How to Sharply Improve the Quality of Residence Life
7 March 2009 (collegiateway.org) — A story by Patricia Cohen in yesterday’s New York Times reports what is certainly not news to any junior person in the academic world these days: job openings are vanishing, searches are being cancelled, non-tenured lecturers are being laid off, and previously-announced growth is being put on hold. The headline says “Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times,” but anticipate suggests something yet to come. The Times editors are behind the times—the hard times are already here.
Can anything be done? In one area a great deal can be done.
Smart leaders know how to turn a crisis into an opportunity, and the academic hiring crisis presents American higher education with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to sharply improve the quality of campus residential life across the country. This can be done at almost no extra cost, in just one or two years. Every college or university president in the United States who wants to leapfrog the competition can do this right now:
Fill every open residence life position in your institution with someone who has a Ph.D.
As of this writing there are 195 open residence life positions advertised at HigherEdJobs.com. Except for a very few that are highly specialized (campus locksmith, anyone?), nearly all these positions could be filled by people who already hold Ph.D.’s in the arts and sciences, and nearly all of them pay as much if not more than adjunct faculty positions. Nearly all of them come with free housing as well. If we add in many of the over 300 open positions in student affairs, campus activities, and student life, we would introduce almost 500 new positions into the current academic job market.
Scan down the list of openings for Resident Directors, Hall Directors, Area Coordinators, Assistant Directors, Community Directors, and Directors of Residential Education, and imagine them all filled with experienced teachers and accomplished scholars who could model university life, elevate the tone of the residence halls, and enrich the educational experience of every student by teaching with-out the curriculum all year long. The scope of these positions is roughly equivalent to the scope of a residential college dean or master position. And yet in the organizational hierarchy found on most campuses, especially public campuses, people with academic Ph.D.’s are explicitly locked out of them. The most professional educators on campus—the faculty—are prevented from serving in one of the most important educational environments in the institution—the residence halls—and from contributing there to much-needed residence life reform. And by configuring these positions so the academic faculty members holding them will still be able to teach one or two courses in their specialty each year—the usual assignment for a residential college master or dean—valuable depth can be maintained in the curriculum that might otherwise be lost to the next round of faculty reductions.
What distinguishes top-ranking universities from lower-ranking universities? Top-ranking universities put experienced academics with Ph.D.’s in these residential positions. If you’re a smart university president and want to improve the standing and the educational quality of your institution, do what the top-ranking institutions do.
Given competent training, the practical knowledge needed to manage a residence hall of two or three hundred students at the basic level found on most campuses can be learned in just a few days, and the rules and regulations one has to know can be reduced to a few pages. Any experienced academic with a humane outlook and a talent for getting along with students can do the job easily, and many will find it deeply rewarding. Some will find it to be the most rewarding educational role they will ever have. Are these positions a good fit for every faculty member? Of course not—no position is. But today these jobs are walled off even from those faculty members who would flourish in them, and the students are worse off for it.
Do you want to help initiate a major improvement in the quality of residential life at your institution, while at the same time helping to reduce faculty layoffs? Then forward this post to your university president today.
Update · 8 August 2010: Many people are now talking and writing about the impending collapse of the higher education bubble. How should an institution manage such an event? Any college or university that follows the recommendations outlined above would sharply strengthen itself by concentrating its core resources, improving the educational climate, and reducing non-educational bureaucracy. Heck, moving in a collegiate direction would even help to dismantle the corrupt university sports industry. (Talk about a bubble!) And extra-mural entrepreneurs who don’t want to wait for their local campus to take these steps can even do it on their own with “charter colleges.”