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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.

Academic Advising in House Systems and Residential College Systems

— Establishing a house system or residential college system within a larger institution isn’t a way of “having classes in the dorms.” It’s a way of organizing the overall life of the institution so that everyone, whether student or faculty member, has the opportunity to belong and contribute to a small, cross-sectional membership society—a great household.

One of the distinctive features of a university organized into residential colleges or houses—a collegiate university—is the way in which academic and personal advising is provided for students. Several discussions I’ve had in recent weeks about how universities configure academic advising have prompted me to put together this sketch of how advising is typically structured within a residential college system. I’ve written it as a free-standing how-to memorandum, and it might be a useful document to circulate for discussion if you’re considering the residential college model on your campus.

Note that residence itself doesn’t really figure in any important way in the arrangement I describe. A decentralized “vertical” advising system of this kind can serve as the basis for a non-residential house system just as well as a fully-residential collegiate system. For brevity’s sake I use the term house in this outline in preference to residential college, but the two designations should be understood to be interchangeable.

For a more discursive consideration of advising within a house system, going beyond this simple how-to outline, I strongly recommend Mark Ryan’s book A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education.

Academic Advising Under the “House Model” of Organization

Under the house model or residential college model of organization, the student population of an institution is divided into permanent cross-sectional units of roughly 300–400 members each. These membership units are called “houses” or “colleges.” They are not buildings, but rather groups of people, like the House of Representatives or the College of Cardinals. (See the Collegiate Way’s Four Foundations page for more background on the residential college model in general.)

Each house is headed by a faculty master and a dean, like the captain and first officer of a ship. The master is in charge of the house as a whole, and the dean serves as the principal non-departmental advisor to the student members. Some universities use the title senior tutor in place of dean, and a few use director of studies, although that is more often a departmental title.

The house model places great emphasis on the development of long-term relationships between students and their advisors. It is fundamental to this model that the house units be both permanent and cross-sectional (that is, they should include students from all majors and all classes). It is not necessary for them to have any formal curricular components, although they may.

Each house typically has its own office and common space, and in a residential college system its own residential space as well. The house dean works out of the house office in close cooperation with the master and any other support staff, and the house office serves as the depository of record for each student’s personal file. Because each house is a cross-sectional unit, the intake for a house of 400 is about 100 per year, to replace the graduating seniors; the rising seniors, juniors, and sophomores continue as members from one year to the next. Thus while the overall advising “load” may be high, the number of new faces each year is kept manageable. (In a two-year institution I would reduce the size of each house from 400 to 200 so that the annual intake will not increase, and because there will be a shorter period of time available to establish relationships.)

Although the duties of the house dean may vary from institution to institution, as well as by mutual agreement between the dean and the master in any given house, in general house deans are responsible for:

  1. Pre-major academic advising for all students in the house. This begins at the time of admission, when students are assigned to their houses and their files are placed in the house office, and continues up to the point where they choose a major and are assigned to a departmental faculty advisor.

  2. Continuing general-purpose, non-departmental advising for all students in the house throughout their academic careers. In this capacity the dean’s office serves as a clearinghouse for information on fellowships, study abroad, changes of major, withdrawals, transfers, and similar matters. Although house deans may not be the final authority on any of these topics, because they maintain the primary ongoing relationship with each individual student they function as the go-to people for a wide range of questions and can provide referrals to other university offices and departments as needed.

  3. Non-clinical pastoral support and all-around encouragement for all students in the house. In this capacity house deans work closely with the masters and other members of the house staff to support a rich fabric of social and co-curricular opportunities for all house members. They also typically handle minor disciplinary matters that don’t call for legalistic proceedings. (A colleague once described this part of the job as being “fierce to the foolish and kind to the crumpled.”)

  4. Teaching one course per year in the dean’s own academic discipline. This may be done preferentially in the spring term, since advising responsibilities are often heavier in the fall. The teaching requirement keeps the house dean in active contact with the curriculum and the classroom, it demonstrates to students that the dean is not only an advisor but also a scholar, and it ensures that the house dean has professional standing vis-à-vis the faculty at large. This is also an attractive configuration for the academic departments because it may allow them to provide course coverage in specialty areas for which a full-time faculty position cannot be justified.

  5. Standing in for the house master when he or she is not available. As the “first officer” of the house, the dean presides at house functions when the master is absent, and represents the house to the university and the community at large when needed. Sometimes this relationship is formalized with the title “dean and vice-master” or “dean and associate master.”

Houses and residential colleges are academic units of an institution, and so the professional qualifications for the position of house dean typically include: a Ph.D. in some discipline taught in the institution; undergraduate teaching experience; broad experience in the liberal arts and familiarity with university operations; and on-campus residential experience, since house deans are expected to reside in their houses. Appointment as a house dean also usually carries non-tenured faculty standing at the rank of lecturer, instructor, senior lecturer, or something similar, and candidates may be hired from outside the institution as well as from inside. The hiring official is usually either the provost, the campus-wide dean of undergraduates, or some other academic officer of similar rank.

While the house dean is the focal point for student advising and support, it is a mistake to see the house dean’s office as the exclusive support provider in the house. Houses and residential colleges, as permanent cross-sectional societies, build up a great deal of social capital over time, and this allows their members to be embedded in a network of mutual aid that extends well beyond the house dean’s office. Because houses are cross-sectional, for example, mentoring relationships naturally develop between older and younger students (aided and abetted by the work of the dean’s office). And because houses include not only undergraduate members but also faculty fellows, community and alumni associates, and graduate students serving as resident tutors, career contacts and academic recommendations are easily acquired.

House systems and residential college systems are tried-and-true arrangements found at many of the best universities in the world. The dense and enduring network of advising and support that they provide for their members is one of the most important contributors to their success.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016