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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.

Ole Miss and the Collegiate Zeitgeist

— An excellent story by Lucy Schultze in today’s edition of The Oxford Eagle perceptively locates the development of a residential college system at the University of Mississippi within the broader context of the international collegiate movement and the changing patterns of residential life on American university campuses. This is fine analytical reporting.

UM aims to draw student life back to campus

A long-term vision taking root at the University of Mississippi would dramatically reverse the trend that’s dispersed students from campus and into apartments and neighborhoods over the past 30 years.

After several years of talk and studies, the university is starting work on the first tangible examples of a new “residential college” concept. The goal: Dividing the student body into smaller units which live together, dine together and learn together as a way of reclaiming Ole Miss’s fading small-college feel.

Three new residence halls—slated for the 20-acre current site of faculty housing off Jackson Avenue—are now being planned for a fall 2009 debut. Meanwhile, university officials are working to prepare a timeline and financing scenarios that could take the concept campus-wide.

Major investments in on-campus housing are on the horizon for the next 15 years to house most of the student body on campus, said Provost Carolyn Staton, a champion of the residential-college concept.

“You’ll see more students living on campus and being more involved in college life,” she said.

“For the community, that will be a very positive difference. The students will still be going down to the Square, but there will be a lot more for them here on campus.”

Historic roots

The residential-college concept hearkens back to the traditions of England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities, and to America’s Yale and Harvard. At Ole Miss, a 23-member task force called by Staton in 2004–05 looked broadly at other modern American models—while also keeping in mind that UM’s own model would be unique.

In its report, the task force noted that residence life on American college campuses had “come full circle” since the 1950s and ’60s. Back then, “dorm parents” or some other adult presence were common in residence halls. But the social changes of the late 1960s led to “greater residential independence” in the 1970s and ’80s, with student housing seeing an “institutional divorce” from academic life.

As the pendulum swings back, the traditional models have returned, the committee found, so that “an adult presence in the residential lives of undergraduates is considered less an intrusion and more an extension of the educational responsibility of the institution.”

Reflecting that shift, the residential-college concept at Ole Miss hangs upon faculty members’ involvement. Each of the three new residence halls—and others, in the future—is to include a wing to house one or two faculty families that would be accessible to students and serve a mentoring and leadership role.

Across the campus, every staff and faculty member is to be affiliated with a college in some way, reflecting a commitment to “commit themselves beyond their individual job descriptions to the entire student experience,” the task force advised.

Faculty support key

Lorinda Krhut, director of student housing, said the concept’s coming from the academic side of campus would be a key factor in deciding its success.

“We’re very fortunate on this campus that the academic area is spearheading this,” she said. “On many campuses, this is something that the student-life area brings up, but you’ve got to have the faculty buy-in.”

As the concept has been discussed around campus, Staton has been encouraged by the eagerness many faculty members have shown.

“We knew people would be excited about getting involved with the students, but they’ve been coming out of the woodwork to tell us,” she said.

Those selected to live in the first residential-college buildings will be faculty who love their disciplines while also showing interest in many different fields, she said.

“We’ll be looking for people who genuinely love working with students,” Staton said. “Some of our faculty want a much more limited role, while others can’t get enough of students.”

The appeal of complimentary on-campus housing will be strong among incoming faculty families, said English professor Colby Kullman, a member of the task force.

“For a young family to be able to have that opportunity would be a big boost for them—to get established in a town where real estate is very expensive, and then move into a home of their own,” he said.

But mainly, the concept is focused on rooting each student in a self-contained community of only about 400 others, within the larger university setting. The goal is for the students to spend three out of four years living in the college house, and to remain a connected member whether they live there or not.

“It’s going to mean the students will have a better sense of belonging,” Kullman said.

“Many of them live off campus and have a circle of friends to hang out with that’s very small. This gives them a chance to have a group to bond with, and I think it’s going to mean much stronger ties.”

New direction

Before the new concept emerges as bricks-and-mortar, Ole Miss will have let more than 30 years pass since it last invested in a new dormitory—Kinard Hall, built in 1975 for male student athletes. It’s since been converted to office space.

Enrollment on the Oxford campus has essentially doubled since the early 1970s, reaching 14,000 today. Meanwhile, space for on-campus housing has declined with the converting of many old dormitories into academic offices.

The campus housed some 3,965 students in 1971, not including the Village family housing. That figure was down to about 3,170 by the late 1990s and today about 3,400 live on campus.

The overflow has poured out of the campus borders and into sprawling apartment complexes and rental houses in Oxford neighborhoods. Coupled with the second-home phenomenon, the growing numbers of students living off-campus has also fueled a flurry of condominium developments around town.

The friction that’s come from students sharing close quarters with residents in neighborhoods has become a defining aspect to community life in Oxford. At City Hall in recent years, those interactions have prompted everything from beefed-up noise-violation laws to penalties for trashing your own front yard during a party.

Oxford leaders have discussed among themselves an understanding that the university was “getting out of the housing business” and that the issues were theirs to handle for the long term.

“This is a complete turnaround from what we heard previously,” said Janice Antonow, Ward 3 alderman.

“As it develops, it will definitely affect the traffic on places like University Avenue during the day, since students who live in those residence halls will be walking to class,” she said. “It will also probably cut down considerably on the construction of these huge new apartment complexes.”

Shifting priorities

From the university’s perspective, the absence of new residence halls been more a matter of spending priorities than policy decisions not to expand student housing, Staton said.

Starting in 2001, the university undertook the first phase of a $70 million renovation plan for its residence halls, dubbed “The Phoenix Project.” The first phase of about $20 million was mostly completed with the renovations of Hefley and Deaton halls.

But since then, Krhut said, the focus has turned more toward making “life safety” upgrades—like smoke alarms and sprinkler systems—in all the halls, rather than overhauling one at a time.

With numbers of incoming freshmen continuing to rise—and a requirement that freshmen live on campus—Ole Miss held a housing lottery for upperclassmen for the first time this year. As of this week, some 113 women and 55 men were still on a waiting list for upperclass-housing spots for next year. No new rooms are expected to open until the new halls debut in 2009.

“Until we open up those new beds, it’s going to be ‘crunch city’ as long as our enrollment numbers continue to rise,” Krhut said.

The three new halls are expected to cost a total of $70 million to $80 million—although that’s hard to determine, since they’re still in the initial programming phase of the design process. The university is working with a specialized Virginia firm, Hansbury Evans Wright Vlattas & Co., as well as Mississippi architects Rob Farr and Jim Eley on the project. Funding is likely to come in the form of bonds through the Educational Building Corp., Staton said.

Aside from the big one—funding—the challenges to taking the residential-college model campuswide include determining how it will work with the university’s Greek system, which includes 35 percent of undergraduates. The state Institutions of Higher Learning board also has a policy against co-ed housing, meaning it would be impossible to house men and women on different floors of the same hall, in order to have gender balance within the colleges.

“We want each one to be a microcosm of the whole university,” Staton said. “Students like the freedom and independence of living off campus, and I hope we’re able to make this a more-free experience for them.

“There’s a lot of loneliness out there—when you go to class and go back home and sit around with your roommates. There seems to be an unsatisfied desire to have more. We just haven’t been able to offer more, so far.”

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