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


Four Foundations for the Renewal of University Life

A University is … an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.

—John Henry Cardinal Newman

This page summarizes the themes developed throughout the Collegiate Way website on residential colleges and the renewal of higher education. It describes four foundations on which campus life can be rebuilt and by means of which the welfare and educational development of students can be improved. These foundations are decentralization, academic leadership, social stability, and genuine diversity. For more general information about residential colleges visit the main Collegiate Way page. Recent developments in the international residential college movement may be followed on the news page.

Publication note: A modified version of this essay was published 27 November 2006 in the journal Inside Higher Ed ( If you’re looking for a brief introduction to the residential college idea to share with colleagues, that IHE essay is a good choice.

1. Decentralization

There is an old saying that “all politics is local.” What is true for politics is also true for education. Real education—the substantive development of intellect and character—depends upon sustained personal contact between students and teachers over the long term. Research and common sense both show this. But universities forgot this fundamental principle when they ballooned in size beginning in the 1960s and became ever more centralized and bureaucratic. No matter how many slogans campus public relations people may invent about being “student-centered” and “caring,” a university with high-rise dormitory towers, vast impersonal dining halls, and central advising offices that students report to for fifteen minutes each term to have their schedules checked cannot possibly offer the sustained, local, personal contact that is fundamental to real education. The slogans are phony, and the students know it.

Small, decentralized, residential colleges counteract the effects of educational massification by bringing students and faculty from all academic disciplines together into rich and cohesive social communities. This is not a new idea, but is instead one of the oldest ideas in university education: it is the organizational structure of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain. Because of their small size—400 members is ideal—residential colleges ensure that all students are known one by one, and that no student is anonymous. And while these collegiate societies are usually called “residential” colleges, they need not be entirely residential, and can be established within any university regardless of the number of students who actually live on campus. The emphasis is on the word college as a small, intimate society of members, rather than on the word residential.

Read more: The importance of decentralization is discussed further on the Collegiate Way pages on the membership and administrative structure of residential colleges and on college buildings and grounds, both of which are summarized on the general how to build a residential college page. The many universities around the world that have established decentralized residential colleges are listed in the directory of residential colleges worldwide.

2. Academic Leadership

As universities became more centralized and bureaucratic over the past half-century, the oversight of campus life within them was largely handed off from the academic faculty to a class of full-time residence life managers. However well-intentioned these officials have been, because they are detached from the academic structure of the university they have not been able to create meaningful educational environments for students. Even more noxiously, some universities have come to see campus dormitories as income-generating tools analogous to parking lots and vending machines. For more than a generation these deep structural flaws have cheated students out of the most important thing a university can offer them: sustained contact with their teachers for several years at a time in a rich and diverse educational environment.

Residential college systems repair the damage of the past half-century by returning the management of campus life to the academic faculty and by distributing most of the functions now performed by departments of student affairs and residence life into the faculty-led residential colleges. And importantly, they treat student life and housing as academic functions of a university, not as business functions. Residential colleges, as faculty-led academic societies, are consciously crafted and continuously cultivated to provide a wide range of informal educational opportunities for their members day and night, week after week, year after year. Their object is to ensure that students’ formal learning in the classroom is integrated in every way with their external life in the world.

Read more: The importance of academic leadership is discussed further on the Collegiate Way pages on the membership and administrative structure of residential colleges and on pastoral care and academic life, all of which are summarized on the general how to build a residential college page. The objection that faculty will not participate in student life is answered on the page describing frequent objections to the residential college model.

3. Social Stability

Two generations of bureaucratic centralization and non-academic leadership have profoundly eroded the social fabric of university campuses, and nowhere has this erosion been greater than in “endlessly rescrambled” campus residential life. Alcohol abuse and vandalism have proliferated, elementary discipline has not been maintained, students have been bounced from “freshman experience halls” to “health and wellness halls” to social fraternity halls to upperclass apartments, all the while never seeing any older adults except an occasional police officer or maintenance worker. Students have described their time in campus housing to me as “the worst living experience of my life” and as “unbearable and unacceptable.” For many years universities have been failing in their fundamental responsibility to support student welfare and have produced what William Willimon and Thomas Naylor have called an “abandoned generation.”

Small, permanent residential colleges under faculty leadership return meaningful social stability to campus life. And as educators we must provide students with this basic social stability if we want them to take the kinds of risks that produce intellectual instability. Social stability means that elementary civil order is maintained, that buildings and grounds are attractive and safe, and most importantly that there is a weekly, monthly, and annual rhythm of events that give students a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something that existed before them and will continue after them. The life of each year in a small residential college builds on the life of the year before, and students and faculty alike know that their contributions to their college endure and are remembered.

Read more: The importance of social stability is discussed further on the Collegiate Way pages on the life and annual cycle of residential colleges and on pastoral care, both of which are summarized on the how to build a residential college page. The importance of social memory is emphasized on the page describing the collegiate landscape of the future. Willimon and Naylor’s The Abandoned Generation is one of several recommended readings on residential colleges.

4. Genuine Diversity

Nearly every university today promotes the value of “diversity” in education, but the diversity that is promoted is often simple-minded and superficial, and based on little more than broad ethnic and racial categories. And while universities promote the value of this superficial diversity with one hand, with the other they often actively segregate students according to temperaments and interests, thereby denying those students the benefits of deep diversity—diversity at the level of individual talents, passions, strengths, and weaknesses. This kind of segregation is most often practiced through the creation of “theme halls”—science halls, arts halls, nursing halls, sports halls—dormitory spaces that allow and encourage students to spend all their time with lots of other people who think just like they do. So much for diversity.

Genuine diversity, and the deep education that comes from exposure to it, flourishes within small residential colleges that are complete cross-sections of the universities to which they belong. Each small college contains the old, the young, the teacher, the student, the poetic, the prosaic, the bold, the shy, the clever, the plodding, the careless, the careful, the wealthy, the poor, the cold, the compassionate, the indolent, the industrious, the neurotic, the peaceful, the refined, the vulgar, the emotional, the analytical, the earnest, the satirical—and by bringing all this pied beauty together into the small, stable, academically rich setting of a residential college, week after week, month after month, year after year after year, they all learn, grow, shine, and come away “full as their orbs can hold, / Of glitt’ring light.”

Read more: The importance of genuine diversity is discussed further on the Collegiate Way pages on residential college membership and administrative structure and on pastoral care, both of which are summarized on the general how to build a residential college page. The page describing the collegiate landscape of the future shows how genuine diversity can play itself out in the life of a residential college.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021