A Residential College is a Great Household
21 February 2008 (collegiateway.org) — What is a residential college? I often explain the idea by saying that a residential college is a society of people above all else—it is a great household. The key relation is membership, not residence, and while a residential college ordinarily has a building or group of buildings that its members occupy, it is the members, not the building, that constitute the college, just as it is the House and Senate, not the Capitol, that constitute the Congress. As the historian Frederick Artz has said, a college—a collegium—is built of men, not things.
In G.H. Martin and J.L.R. Highfield’s excellent History of Merton College, Oxford, we find the same view expressed:
A college [in the broad etymological sense] is essentially and simply an association, a group of people joined together for a particular purpose. The word university originally had similar connotations, and it is not beyond imagination that either should have taken on the other’s meaning. As it happens, and following the example set by Walter de Merton more than seven hundred years ago, colleges have come to be seen as constituents of universities, rather than the other way about. […]
Academic colleges [that is, residential colleges within universities] are complex bodies, and although their primary purpose, which is to maintain and promote learning, can readily be stated, it is apt to attract less attention than the means which they deploy to that end, and the places in which the work is done. Few members of colleges, even their bursars, can hold every aspect of the corporate life in view, though it may be that bursars come closest to the truth. What we understand today by a college is, just as it was in the Middle Ages, a device for getting things done in a domestic setting. A college is, first and last, a household.
The language of membership, as used here and by other Oxbridge-style residential colleges since the Middle Ages, is natural and correct. But the language of membership is conspicuously absent from nearly all discourse on higher education in the United States today, where you are more likely to find students described as customers than as members.