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Recommended Reading on Residential Colleges

Published literature on residential college systems and house systems is not extensive, and much of what has been written exists only in the brochures, handbooks, and other ephemera that collegiate universities themselves produce in the course of their normal operation. Fortunately much of this information is now available on individual residential college websites and can there serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for any college officer. Below I present a short list of printed resources that can get readers started, and from which other sources can be found. Some of these items are also included in an informal list of residential college materials that I have posted on Amazon.com, as well as in a similar but broader list of works on higher education reform. For additional information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Note: The Collegiate Way news items labelled “Readings on History and Theory” also include many recommended readings on the origins and implications of the residential college model.

Contents of this page

1. Specific Works on Residential Colleges

The most important book now available on residential college life is Mark B. Ryan’s collection of essays A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education (New Haven: Jonathan Edwards College, 2001). Harvard and Yale Universities began the modern tradition of residential colleges in the United States in the 1930s, consciously copying the earlier models of Oxford and Cambridge. Dr. Ryan’s volume grew out of his many years of service as dean of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale, and it concludes with an account of his work as one of the founders of the residential college system at the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla, Mexico. If you read only one book about residential colleges, this is the one to read.

A paper of my own that is based on material from the Collegiate Way website, “How to build a residential college” (Planning for Higher Education, 32.2: 52–57, 2001), summarizes my recommendations for the establishment of residential colleges, and two further essays, in the London Times Higher Education Supplement (20 August 2004) and Inside Higher Ed (28 November 2006), can both serve as good introductions to the residential college idea for new readers.

Another paper of mine, “American higher education and the ‘collegiate way of living’” (Community Design, 30.2: 10–21, 2011), reviews the residential college idea in the context of the two great traditions, British and Germanic, that have influenced the structure of higher education in the United States. This paper was published in both English and Chinese (as 美国高等教育和 “学院制生活”).

A delightful residential college memoir is Polly Stone Buck’s The Master’s Wife (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1989), which provides a glimpse into the life of Branford College at Yale in the 1940s and ’50s. Despite the changes in manners over the years, anyone with experience inside a residential college will immediately recognize Mrs. Buck’s world. Care for a sample? Take a look at what Buck has to say about pastoral care and college tea. A window into the corresponding role of college master is available in a news article about Stephen Toulmin, sometime Master of North College at the University of Southern California. From maintaining academic standards to ensuring dilapidated furniture was replaced, Toulmin oversaw all aspects of North College life.

The Oxford and Cambridge colleges should be familiar to every student of the collegiate way of living. Four books I especially recommend for the general reader are Christopher N.L. Brooke’s pictorial Oxford and Cambridge (Cambridge University Press, 1988), Laurence and Helen Fowler’s Cambridge Commemorated (Cambridge University Press, 1984), Jan Morris’s delightful anthology The Oxford Book of Oxford (Oxford University Press, 1984), and John Prest’s The Illustrated History of Oxford University (Oxford University Press, 1993). A corresponding specialized volume that is not nearly as discouraging as its title suggests is Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman’s Oxford and the Decline of the Collegiate Tradition (London: Woburn Press, 2000). Tapper and Palfreyman offer many rich internal details of institutional governance at Oxford, and describe not so much the decline of the collegiate tradition as its continual reinvention with the times, an important lesson for anyone concerned with adapting the Oxford-Cambridge model to new institutional environments.

The histories of individual residential colleges offer many insights into collegiate life and organization. A special page of residential colleges histories is available with publication details of a great many of these wonderfully localized works.

2. Historical Documents

One of the most influential publications in the history of American higher education was a slender pamphlet titled Reports on the Course of Instruction in Yale College (New Haven: Hezekiah Howe, 1828). Today it is commonly referred to in the singular as “The Yale Report of 1828.” Yale College in the early nineteenth century was a small residential college, much like those that are now being established within large universities, and many of the collegiate ideals that the Yale Report espoused are ideals we continue to seek after today. In recognition of its influence on educational thought in the United States, a web version of the Yale Report of 1828 has been prepared specially for the Collegiate Way website.

People establishing new residential colleges can benefit from reading accounts of others who have travelled the path they are now travelling, and so I have also prepared for the Collegiate Way website a short extract from Samuel Eliot Morison’s Three Centuries of Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936) that describes the establishment of Harvard University’s residential college system in the 1930s, as well as a longer extract from Henry Yeomans’ biography Abbott Lawrence Lowell: 1856–1943 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948) that details many of the considerations that went into the planning of Harvard’s residential colleges. The creation of the Yale residential colleges during the same period is detailed in an article by Charles Seymour, and the long debate that preceded the final creation of Harvard’s colleges is chronicled in essays by Frank Bolles and by Abbott Lawrence Lowell. More recents accounts of new college systems can be instructive as well, such as this news article about the establishment of the residential college system at Murray State University in 1996.

3. General Works of Importance

An important book on the poverty of campus life, based on the authors’ investigations at Duke University, is William H. Willimon and Thomas H. Naylor’s The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). Willimon has also written a follow-up report to these earlier investigations that is available in pdf format under the title Old Duke–New Duke.

An earlier editorial on Duke campus life by Willimon’s colleague Reynolds Price, “Residential Colleges Hold Key to Fostering Intellectual Life” (Duke University Chronicle, 9 December 1993), is still one of the most forceful—if unheeded—briefs for residential colleges within large universities.

Another important volume that exposes the mismanagement of campus life is Alan C. Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate’s The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (New York: The Free Press, 1998). (The Shadow University also has its own website.) Kors was one of the founders of Van Pelt College at the University of Pennsylvania, and he refers in the book to the extraordinary degree of creativity and intellectual diversity that Van Pelt sustained. A perceptive reviewer of The Shadow University, Philip Greenspun of MIT, observed discouragingly:

I was recommending the book to a friend and she asked “Who is it written for?” We thought about it for awhile. It can’t be the administrators because they presumably enjoy the status quo. It can’t be the students because they are just passing through the university in order to pick up a credential. It can’t be the professors because they’ve mostly abdicated control of the university to the administrators. Most faculty see themselves either as employees of a bureaucracy vastly more powerful than themselves or as low-grade autonomous entrepreneurs only loosely connected to the university. In fact, there might not be anyone in the United States whose has both the power and the inclination to redress any of the wrongs outlined in the 400 pages of The Shadow University. That is a thought much scarier than any in the book itself.

A much-celebrated volume on undergraduate education that has a great deal to offer residential college members is Richard Light’s Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). Light’s research documents the overwhelming importance of personal student-faculty contact, just the sort of thing that residential colleges provide so well.

Although it does not discuss residential colleges, an enormously important book for any student of communities and their spatial structure is A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein (Oxford University Press, 1977). Renouncing the sterile, inhumane styles of the post-WWII era—styles in which thousands of university buildings were built—Alexander and his colleagues follow an empirical approach to architecture: they study those structures that have in fact produced strong, healthy communities, and then generalize a series of “patterns” from them. More than 250 such patterns are described in the book, ranging from the layout of cities, to the importance of a mix of age groups in a neighborhood, to the placement of furniture in a room. Reviewers have said that A Pattern Language is “perhaps the most important book on architectural design published this century.” While the short discussion of university architecture is not especially strong (the authors themselves considered it somewhat conjectural), the range of solid, practical recommendations that are included overall is remarkable. If you think universities only need to warehouse students in dormitories you can ignore A Pattern Language. But if you think universities should build rich, diverse, and supportive academic communities for students then you can’t afford to miss it.

The residential college idea is often mentioned in passing in more general works on higher education. As a final item in this collection of recommended readings I reproduce here an extract from George H. Douglas’s Education Without Impact: How Our Universities Fail the Young (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992):

The American university as we know it today is not an ideal community in which to deposit young people in their late teens and early twenties. The young may enjoy themselves on campus, they may in fact do a great deal of growing up while away at college, they may even learn a lot, but for the most part they don’t truly interact with the academic world. Most rapidly conclude that they are sojourners at the university, not key players, that the university seems to be made by others for others—researchers, espousers of trendy political causes, grant seekers, elusive pedagogues, distracted graduate students working on their Ph.D.’s, tunnel-vision specialists, administrators clinging to their tiny patch of ground like a drowning person clinging to flotsam. That is to say, the young come to college looking for interesting and inspiring adults who will help them to make a spirited transition to adulthood, but for the most part they must abide the kind of process-teaching that they have been accustomed to throughout their lives.…

The failure to draw the young into a community of learning is a failure of what has traditionally been called liberal education. Liberal education is elusive, as much a matter of style as of substance. It has little to do with the persistence on campus of liberal arts subject matter. You can have mammoth colleges called the “College of Arts” or “College of Liberal Arts and Sciences” with dozens of departments in them, but there may be scarcely a jot of the liberal arts spirit in such colleges or in the departments which make them up. Indeed, in the large research university the liberal arts college is often just a variant trade school, which turns out historians to take up teaching posts in history just as the business school churns out economists or the pharmacy school churns out pharmacists. The liberal arts, the humanities, do not really come to life without the liberal arts style, and the liberal arts style in education is one that engages and enflames a person’s individuality and desires within the framework of some purposive community of learning.

When I say that the liberal arts spirit comes to life only in some kind of community, I mean that people must be able to talk to one another regularly and intimately; that they must be on the same wavelength. It has sometimes been observed that higher education, technically advanced education, is able to make a nuclear bomb or some other weapon of mass destruction, but that only a liberal education provides the means to decide whether to use such weapons. This is not, of course, because liberal education gives people a specific kind of information, but rather because it gives them the framework, the mucilage to hold together the information they do possess. The framework is at one and the same time something that the student has created for himself or herself and a set of shared values, a disposition to understand, evaluate, and stand open to the ideas of others.…

A long time ago we made a great mistake with the American university when we constructed it on the Germanic rather than the British model. I should say more precisely that we built our universities on the Germanic model with our own particularly nasty twist, the added insistence that universities be judged in terms of their productive output.…

The British model for higher education assumes that whatever excellence and purity there is in the university is found in undergraduate colleges. Graduate schools, fields of specialization, are merely outgrowths of the undergraduate, liberal tradition and must not be allowed to gain the ascendancy over it. In the Germanic model, on the other hand, undergraduate education, general education, is a dreary and pale shadow of the specialized disciplines, a kind of kindergarten of the university. What we have is a “trickle-down” style of undergraduate education. Undergraduates get the drippings or leavings of the table from the graduate schools. No idea that has ever taken hold in the American university has been more harmful and destructive than this one.

The Germanic model, which has created our so-called research universities, has not given us anything out of which we could create a human community of learning. Instead it has given us rigid walls, upward ladders, a confusing array of offerings to students, a forbidding and meaningless collection of beehive segments, a Mandarin snobbery based on specialization, an unhealthy desire to hoard one’s subject matter, one’s private preserves and achievements.

Now, in the British model, so well exemplified by the centuries-old traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, a college is not a collection of specialized departments but a community of individuals. Instead of an engineering college or a business college or the typical specialty-oriented liberal arts college, you have small, usually residential, colleges within the confines of the larger university—Magdalen, New, or All Souls colleges at Oxford, let us say, or King’s College or St. John’s College at Cambridge. These “colleges” were all first and foremost human communities. If they also housed “experts,” all to the good, but that little accretion trailed along afterward.

One found professors, of course, but also an eccentric and somewhat disarming collection of other academic personages: readers, fellows, and wardens. As a new student, when you went to lunch you were never quite sure whether you were sitting next to a somebody or a nobody, a big wheel or a little wheel. In the American university, built on linear and hierarchical principles, it has been essential that everybody appreciate the difference between the big wheel and the little wheel. In the intimate dining halls or reading rooms of Oxford and Cambridge an eighteen-year-old might not be aware that he or she was sitting next to a Nobel Prize winner.


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014