential college two hundred years from now.
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