The Collegiate Way Comes to Birmingham
20 January 2008 (collegiateway.org) — It was my pleasure this past week to visit and speak about residential colleges at the University of Alabama at Birmingham through the kind offices of Professor Andrew Keitt of UAB’s history department. The faculty, staff, and students were enthusiastic, the meetings were productive, and I hope I was able to contribute as many good ideas as I took away. I’m grateful to Prof. Keitt and all his colleagues for their kind hospitality.
UAB is similar to many mid-sized American universities. It is an urban campus, with about 11,000 undergraduates in all, but with fewer than 2500 in residence. The five-year graduation rate is a discouraging 36%. What can be done along collegiate lines to improve the overall quality of undergraduate life at institutions like UAB?
In considering that question it’s important to remember that when talking about residential colleges the emphasis should be on the word college, not the word residential. The collegiate model is about organizing the life of an institution around permanent, cross-sectional, faculty-led societies of roughly 400 members. These societies (colleges or houses) know their members one by one, give them a home, support them in difficulty, congratulate them in success, link them to their neighbors, and show them the way ahead.
Universities like UAB, with some resident students and an even larger non-resident population, should consider a two-track approach as they work to improve undergraduate life: (1) develop each existing residential building into the home-base for a standard residential college, and (2) reorganize the campus support systems that cater to non-resident students so they operate within decentralized, non-residential houses of 400. Let’s consider each of these tracks in turn.
(1) UAB’s existing residence halls are not perfectly configured for use as residential colleges, but with some modifications they could be made to fit. They all have well-placed central reception areas, and are generally in the 400-resident range (although one at 750 is really too large). The older buildings, dating mainly from the 1970s and 1980s, are poorly supplied with common space, however—a fact that many students immediately reported in my conversations with them, and a significant drawback since good common spaces are fundamental to the communal life of a residential college. And none of the buildings has an existing apartment or attached house that could be used as residential space for a faculty master and dean. But most of these deficiencies could be remedied with local remodeling, and the notion of adding some external common space onto one of the buildings—Rast Hall—is something that had already been discussed. Rast Hall and some of the other residential buildings also have very spacious grounds, and these could easily be developed and put to use in a residential college context.
But even with these renovations, only a small proportion of UAB’s students would benefit, since only a small proportion of them ever live on campus. What can we do for the remainder?
(2) Like every modern university, UAB has a wide variety of student-support offices: academic advising, orientation, counseling, campus activities, career services, student government, and so on. But each of these offices is centralized in some way, and is disconnected both from the other support offices and also from the decentralized academic departments, where advising for upper-division undergraduates usually takes place. From the point of view of an individual student, all these offices and departments present a dis-integrated experience: an experience with no continuity in either space or educational time.
The collegiate solution is to continue to provide all these services, but in a reorganized way that will strengthen the social and educational experience for everyone and that will become a permanent feature of the life of the institution.
Here’s how to do it. Create the equivalent of two half-time positions for every 400 students—not much in the grand scheme of things, and some of the funding can be transferred from existing programs. Appoint senior and junior faculty members to these positions as master and dean of each house of 400. Each year, assign 100 incoming freshmen randomly to each house, replacing 100 seniors who graduate. Organize the new-student orientation program by house so the fledglings will take tours together, attend functions together, and get to know one another as a group. Appoint older students in the house as orientation leaders and peer advisors. Print a facebook for each house—a real facebook—and then create house-based groups at facebook.com, librarything.com, and any number of other online educational services. Organize non-major academic advising by house, so that each house dean will get to know the house members well, and so those house members will remain under the dean’s care throughout their undergraduate tenure. Have the master and the dean invite groups of twenty house members to dinner each month, so that over the course of two years the whole house membership has come to a private dinner. And once or twice a year have a grand sit-down dinner for the entire house in the finest hall you can find. Finally, at the end of the year, organize commencement by house rather than by major, with the house deans leading their own students into the auditorium and the house masters on the stage behind the university president, waiting to cheer on their graduates. In sum, establish all the elements of residential college membership and life, just without the buildings.
This is a straightforward model for the renewal of campus life at any university with a large non-resident population. UAB could easily become a pioneer in this, showing the way for others to follow.
And UAB, like most American universities, does have a genuine collegiate pedigree to draw upon in this work. The University of Alabama at Birmingham is a child of the original University of Alabama, established in 1831 at Tuscaloosa. The founding president of the original University of Alabama was the Rev. Alva Woods, an 1817 graduate of Harvard College, which was itself established in 1636 not on the Continental university model but on the British collegiate model, primarily by graduates of Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. UAB can quite properly describe itself as the great-grandchild of Emmanuel College, and any residential colleges that UAB creates will be Emmanuel’s great-great-grandchildren.
Sir Walter Mildmay would be pleased by this. He established Emmanuel College in 1584, during the reign of Elizabeth I, to (unofficially) support the education of young men with Puritan sympathies who were seeking university degrees. “Sir Walter,” the Queen is said to have remarked, “I hear you have erected a Puritan foundation” at Cambridge. “No, madam,” he evasively replied; “far be it from me to countenance anything contrary to your established laws; but I have set an acorn, which when it becomes an oak, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof.”