Visiting Vassar’s House System
2 April 2009 (collegiateway.org) — It was my pleasure last week to visit and speak on the lovely campus of Vassar College in New York, through the kind invitation of Mr. Luis Inoa, Vassar’s Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life. I had a wonderful time, I met many smart and dedicated people, and I’m grateful indeed to Mr. Inoa and to his colleagues for their generous hospitality during my stay.
Vassar was established in the nineteenth century as a women’s college, and today it is one of the most selective co-educational liberal arts institutions in the United States. For many years it has placed faculty in residence in its dormitories, and it has many of the elements of a residential college system—a house system—already in place. In thinking about how Vassar might strengthen its existing structures and nudge them in the direction of a more fully-articulated house system, I’d suggest focusing on four areas that could benefit from further development. These four areas might be open to improvement on your campus as well.
Membership and identity. Vassar’s existing houses are thought of primarily as residential units, each one based in a single building that houses freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. A separate senior housing complex is located elsewhere on campus, and when seniors move into that group of buildings they lose their connection with their houses. The first clear thing that Vassar could do is strengthen the notion that its houses are membership units rather than buildings. The seniors who move out should retain their house membership, continue to participate in house life, and graduate with their houses at the end of their college tenure. Similarly, those students who spend all or part of their junior year studying abroad should remain members of their houses while they are away—and serve as a vital resource for the younger house members who may wish to follow in their footsteps.
One simple tool to encourage this sense of continuing membership is a printed facebook. Every residential college should have one, distributed at the beginning of each year, and the facebook should include not only the college’s (or house’s) members, both students and faculty, but also building staff and other important people who frequent the house facilities. In response to the question, What is the house?, the facebook answers, These people are the house.
Other devices that support community identity in a residential college system include signs and symbols of various kinds, and some of Vassar’s houses have already spontaneously adopted house colors to identify themselves (although these haven’t always been consistent from year to year). Heraldic designs have traditionally been used around the world to represent residential colleges as corporate bodies also, and such designs would fit perfectly here as well. Since many of Vassar’s houses are named for women it would be entirely in keeping with centuries of artistic tradition to place their heraldic designs on a lozenge rather than a shield-shape, thereby indicating female rather than male identity.
Common spaces. Nearly all of the existing Vassar houses are fortunate in having excellent common rooms already in place. These could be enhanced as junior common rooms with the addition of a few reference books, magazine subscriptions, and green plants; they could be neatened up with the aid of individual floor plans; and those main common rooms that presently house televisions could have their TVs shifted out to less central locations (and they could be replaced with pianos).
The principal common room of Olivia Josselyn House. This is an ideal residential college junior common room, large enough to support multiple seating circles. (A posted floor plan would help students and staff keep it looking neat.) The fireplace is said to be functional but not available for use due to fire regulations—that’s surely something to be discussed with the campus fire marshall, since a working fireplace can be of great social and educational value.
All of the Vassar houses are also exceptionally fortunate in having a small grounds area around their existing buildings that could easily be marked off and distinguished as belonging to house rather than to the campus at large. This doesn’t mean walling the space off behind a gate: it means nothing more than adding, say, a three-foot-tall hedge, or some ornamental shrubs on each corner that emphasize the points of entrance. This kind of semi-enclosure is very important in promoting a sense of ownership and responsibility among the house members, and green-thumbed residents can even be encouraged and supported in the enrichment of their house grounds with useful and ornamental plants of every kind.
Emma Hartman Noyes House, designed in 1958 by Eero Saarinen and recently renovated. This front entrance illustrates how a minor adjustment to the landscaping could create a wonderful house lawn. Just out of view to the right is a dirt path frequented by all students as they cut across the campus. The hedge shown here, which cramps the building in its present location, just needs to be moved to the right edge of the visible lawn area, alongside the dirt track. This would mark the track as an official path (since it’s foolish to try to prevent its use), and at the same time create a wonderful semi-circular Noyes House lawn.
A regular rhythm of life. The one thing, more than any other, that gives cohesion to a residential college community is a regular rhythm of life, week after week, month after month, year after year. The Vassar houses have a number of events taking place in them each term, but these have tended to be ad hoc and not part of a consistent pattern. I’d get a regular pattern underway by hosting a house tea every week, beginning at the very start of the year and continuing without fail all the way to graduation. From this root a hundred other branches will spontaneously sprout, because when clever people get to know one another well they come up with all kinds of clever things to do.
Although the Vassar houses do not now have separate dining halls, the central campus dining facility, called ACDC, does have a number of distinct seating areas that could be used weekly or monthly for special house dinners. Here I might start (always at the very beginning of the year) with a monthly house-only dinner, with each house having its own special day. Tablecloths in the house colors, a special house-invented menu item, and some musical accompaniment in the background, and you’re all set.
Faculty leadership. As noted above, the Vassar houses do have live-in faculty, but these two or three people are the only faculty members who are associated with each house at any given time, and their role is somewhat ambiguous. To diversity the house community and multiply opportunities for involvement it certainly would be beneficial to assemble a whole body of fellows and associates, most of then non-resident, for each of the houses. These senior members (so called in contrast to the students, who are the junior members) would come to tea each week and dinner each month, and serve as an informal advising network for everyone in the house. And they would also constitute a pool from which a live-in house principal could be drawn whenever a vacancy occurs.
The role of the live-in house principal could be more clearly articulated as an important leadership position as well, rather than simply as a someone who functions as a take-it-or-leave-it resource. This does not mean the house principal should manage everything from plumbing to counseling on a daily basis. It simply means that he or she is seen and understood to be the senior member of the community. As with the facebook, when a visitor asks, Who is in charge of this house?, the members should reply, The principal is in charge of this house.
A large part of a house principal’s leadership in this context is exercised simply by being present and visible. During the first week of the year after the new freshmen arrive, for example, the principals of all the houses should walk through the corridors of their buildings almost every night, saying hello, asking friendly questions, and taking the temperature of the society.
The principals should also function importantly as moral voices within their houses. Again, this does not mean sneaking around with a clipboard to take legalistic notes on student conduct—that’s a pejorative stereotype that has been pushed so effectively that many people can’t even imagine an alternative. Being a moral voice simply means acting visibly and publicly like a responsible adult. It means publicly complimenting people who are considerate, while at the same time speaking sharply to those who act irresponsibly. It means—in public view of the students—straightening up rooms as you pass through them. It means showing courtesy to the cleaning staff and the groundskeepers as well as to fellow faculty members. This kind of simple moral leadership emboldens the responsible but quiet majority who need to know that good manners are right and proper, and that it is permissible and appropriate to speak up when an irresponsible minority is infringing on their right to peace and quiet. It means being “fierce to the foolish and kind to the crumpled.”
Vassar already has social and architectural elements in place that almost any college or university in the world would envy. With only a few adjustments to those existing elements it could easily make campus life stronger and richer for everyone. Your own campus may not be as elegant as Vassar’s, but even so, many of the same collegiate design principles are still there for the taking, ready to be adapted to your own circumstances as you see fit.