The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


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.

From Charter Schools to Charter Colleges?

— In the United States the term charter school refers to a free public school that is funded by tax dollars, but that has been established under an independent charter and given permission to operate with its own board of directors, outside of the existing municipal school bureaucracy. In recent decades many local groups, from parent associations to civic clubs to charitable societies, dissatisfied with low academic standards and bureaucratic bungling, have established hundreds of public charter schools across the United States in an attempt to improve the educational opportunities available to young people.

Can the international movement to establish decentralized residential colleges within larger universities, as recommended here at the Collegiate Way, learn anything from the charter school movement? To answer this question we need to contrast the potential for residential reform on an enormous university campus with the potential for reform on a smaller campus.

On a small campus, either public or private, a residential college system could be fully established within the term of office of a single president or provost. A university of two or three thousand students could easily be divided into somewhere between five and ten colleges in just a few years. The template for doing so is available right here on the Collegiate Way website.

But what about a university of twenty or thirty thousand? Can fifty or sixty residential colleges be established in one administrative lifetime? Large universities can be organized along collegiate lines: Oxford and Cambridge each have more than thirty colleges and they support student populations in the tens of thousands. But their collegiate systems grew up organically over centuries.

Consider the large campus of the University of California at Berkeley as an example. By any academic measure Berkeley is a distinguished institution. But what of student life? Can a university with 24,000 undergraduates—Berkeley’s current population—function as “an alma mater, knowing her children one by one”? The current administrative system that oversees student life at Berkeley is headed by a vice chancellor of student affairs who supervises the work of seven assistant and associate vice-chancellors, seventeen directors, and more than 1000 employees, including entire internal departments of marketing and human resources.

And if that’s the state of things at Berkeley with 24,000 undergraduates, imagine what it’s like at the University of Texas with 37,000 undergraduates.

Is there any hope of salvaging the industrial housing model under which these institutions operate? Probably not through wholesale conversion, simply because of the magnitude of the task. But reform may be possible by piecemeal replacement. We may be able to see the way ahead by looking back to the circumstances that led to the establishment of the original Oxford and Cambridge residential colleges.

A young man studying in a distant city, far from friends and family, was an easy target in the Middle Ages. The rule of law was weak, there was no public police force to speak of, and a host of dubious characters from crooked landlords to sellers of wormy cabbage stood ready to pick a quick penny from the pocket of every passing student.

Aware of these dangers, and motivated by a desire to assist young men hoping to find careers in the church and in public service, medieval philanthropists established boarding houses—residential colleges—to provide safe and stable homes for students who were pursuing university studies. “A collegiate way of living,” the early philanthropists thought, was “much to be preferred to the living so at large.”

These collegiate boarding houses—these residential colleges—were not and are not today degree-granting bodies: the university is the degree-granting body. These first residential colleges, like residential colleges and collegiate houses today, were and are supportive membership societies one belongs to while studying for a university degree.

Could we create independent entities of this kind today, external to the existing housing bureaucracies on big campuses? What would they look like?

We don’t have to imagine them, because they exist. In fully-rounded form, this is what the Oxford and Cambridge colleges still are: legally independent, charitable, residential societies that own property and provide food and lodging to university students. Over the centuries, however, the Oxford and Cambridge colleges have become so intertwined with their respective universities that it is now all but impossible to disentangle them, and so from a practical point of view they are not the best modern-day examples to replicate elsewhere.

But there are simpler examples we can look to, examples which are also complete and successful. Among them are the independent residential colleges at some Canadian and Australian universities. At the University of Waterloo, for example, there are four independent residential colleges, each of which owns its own property and houses Waterloo university students. These colleges are formally church-related, as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges were, but they are open by application to students of any background, and by agreement with the university they also provide office space and other forms of support to some of the institution’s academic programs—and in this way each college has a naturally-associated group of fellows. There are examples in the Spanish-speaking world also, such as the private Alborada residential college in Chile, serving university students in the city of Santiago.

Update · 27 July 2009: Goodenough College in London is another splendid example of a private non-profit residential college. “It is an independent educational charity which receives no state funding and relies instead on the generation of its own income…. The College serves all the academic and professional institutions in London, where its Members study and teach.”

United States readers don’t have to look entirely outside the country for examples, however, because there are a few available here as well (and I’d be pleased to learn of others):

  • International House, Berkeley. Founded in 1930 by Harry Edmonds with a gift from John D. Rockefeller, the I-House at Berkeley is a residential college in just about any sense of the term. Like its east-coast sister-house in New York, Berkeley’s I-House is a non-profit corporation administered by an independent board of trustees; it houses about 600 students (mainly graduate students) in its residential facility; it has its own dining hall, common rooms, and senior staff; and it hosts social, recreational, and cultural events throughout the year.

  • The International Student House in Washington, D.C. Another independent collegiate house managed as a non-profit corporation by its own board of directors, the ISH serves as an academic home for students enrolled in a number of Washington-area colleges and universities.

  • Quincy House in Washington, D.C. An independent residential community with a Catholic affiliation, serving students attending the Catholic University of America and other Washington-area institutions.

  • The Bayridge Residence, the Petawa Residence, and the Westfield Residence. Three independent Catholic-affiliated residential communities for university women, located in Boston, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles respectively.

  • The Scottish Rite Dormitory at the University of Texas. The Scottish Rite Dormitory, sponsored by the Masons, has functioned as a non-profit residential community for female students at the University of Texas since 1922. (Note how these independent collegiate houses tend to arise near large, impersonal, urban universities, just as the Oxbridge colleges did in the Middle Ages.)

These collegiate communities are not commercial, profit-making operations. Running a boarding house as a profit-making business is certainly not a new or distinctive idea, and the commercial student housing market is often touted today as a road to easy riches. Private commercial housing is perfectly fine as a business model, but it’s not the model of interest here, and the fact that the places listed above are privately owned is not important in and of itself. What is important is rather that they see themselves as something more: as independent, self-perpetuating, charitable, residential, educational societies—residential colleges—that admit members who are studying for university degrees.

But is it right to call these entities “charter colleges” by way of comparison with “charter schools”?

In some important respects it is not: these “charter colleges” are not teaching bodies, and they certainly aren’t supported by public funds.

But in another important respect these entities are like charter schools. The parallel is that both charter schools and these independent collegiate houses owe their existence to a common feeling that the existing educational system is deficient in some important way: it’s too bureaucratic, or too neglectful, or too poorly run, or too impersonal, or too minimal. In response to that common feeling, energetic individuals have organized and supplied the want in an independent, charitable, non-commercial manner. Like the founders of charter schools, the founders of these independent residential colleges said, “the students deserve better, and we can do better.” That’s what the founders of the medieval residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge said too.

So to return: What can be done about campus life in the enormous industrial universities that have grown up over the last hundred years? It’s hard to imagine even the most skillful chancellor or president being able to effectively decentralize their existing housing bureaucracies in just one administrative lifetime.

But … it’s easy to imagine an educationally-minded charitable group—a group of alumni, or parents, or a religious organization, or a civic organization, or even a group of faculty—getting together and establishing a single non-profit collegiate society for fifty or a hundred or two hundred students. All that’s needed is a suitable building, and in many urban and suburban areas that wouldn’t be hard to find: a former apartment building, a former hotel, a former convent, a former hospital, a cluster of large homes—any of these could serve as a starting point. (The historic mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston that is home to the Bayridge Residence is a perfect example.) If your building or buildings are large enough you can offer apartments within them to local academics in exchange for helping to support the social and co-curricular life of the resident members—an attractive proposition for many people, especially given current economic conditions—and you have a residential college.

You might even be able to get started by taking existing university housing off the university’s hands. Not every university fills all its spaces, and not every university has the resources to make good educational use of its existing facilities. This is close to what the alumni of Bowles Hall have proposed to do at the University of California: to take the management of their old campus home off the university’s hands and operate it independently as a residential college, similar in many ways to Berkeley’s existing International House. And this is also similar to the way many charter schools are formed, by turning over control of an existing public school building to the new school’s chartered trustees.

The conditions of campus life in today’s large universities didn’t arise overnight—they are the product of decades of administrative centralization and Tayloristic managerialism. Change will not come quickly. And it’s unlikely that a centralized pattern of change will be able to solve all the problems that centralization produced. Piecemeal replacement may well be the solution—an irregular and untidy process, to be sure, but one that often produces the best adapted and most adaptable results.

What will the campuses of the University of California and the University of Texas look like a hundred years from now? Perhaps they will look less like a central planner’s dream and more like the Oxford and Cambridge of centuries past: places of living memory, filled with crooked lanes, hidden gardens, and dozens of warm collegiate societies, knowing their children one by one.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016