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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.

Visiting Virginia’s Brown College on Monroe Hill

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

The south entrance to Brown College at the University of Virginia. Photo by RJO.

— It was my great privilege last month to visit and speak at Brown College at the University of Virginia, one of UVA’s three residential colleges. The visit came about through the kind offices of Prof. Carl Trindle, Brown’s long-time principal, who is stepping down this summer after many years of distinguished service. A computational chemist by trade, Carl served as Brown College’s director of studies before he became principal, and in both offices he led the college from strength to strength. He is being succeeded this coming year by Drs. Jennifer Geddes and Charles Mathewes, both of UVA’s Department of Religious Studies, and my talk at Brown was part of a day of celebration in honor of their appointment.

The residential colleges at UVA have been very successful, and they were championed in their early growth and development by the university’s long-term president, John Casteen. And yet despite these successes, and Casteen’s support, UVA’s collegiate system hasn’t been expanded further for some years. Perhaps—and I speak only as an outsider—the clear call for renewal became overwhelmed by the clamor of can’t-do bureaucracy. Whatever the case may be, the existing UVA residential colleges do provide their students with just the kind of experience Thomas Jefferson envisaged when he founded the University of Virginia: each college is “an academical village” where students and faculty live and learn throughout the year.

Brown College was established in the 1980s in a collection of pre-existing campus buildings, and given the physical constraints those buildings imposed on it, it has adapted to its surroundings well. It is just far enough off the beaten path to provide a sense of physical separation, but its resident members need only dash across the street and a couple of lovely lawns to make it to the center of the university grounds.

One of the things that makes a college a residential college is that the heads of the house live there. Residential colleges typically provide housing for the master and the dean (or in UVA’s case, the principal and the director of studies), and at Brown College this is magnificently accomplished by way of Monroe Hill House, a former home of U.S. President James Monroe, now adjacent to the student residential blocks. (The central core of the UVA grounds, laid out by Jefferson, had once been part of Monroe’s farm.)

As its annual reports attest and as I saw first hand, the life of Brown College throughout the year is filled with social events, traditions (James Monroe’s birthday!), discussion groups, visiting dignitaries, and fun. One of the college’s exemplary offerings is the one-credit course called UVA Backstage that it has designed for its new student members. This is not a “University 101” fluff course that teaches freshmen how to make friends and keep a calendar; it is a rich cultural introduction to a great center of American history and learning, taught by faculty. And the students in the course make friends naturally along the way.

But let’s let some captioned pictures tell us more—pictures of early spring at a fine Virginia college.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

One of the internal half-courtyards of Brown College, with student residences, arranged staircase-style, on the left. Most of these student housing blocks were built in the 1920s and were incorporated into Brown College when it was established in the 1980s. Photo by RJO.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

Another internal residential courtyard within Brown College. Many of the college’s residential buildings are connected by covered walkways, adding to the sense of connection and enclosure, while at the same time not making the college feel like a walled compound. Photo by RJO.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

Monroe Hill House, the Brown College principal’s residence. The oldest sections of the house, built in the late 1700s, were the home and law office of James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States. The arcaded range extending to the left bends around to enclose the lawn on two sides and it contains the college library and administrative offices. The student buildings shown in the previous photos are behind the house and to the left. Photo by RJO.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

A reception, with musical accompaniment, in Monroe Hill House, the Brown College principal’s residence. The home provided for the head-of-house in a residential college is an official residence and must be suitable for entertaining both visitors and members of the college. Monroe Hill House has a wide front hallway and three large sitting rooms on the first floor, each of which is big enough to accommodate multiple conversation circles. The room shown here became a impromptu theater the next evening for a showing and group discussion of a recent documentary film. Photo by RJO.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

Built in the mid-1800s as the first UVA student housing that was not part of Jefferson’s original configuration, this range of rooms attached to Monroe Hill House now contains the Brown College administrative offices and library. Photo by RJO.

[Brown College at Monroe Hill, University of Virginia]

The Brown College library, renamed the Sally Brown Reading Room in honor of a recent donor. Sharp-eyed bibliophiles will recognize the red and green “Loebs” on the top shelf, a series already recommended here as a fine core for a residential college library. Photo by RJO.

[“Through wisdom is an house builded and by knowledge shall the chambers be filled.”]

The inscription over Henry Bacon’s Senff Gates along the eastern border of the UVA campus. Although these gates are not part of one of the university’s residential colleges, this sentiment, from Proverbs 24.3, could well serve as a universal motto for all collegiate societies around the world.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014