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


Objections to the Residential College Model

People unfamiliar with the structure and life of residential colleges and collegiate universities often raise a number of objections when residential college systems are proposed at their institutions. Some of these objections are listed below, with replies to each. Most of these objections arise from misunderstandings of the idea, or from familiarity with only one of several possible collegiate arrangements. For more general information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

1. “The residential college model requires extensive changes to the curriculum.”

Reply: The creation of one or more residential colleges on a campus does not necessarily require any changes to the curriculum at all. At a number of institutions, such as Harvard and Yale, the residential colleges are almost entirely social and co-curricular communities, not instructional units. It is certainly possible to establish curricula within residential colleges, and some institutions do this, especially with introductory courses. But it is not an essential component. My own recommendation for those establishing new residential colleges is to have no courses for the first year or two, just to get the institution in place, and then to begin a series of one-hour tutorials taught by fellows of the college on topics selected by the membership. A required one-hour tutorial for all freshmen that introduces them to the history of their university and to the tradition of liberal education would also be an excellent offering. This should not be a content-free study skills course of the “University Studies” type that is popular on many campuses, but rather a substantive introduction to the idea of liberal education.

2. “The residential college model requires extensive new construction.”

Reply: Most universities have some kind of dormitory system, and it is by no means necessary to tear these buildings down and start from scratch when establishing residential colleges. While it is true that purpose-built buildings are always best, existing buildings can be adapted for use as residential colleges in most cases, and buildings undergoing renovation can be adjusted to fit a collegiate purpose. My own experience in establishing Strong College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro showed that an enormous amount could be done even with a building that was not well designed from a collegiate point of view. High-rise dormitories are probably the most difficult buildings to use for residential colleges, but these should be torn down in any event, regardless of any plans for residential colleges. Just as cities across the United States are tearing down high-rise public housing projects, so also should universities tear down high-rise dormitories as barbarous products of the architectural folly of the 1960s. In the immortal words of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”

3. “Faculty will not participate in residential colleges.”

Reply: Some faculty will not participate in anything, just as some students will not participate in anything. Experience shows, however, that many faculty will readily participate in collegiate life and will often revel in it. One faculty member described her association with Strong College as “one of the richest experiences of [her] professional life,” and another said that it had given him “hope about what higher education can do.” New faculty in particular, just like new students, find membership in a college to be especially valuable to them, and a college system can be an important contributor to faculty development within an institution. One of the Strong College fellows wrote, “I came to UNCG as a new faculty member, and Strong College saved me. It made me feel like I was part of the community.” Unfortunately, most university faculty today have no experience of the kind of environment that residential colleges provide (unless they attended small liberal arts colleges themselves) and so are in need of education; but learning new things is something that most faculty do well. It would be extremely simple to create a system of incentives having to do with parking, dining, advising, university service, and various other functions that would encourage faculty involvement in residential colleges. The obstacle is less likely to be the faculty themselves (although they may need to be made more familiar with the idea), but rather the existing institutional disincentives to their participation.

4. “This is an untested idea. More research is needed before it can be adopted.”

Reply: Far from being untested, the residential college model is one of the oldest forms of academic organization in existence. It has been tested for 700 years and is now in use in Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries, and a large proportion of the best universities in the world have residential college systems. The collegiate model is based on elementary notions about education and human behavior that can hardly be disputed: students learn better when they are seen as individuals rather than as part of an anonymous crowd; contact between students and faculty is important; diverse communities teach people more about life than monocultures do; chaotic surroundings inhibit learning while safe and stable ones promote it; and so on. While research for its own sake can always be interesting, practical solutions to the poverty of campus life, solutions that are clear and that can be easily implemented, are needed now. These solutions are at hand in residential colleges, and a residential college can be created in an existing dormitory with only one year of advance planning.

5. “Residential colleges may be fine for ancient and wealthy elite schools like Harvard, but not for my state university.”

Reply: A collegiate structure has nothing whatever to do with either wealth or age. In the United States alone, the University of California at Santa Cruz was established from scratch on the collegiate model in the 1960s; Rice University in Texas is arranged on the collegiate model; the University of Virginia, another state university, recently established its second college and is planning more; Murray State University in Kentucky and Truman State University in Missouri converted entirely to the collegiate model in the past few years; the University of Southern California has established a series of residential colleges; and the list goes on. Creating one or more residential colleges is a matter of arranging the resources that already exist; it is not necessarily a matter of acquiring new resources, either financial or physical. And as a matter of historical fact, while some of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges are centuries old, others have been established as recently as the 1970s, and the first residential colleges at Harvard and Yale were built in the 1930s. If our students do not tend to come from “elite” backgrounds (whatever that might mean) then we have all the more obligation to provide them with the best environment that we possibly can, and not let our own prejudices be an obstacle to their personal and educational development.

6. “Students don’t want to have anything to do with faculty outside of the classroom and they prefer to live in dormitories or apartments with as little adult supervision as possible.”

Reply: Good students prefer a civilized family-like environment to an isolated apartment or a wild dormitory filled with vandals and drunks. Good students come to a university hoping to meet and get to know interesting adults who can serve as personal and intellectual examples to them in their own lives. They look forward to coming home each day to their college and telling the faculty about the great day they had, or the terrible day they had, or how they love their parents, or how they hate their parents, or about the wondrous thing they learned today about Greek archeology or financial accounting or child development. It is our obligation as educators to distinguish what good students deserve from what irresponsible students want, and to provide the former while denying the latter. To do any less is to abrogate our professional responsibility.

7. “Only half our students live on campus, so we can’t set up residential colleges.”

Reply: This objection arises from a nomenclatural problem, but the problem is only nomenclatural. It is unfortunate that the term “residential” has been attached to the collegiate idea, because although most collegiate communities are primarily residential, the entire membership certainly needn’t be. The term “university college” is used at some institutions, and it is perhaps clearer though not as familiar. Remember that a college is a body of people, a society—it is not a building. While it is probably necessary to have a headquarters of some kind, it is in no way necessary for all members of a “residential” college to be in residence; indeed, a certain proportion of non-resident members will add to a college’s social diversity. (At some universities the non-resident members of colleges are called “livers-out.”) Non-resident members are full members in every respect, and should have keys to college facilities, should participate in college events, and should hold college offices. If you have a large proportion of non-resident members in your college, a college dining room will be especially important as a social center. The advantages offered today by electronic communication make it especially easy to maintain contact with and create a sense of community among all a college’s members, both resident and non-resident, through mailing lists, discussion groups, and similar social structures.

8. “I teach at a liberal arts college. The residential college model doesn’t apply to us because we are a ‘college’ already.”

Reply: Residential colleges are indeed designed to provide the same atmosphere that liberal arts colleges provide, while existing within a larger university. But many liberal arts colleges today are not as small as they once were. The founders of those colleges might be shocked to find that a student population of three or four thousand is sometimes considered small. The residential colleges at both Harvard and Yale Universities were established in the 1930s when those institutions had about 2600 undergraduates each, a population that was regarded as much too large to be socially cohesive. Large liberal arts colleges can benefit greatly from being divided into smaller communities of about 400 students and faculty, each such community with special traditions of its own. (They can be called “houses” as they are at Harvard if the word “college” is a problem.) Far from weakening the identity of the institution as a whole, these small communities can energize the institution by creating a vibrant system of friendly internal rivalries.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021