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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.

A Collegiate House System for Columbia University?

[Columbia University] — Of the 25 top-ranked universities in the United States, half now have a residential college system in operation or on the drawing board. One distinguished institution that doesn’t is Columbia University in New York. But that could change if student commentator Mark Holden gets his way.

In his opinion column “Enough Thinking—Now It’s Time for Action” in today’s Columbia Spectator, Holden proposes a house system for his home institution:

I do have one large reform to suggest, however, one aimed at solving multiple problems simultaneously. We need some sort of mechanism for improving campus community and student life, not for individual groups of students, but on the macro scale. One might argue that the undergraduate population is simply too large or dispersed to all be placed under one unifying, but still effective, umbrella. I’m going to suggest what multiple universities have already worked out as an effective mechanism for making this happen: the house system.

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow students, this idea strikes many as an anathema, both in principle and to the Columbia way—too insular and cliquey, seems to be the main complaint. [A familiar objection, raised almost every time the residential college model is suggested on any campus. —RJO] However, let me propose an alternate formulation: a house system that builds community around city-going events and NYC-specific knowledge accumulation. At other schools, house systems more often than not are used to build community internally—hence, perhaps, the New Yorkers’ complaints about insularity. What about houses as a home base and support system for forays into the city as well as entrepreneurial activities here on campus?

In principle, at least, such a house system would solve many of the administrative woes we’ve examined in this column. If house overseers are given the authority to apportion funds, approve activities, and the like, the system would establish administration based on relationship and trust rather than on regulation that too often morphs into endless red tape. It solves the complaints many have had about how the process of student-group creation is too rigid, bureaucratic, and protracted. And finally, it builds community not in spite of, but as a direct result of, fostering those things that give Columbia University in the City of New York its unique character.

It’s a thought, anyway. Clear thought leads to effective action, or so has been our motivating principle all semester. The specifics of the proposals presented here aren’t as important as that the ideas be talked about, mashed, manipulated—and ultimately, of course, acted upon. It’s high time for some clear, principled, effective action. Let’s get going.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021