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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. To receive an occasional digest of this news please add your name to the monthly Collegiate Way mailing list.

Lehigh University Explores the Collegiate Way

— Today’s edition of the Allentown-Bethlehem Morning Call newspaper carries a story by reporter Genevieve Marshall about South Mountain College, a new residential college at Lehigh University that is just getting off the ground. (South Mountain College is, confusingly, located in a building known as Taylor College.) The Collegiate Way website was one of Marshall’s sources, and the story is reproduced in abbreviated form below.

Lehigh Learns After Class

21 university students join new program extending academics to dormitory life

When Laura Kelly is not in class or studying at Lehigh University, she doesn’t want to spend her free time playing video games with her dorm mates.

That’s why this year she chose to live in Taylor College, a residence hall where two floors of a wing are reserved for students in a new academic program that blurs the boundaries between coursework and campus life.

When Kelly and the other students in the program take a break, they gather in what used to be Taylor’s faculty apartment to watch a documentary, discuss what’s going on in Darfur or play the guitar propped in a corner of the living room.

“For a lot of students, school is what you do in class,” said Kelly, a junior. “Academic and intellectual discussions aren’t a part of their down time.”

Ongoing intellectual stimulation was Peter Zeitler’s goal when he garnered faculty and administrative support for the new program known as South Mountain Residential College.

South Mountain “is an academic program that for the most part requires students to live together, eat together and study together,” said Zeitler, a professor of earth and environmental science who also directs the residential college that opened in mid-August after more than two years of planning.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kelly and three students sat at the kitchen table and chatted while they piled crepes on a plate, heaped berries and bananas in bowls, and iced a chocolate birthday cake.

Meanwhile, the discussions a few feet away in the living room drifted to the pointlessness of college admissions essays they wrote years ago, the political observations of comedian Stephen Colbert, and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel someone was reading for fun.

By adding South Mountain to its repertoire of housing options, Lehigh joins a growing list of colleges and universities that have added residential colleges since the 1990s.

Residential colleges are small, faculty-led communities that exist within a university and generally include a mix of students from various years and backgrounds.

Higher education consultant Robert O’Hara, who created the Web site http://www.collegiateway.org to encourage more schools to adopt the approach, said residential colleges often have a professor who serves as headmaster and sometimes lives in the residence hall.

Lehigh faculty members who are “friends” of the program are directly involved in many of the residential college’s programs and activities, but don’t live in Taylor College. About half of the 21 students in South Mountain don’t live there either. They’d already committed to living somewhere else by the time the program officially was approved in late spring.

“We’re in the early stages now where we’re feeling our way,” said Zeitler, who added that a live-in faculty headmaster could be a possibility down the road. “The program is evolving as we go along.”

To help the program grow, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Lehigh a three-year, $555,400 grant. The money will be used on such activities as a South Mountain summer planning retreat for students and faculty, faculty-development seminars, events, lectures, and student projects. The program does not cost students more in tuition.

Residential colleges like South Mountain offer a small community—an advantage for students who attend liberal arts colleges—within the context of a large university and its array of course offerings.

Theme houses and honor houses are different from true residential colleges in that they pull together students with the same interests, or only high-achieving students, O’Hara said.

“The idea is to bring together people with many different ideas and interests and abilities and create a collegiate and intimate atmosphere,” he said.

The residential college tradition dates back hundreds of years to Great Britain and was adopted in the United States in the 1930s by Harvard and Yale. Before the 1990s, there were fewer than 10 residential college systems in the United States, O’Hara said.

Now about two dozen U.S. colleges and universities give students the option.

“What drives this movement is the notion that students deserve personal attention, and the desire to divide up big campuses,” said O’Hara, who began to appreciate the benefits of residential colleges while in graduate school at Harvard. “If the only education students are getting is in the classroom, they are being cheated out of the college experience.”

About a decade ago, the University of Pennsylvania overhauled all residential life on its Philadelphia campus and assigned first-year students to residential colleges, said Pamela Robinson, associate director of college houses and academic life.

Penn’s 11 houses all have a mix of freshmen and upperclassmen. The houses have resident faculty members who teach courses there and graduate assistants who advise students about life after college, as well as traditional resident assistants, Robinson said.

From the 1970s through 1998, when the house system was established, Penn had traditional dormitories and living/learning communities with themes for students interested in the same subject matter, she said.

“The houses shrink the psychological size of a large university,” Robinson said. “They provide not just a place to rest and play, but a full range of support for the student.”

Dozens more residential colleges are under construction on U.S. campuses, including Middlebury College in Vermont and Willamette University in Oregon. West Virginia University built a new residence hall in August 2006 that gives first-year students their own multimedia theater, library, resident faculty members and seminars that fulfill general course requirements.

Michael Raposa is associate dean for undergraduate programs at Lehigh and one of the “friends” of South Mountain. He said the idea for a residential college was dreamed up a little over two years ago at a faculty retreat.

“We were convinced that problems and challenges in the 21st century are too complex to tackle from any one perspective or discipline,” Raposa said. “Learning is too important to be confined to the classroom. I knew plenty of students frustrated that the discussion didn’t continue in their lives outside of class.”

Raposa said he and Zeitler are trying to ensure that South Mountain students don’t isolate themselves from students outside the program, which is one of the concerns in an inherently close-knit community.

Robinson said isolation hasn’t been a problem at Penn because of the size of the houses—the smallest has 228 and the largest over 800 residents. If anything, the biggest concern with Penn’s houses has been making sure first-year students needs are met.

“When you put freshmen with upperclassmen, you have to remember that they have very different needs,” she said.

Lehigh’s program is just a fraction of what it soon could be. Zeitler and Raposa plan to expand South Mountain each year by adding a new class of first-year students, until it is 100 students strong and South Mountain members occupy the entire residence hall, instead of two floors of a wing.

South Mountain students can major in whatever they want, but they take one-third of their credits that might have been used for electives in the program, which consists of two courses: Investigations and Seminar.

Seminar class is different every semester. The first class opens with a book or piece of art selected by the guiding professor. As it is discussed, students and the professor decide together what film, book or experience will follow it.

The Investigations class is based on one theme that students interpret in their own way; this year it’s “imagining post-industrial society.” Some of the students have chosen to study their own backyard, with Bethlehem Steel prominently featured in their art work, paper or book project.

In its first year, South Mountain attracted a mix of first-year students, who were e-mailed over the summer about the residential college, and upperclassmen, most of whom were recruited by faculty.

Zeitler said he looked for students with natural intellectual curiosity, but not necessarily perfect grades and SAT scores.

“These are the kids who try to challenge the system,” Zeitler said.

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