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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.

Students Against Theme Halls

— Theme halls are a frequent target of criticism here at the Collegiate Way. Unlike cross-sectional residential colleges which offer their members the full benefits of diversity, segregated theme halls group already-like-minded people together. They run counter to the ideal of liberal education.

One institution that has long had a mix of both cross-sectional residential colleges and theme-based communities is Northwestern University in Illinois. But in an opinion piece in today’s edition of North by Northwestern, undergraduate Amanda Lerner questions whether those theme halls really work, and she asks if they shouldn’t all be replaced with cross-sectional residential colleges. “Every dorm on campus should have the benefits of a residential college,” Lerner writes, “without the [topical] label or a theme.”

On a campus where almost everyone seems to have at least six different areas of interest, it seems silly to pigeonhole students into just one area. Themed residential colleges were originally meant, not just for people majoring in those areas, but for anyone with extracurricular interest in them. Yet for most, the theme either gets lost in the dorm or the same kids end up there each year, which earns a dorm a bad or antisocial reputation. And with the plethora of clubs that Northwestern offers—anywhere from the Triathlon Club to the Outing Club—students can now join as many groups as they like, eliminating the need to live in a dorm geared towards one theme….

Of course, residential colleges offer things to students that a regular dorm, even a small dorm, cannot…. Willard and Shepard [two of Northwestern’s cross-sectional colleges] have a rivalry that’s been going on for decades. And an RC can help connect a student with more faculty, especially the master of that RC, and have faculty be a part of their day-to-day life. So why can’t all dorms offer these benefits of an RC, without isolating themselves into one theme?

Yale University’s Residential College system is campus-wide; each and every freshman is assigned to live in one of twelve of them. Normally, students remain a member of the same residential college throughout their time on-campus. The RCs don’t have a particular theme; they are just another community for support for students within a large campus. Let’s make Northwestern’s RC system the same way. Residential colleges can be a community within a larger community, offer extra faculty support and host events in Chicago: These all sound like benefits that every student should have. If Northwestern restructured its entire housing system to resemble Yale’s, all students would end up with the benefits of a residential college without the restrictions that a theme places on them—the best of both worlds.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014