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


How to Build a Residential College

1. Membership and Administrative Structure

A college is built of men, rather than things.

—Frederick Artz

This is the first of six pages of recommendations for the establishment of residential colleges within large universities, and it addresses the topics of membership and administrative structure. The other pages discuss: (2) buildings and grounds, (3) college life and the annual cycle, (4) pastoral care, and (5) academic life, and a supplementary page presents (6) a brief “generative sequence” for assembling the components. For a summary of all these recommendations please visit the main “How To Build a Residential College” page, and for more general information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Residential colleges have developed over the centuries under different local conditions, and this has led to a certain amount of variation in their administrative structure. In particular, the responsibilities of the senior officers differ somewhat from college to college and from university to university, and their titles differ even more. What follows does not pretend to be a comparative study of the history of residential colleges. Instead, it is a practical guide for those who want to get new colleges started. The particular arrangements I describe are ones that have worked well in American universities, and the distribution of responsibilities given here is especially good for colleges that are just becoming established. In addition to a recommended general pattern, I also describe some variations that may deserve consideration depending upon your local circumstances. If you are starting a new college I invite you to directly copy any of the structures and procedures described here, and then adjust them as needed over time as your college develops.

The fundamental administrative principle to remember throughout this discussion is that residential colleges are academic societies made up of students and faculty. As academic units of a university, residential colleges should report up through the academic hierarchy of the institution to the provost or university chancellor in the same way that academic departments do. If your institution has a student affairs division that provides support to the residential colleges, that division should be clearly subordinated to the academic affairs division, and the residential college officers should be in charge of hiring and supervising those student affairs employees who are detailed to support the colleges. Student housing should never be overseen by an institution’s business affairs division, any more than a biology department or a philosophy department should be. Some of the support staff of each college will ordinarily come from the business affairs division (maintenance employees, security officers, and the like), but all residential college policies and procedures should be established by the faculty.

Independent corporations: In drafting all these recommendations I have assumed that my readers are interested in creating residential colleges that are internal to an existing university. Such colleges will necessarily differ in a number of ways from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (and some elsewhere), which are not creatures of a central university, but are instead legally independent, self-governing corporations. The Oxford and Cambridge colleges are related to their universities in a way that is not unlike the federal relationship of the fifty United States to the national government. The historical counterpart in America of the corporate colleges of Oxford and Cambridge is actually the independent liberal arts college, which is a residential college that functions by itself as its own university. (A university, historically, is a degree-granting body, whereas a college is not; a college is a residential society one belongs to while studying for a university degree.) An interesting historical vestige can be seen at Harvard, which was established in the seventeenth century as an independent corporation on the model of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges (but not on the model of Oxford and Cambridge Universities). Harvard College, the original small society of a few dozen students and faculty, was governed by “The President and Fellows” of the college. The large university which has since grown from that small college is still known in law as “The President and Fellows of Harvard College,” as the copyright notice on any of its publications will show. The original fellows of Harvard College were the college’s faculty, of course, just as the fellows of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges still are. The fellows of Harvard College, however, long ago lost their teaching function and they exist today (six in number, in addition to the president) as the equivalent of a board of trustees. This formula of “the president and fellows” as the governing body of a college has been inherited by many other institutions across the United States that are cultural descendants of Harvard.

The recommendations below are divided into three principal sections: The Ideal Size of a Residential College (1.1), Residential College Senior Members and Staff (1.2), and Residential College Junior Members (1.3).

1.1.  The Ideal Size of a Residential College

What is the ideal size of a residential colleges? The quick answer is “about 400,” but qualifications and adjustments to that number are possible, and it’s important to understand the reasoning behind it.

In assembling the membership of a residential college, the important quantity to consider is not so much the overall number, but rather the college’s annual intake. The annual intake should be about 100 new members—that’s roughly the number of new people that one can learn to recognize reliably over the course of a year and with whom one can develop at least a passing acquaintance. Given a properly cross-sectional residential college with equal membership from all four undergraduate classes, an annual intake of 100 will yield a college with 400 junior members plus an assortment of senior members, bringing the total to perhaps 450. Inclusion of graduate students (which is desirable) would require some adjustments to the class representation, but should not be allowed to change the annual intake significantly. A college with roughly 400 junior members, and with an annual intake of roughly 100, will have 75% continuity in its population from year to year, and this is a critical number. It means that a clear majority of the people in the college at the beginning of every year will be established members who are familiar with how things work and who are in a position to assist the newcomers. Newcomers should not feel that they are arriving “cold” in an unstructured place; they should feel they are entering an established community with a set rhythm that welcomes them and makes them feel at home right away. And while 75% continuity will ensure a great deal of stability, 25% turnover each year will guarantee that the place will not seem so rigid that a single enterprising individual cannot have an impact. Indeed, it is precisely because the overall population is small—about 400—that enterprising individuals can have a significant impact.

Consider the consequences of a different arrangement: a residential college just for freshmen and sophomores. I don’t recommend such a configuration because it cannot support the full range of academic diversity (1.3.1) that a properly cross-sectional residential college can support, and it won’t have anywhere near the same degree of social stability. In a freshman/sophomore residential college with 400 members the annual intake would have to be about 200—far more than one person can reasonably be expected to get to know each year, leading to anonymity and disaffection. Furthermore, a freshman/sophomore college of 400 members would have an annual turnover of 50%, making it very difficult to sustain traditions and college identity over the long term. And very importantly, just when many of the students were starting to catch on, at the end of their second year, they’d be thrown out and you would have to start over again—and so would they.

A new college that is being started from scratch is in a particularly difficult position with respect to size and social cohesion. If the college opens in new buildings with a capacity of 400 beds, 100% of the population will be new, the first year is likely to be turbulent, and it will take three or four years to build a stable sense of collegiate identity. A better plan, if possible, is to stagger the completion of the buildings: in the first year have the main building with the college offices, common rooms, and one or two wings for (say) 200 residents come “online”; in the second year open the next wing to accommodate the next 100 students; and in the third year open the final wing to bring the college population to a full 400. This sequence has the added advantage of allowing the members of the college to participate in a series of formal opening ceremonies, contributing significantly to their sense of ownership of the new college.

Identifiable neighborhood: A residential college corresponds in many respects, including size, to Pattern 14, “Identifiable Neighborhood,” in Christopher Alexander’s important book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Alexander and his colleagues urge planners to “Help people to define the neighborhoods they live in, not more than 300 yards across, with no more than 400 or 500 inhabitants. In existing cities [read, “large universities”] encourage local groups to organize themselves to form such neighborhoods. Give the neighborhoods some degree of autonomy as far as taxes [read, “student fees”] and land controls [read, “buildings and grounds”] are concerned. Keep major roads outside these neighborhoods.” For further discussion of the physical components of a residential college (as opposed to its membership and organizational structure) see the separate page on residential college buildings and grounds.

1.2.  Residential College Senior Members and Staff

The senior members of a residential college are the master, the dean, and the various fellows and associates of the college; the junior members are the students.

1.2.1. The Master or President or Principal — The master or president or principal is the head of the college, and should represent the college to the university and the local community. College masters should be established scholars who are highly-regarded in the university, and who are known for their concern for student welfare. It will be advantageous if they have some administrative experience, since one of their primary responsibilities is the oversight of college budgets and property, and they should be skilled at working within the university to improve the educational environment. College masters should be appointed for terms of five years at least, and should be provided with living quarters and some meals in the college dining hall (2.1.1). It is essential that the senior positions in a college be of long duration: no stable relationships or traditions can be established otherwise. The appointment can be half-time in the college and half-time in an appropriate academic department.

The master, president, or principal is responsible for the overall administration of the college, for the college’s ceremonial life, for the selection of fellows and associates (1.2.3), for planning and management of finances and physical plant, for the establishment of parietal rules, and for representing the needs of the college to the university. In a new college especially, the master should be a hard-working advocate and not someone who easily falters in the face of obstacles. The master should always work closely with the college dean on all matters of internal administration and student welfare, and the dean should serve as acting master when the master is absent. At Oxford and Cambridge, where the colleges are independent corporations, the masters are elected by the fellows. (C.P. Snow’s novel The Masters presents an entertaining but not terribly flattering account of that process from decades ago.) In most American universities it is likely that college masters will be appointed by the university provost or chancellor, although the search committee should certainly be composed primarily of fellows from the college in question.

Nomenclatural diversity: This position has probably been subject to more nomenclatural variation than any other position in the academic world. A survey of residential colleges in different countries today will reveal that they are headed by masters, presidents, principals, provosts, wardens, deans, rectors, regents, and mistresses (female masters). Because there has been so much variation in the name of this position, the individuals holding it are commonly referred to collectively as “heads of houses.” The different titles have different connotations in different parts of the world, and so their suitability varies. The title “warden” in the United States is used almost exclusively for the head of a prison, and so is probably not a good choice for the head a residential college. (Although some students might disagree.) “Master” might not be acceptable in some parts of the American South, and “principal” in the United States is more often associated with the head of a primary or secondary school rather than a college. Current practice in American residential colleges is not quite as varied as it is in Commonwealth countries, but it is far from uniform: Harvard and Yale both use “master,” as does Rice University; the University of Virginia uses “principal”; the University of California at Santa Cruz uses “provost”; Truman State University uses “rector.” I would recommend either “president,” “master,” or “principal” as the best choices for the head of a new American residential college. If the head of the institution is a “chancellor,” then “president” is probably best; if the head of the institution is a “president,” then “principal” is probably best.

1.2.2. The Dean or Senior Tutor — The dean or senior tutor is the college’s second in command. As noted above, there is much variation in how colleges divide their administrative functions between the master or president and the dean or senior tutor. Here I describe one effective arrangement, and then note variations that can also be successful.

If we think of the master as looking outward, overseeing the general administration of the college and representing the college to the greater university, we can think of the dean as looking inward, overseeing student life within the college and representing the university to the students. Some universities have within their administrative structure a “dean of the faculty” and a “dean of students,” and those positions correspond roughly to the roles of master and dean in a residential college as described here. (Or, if you prefer naval analogies, you can think of the master as the captain of the college and the dean as its first officer.) A residential college dean should be a faculty member with a special talent for working with students, and who is, academically, a generalist capable of making personal and intellectual connections for students across a wide range of subjects. Like the master, the dean (who is also a fellow of the college) should be appointed for a term of five years at least, and should be provided with living quarters and some meals in the college dining room. The dean may serve half-time in the college and half-time or quarter-time in an academic department if the college is small and has good administrative support.

Like the master, the dean should be highly visible in the college throughout the year, and should keep an open office (2.1.6) that students can drop in and out of at all times. The dean should provide personal and informal academic support to the students, referring them to other university offices when necessary, and should handle most routine matters of student discipline within the college. The dean or the master should also attend the meetings of the college’s student council (1.3.5), and one officer or the other should put in an appearance at every student function. This must all be done without becoming excessively familiar, of course, as Tom Lehrer’s hapless (though now happily immortal) dean, “who tried so hard to be ‘pals’ with us all,” failed to realize. I often compare the social functions of the dean to that of parents who walk through the living room occasionally while the children are socializing. It isn’t necessary or proper to insert yourself into every student social event, but it is proper, comforting, and encouraging to the students to show them that you are nearby and that you care about what they do. If the students extend an invitation to participate in their activities, which they often will, then by all means accept. But to function effectively over the long term it necessary and correct to maintain a measure of professional (or parental) distance.

The dean should supervise the resident tutors (1.2.4): they are the dean’s staff. (This relationship is clearer, perhaps, when the title “senior tutor” is used in place of “dean.”) The dean and the resident tutors should meet as a group each week to discuss student welfare, and they will ordinarily see each other in passing almost every day. The resident tutors’ special functions, described below, should be assigned by the dean as well. The dean may have some responsibilities for the admission of students to the college (1.3.2), but this responsibility may also be handled by the master or by another of the fellows.

In different institutions, a number of variations can be found on the set of responsibilities just described. In some residential colleges, the dean is in charge of formal curricular advising, while the pastoral care of students is the responsibility of the master. In other colleges there are two people responsible for student life: a dean or senior tutor in charge of pastoral care, and a director of studies responsible for formal academic advising. Harvard uses the title senior tutor for the single second-in-command position, and the senior tutor in each of Harvard’s colleges is responsible for non-departmental academic advising and pastoral care. Yale uses the title “dean” for this position, while the University of Virginia has adopted “director of studies.” If you are beginning a new residential college, I recommend placing the dean in charge only of pastoral care and student life at first, without any formal responsibilities in academic advising. I base this recommendation on the assumption that the master of a new college will be unusually busy with administrative matters in the university (someone’s got to keep on insisting that the fire alarms, or leaking ceilings, or broken furniture be fixed), and so it will be very important to have some other faculty member overseeing the new college’s social life as it first develops in order to ensure that it is channeled in constructive directions. Once the college is well established, it may be possible to share more of the responsibilities for pastoral care between the master and the dean, and give the dean some responsibilities in non-departmental academic advising, perhaps of first-year students.

With regard to choice of title, I recommend “dean” as the most familiar, but “senior tutor” is perfectly acceptable also. It should be noted that in residential colleges the term “tutor” (as in “senior tutor”) carries an older meaning that may not be familiar to some modern ears:

[The word “Tutor”] does not, in Cambridge, denote a teacher, but something nearer to the original Latin meaning of the word, which approximated to “guardian.” In every college there are several Tutors, Fellows of the college, each responsible for a group of undergraduates. Tutors are usually involved in the selection or rejection of candidates for admission to the college, and one may have special duties as Admissions Tutor. Another, in some colleges at least, may be responsible for advanced students—research students and others whose needs are different from those of most undergraduates. It is not the Tutor’s role to advise his pupils in detail about their course of study.… The Tutor is there to oversee and help in other ways, especially if problems occur (academical, personal, social, even legal) on which they may require experienced advice. The phrase formerly much used of Tutors, that they stand in loco parentis (“in the role of a parent”) is unpopular now that undergraduates starting their course at the age of eighteen have already in law attained adult status. Yet the part played by Tutors in time of crisis (say, sudden illness or some mishap or misdemeanour involving police intervention) may still be very much that of a surrogate for the absent parent. The degree of contact between Tutor and undergraduate of course varies.… At the worst he knows his Tutor only as a disciplinary officer. At the best, Tutors know their pupils personally and socially so as to be easily turned to for help at need. (Frank Stubbings, Bedders, Bulldogs and Bedells: A Cambridge Glossary.)

As an indication that this function is still alive and well, the saying among the undergraduates at Harvard when I was there was that if you ever land in jail and they allow you just one phone call, call your senior tutor.

Endowments: When Harvard established its system of colleges in the 1930s it initially had only a single faculty member in charge of each college, the master. Yale followed this pattern. Both universities soon realized, however, that the amount of work involved in running each college merited the creation of a second position, and Harvard designated this second position “senior tutor” while Yale adopted “dean.” Harvard obtained an endowment for the position in all the colleges, and so now each college has an “Allston Burr Senior Tutor,” named after the benefactor. Yale also obtained an endowment for its deanships, from alumnus Paul Mellon, but he chose not to have his name applied as part of the title. It should go without saying that nearly all the offices and facilities within a residential college are ideal candidates for support through private endowments.

1.2.3. Fellows and Associates — The fellows of the college are those senior members who are faculty in the university. The fellows should be selected individually by the master and the dean, with recommendations from the junior members gladly accepted. Invite prospective fellows to a few college events to judge their interest, and if it appears that they would be regular participants, extend a formal invitation for them to join the college. One or two fellows should be appointed from each academic department to create a cross-section of the university as a whole. Don’t let the fellowship become too heavily weighted in any particular academic direction. The fellows should attend college functions, come together once each week for lunch in the dining hall (3.3.3), and generally support the college’s life. In return for their participation they should be provided with a certain number of meals in the college dining hall, use of the private Senior Common Room (2.1.2) for entertaining visitors and to escape the telephone, a discount parking space at the college (but not at their department, of course; that would defeat the purpose), and similar incentives. While the fellows can ordinarily continue their membership in their college indefinitely, it is wise to offer them three-year renewable appointments, so that if they turn out not to participate, they can bow out (or be bowed out) gracefully. Be sure to send a written thank you to each fellow at the end of the year, copied to the appropriate department head, so that the fellow’s work is formally acknowledged within the university hierarchy.

It is often claimed that faculty will not participate in residential colleges or that they will only do so if they are paid extra. Some faculty, of course, will not participate in anything, just as some students will not participate in anything. Not all faculty in a university need become members of a college. My experience has been, however, that many faculty will readily participate in college life, will delight in their participation, and will require only modest compensation in kind, not in cash. The bureaucratic and compartmentalized universities of the post-1960s era provide few opportunities for faculty to meet students informally and to socialize outside their departments (where half the people may not have spoken to the other half for years anyway). Membership in a college “gets them out of the house,” as it were. By virtue of their membership in a college the fellows will find babysitters for their children, a place to do laundry when the power goes out at home, a free meal or two each week, an outlet for their musical and artistic talents, a captive audience on which to try out their latest cake recipes, a private venue for academic conferences during the summer, a forum for vigorous debate on culture and politics, a way to rediscover their youth, and a place (unlike the university at large, perhaps) where they will really make a difference. Every college should have an extra apartment or two that can serve as general faculty housing. I have had faculty tell me that their participation in a residential college “has been one of the richest experiences” of their professional lives, and that it has given them “hope about what higher education can do.” New faculty in particular appreciate being welcomed into a collegiate community when they arrive at a university where they have no friends and are not likely to meet anyone outside their departments except on administrative committees.

There may be certain functions in the college that fellows do perform for extra compensation. It is common in many colleges, for example, for one of the fellows to serve as admissions tutor (1.3.2) and to be in charge of accepting new students into the college. At certain times of year this requires a great deal of work. Other fellows may serve on administrative committees in the college, or may teach tutorials or engage in formal advising. These arrangements are discussed further on the academic life page. [That page is not yet available. To receive notice of updates please add your name to the Collegiate Way mailing list.]

In addition to its fellows, every college should include among its senior members a group of associates. The associates should be non-faculty staff of the university and prominent members of the local community. Select from the university staff a police officer, a computer administrator, an alumni representative, the head of the grounds department, a librarian, and other people in similar positions. From the local community select a doctor, a lawyer, a rabbi, a politician, a business owner, an architect, a school principal, and so on. As with prospective fellows, invite potential associates to the weekly college tea (3.3.1) a few times to gauge their interest, and if it seems as though they would be regular in their attendance (it is in no one’s interest simply to have the names listed on your roster), extend a formal invitation. The presence of these associates in the college community will be beneficial to all. Faculty who spend a bit too much time in the academic world will benefit from interacting with “outsiders,” and students will benefit from seeing another class of role models. Hard as it may be for the faculty to admit, not every student will grow up to be a professor, and the associates will provide students with a practical set of career examples. They will also contribute to the college’s social diversity: the Christian student from a small town might never have met a rabbi before, the piano student may be surprised to hear an architect talk about the “frozen music” of a building, and the student government delegate might get tips from the city councillor on how to run for political office. Be sure to introduce new associates at tea or at dinner for a round of applause, put their picture in the annual facebook (3.2.1), add them to your e-mail chatting group and to the college website (3.2.2), and say something about them in the college newsletter (3.3.2).

In addition to the categories of senior membership described above, you may also wish to consider appointing the chancellor and provost of your university as honorary fellows of all the residential colleges on campus. At Harvard, the president of the university is an honorary member of every college, and every college has an annual “President’s Dinner” at which a short speech is given and questions are taken from the floor. This is an excellent tradition that can be adopted anywhere. (When I was at Harvard, the president’s speech was always a recitation of the many improvements that were underway in the university, a recitation designed to head off all the criticisms people were planning to make a few minutes later during the question period.)

1.2.4. The Resident Tutors — The resident tutors should be graduate students whose primary responsibility is the oversight of a group of undergraduates on a corridor or staircase. They should report to the senior tutor or dean. You should try to have as many resident tutors as possible, of course, but should certainly have no fewer than one for every 40 students. One for every 20 is much better. The resident tutors should be provided with room and board in the college as compensation for their work, and should be expected to eat regularly with their students and with the faculty in the college dining room. As explained above, the resident “tutors” are not formal teachers, but rather advisors, guardians, older siblings, and academic role models. Their academic interests should encompass the whole range of disciplines included in the university so that the undergraduates will benefit from as diverse a group of mentors as possible. They should emphatically not be merely “corridor policemen” who do nothing more than tell students to be quiet. That is why it is essential to have a sufficient number of them: with 40 students to look after it can be hard to be anything other than a corridor policeman, but with 20 it becomes possible to establish close friendships quickly and to serve effectively as a personal and academic advisor.

Because the position of resident tutor is an important one, it is wise to observe candidates for a time before you formally appoint them. An excellent way to do this is to draw the resident tutors from among the graduate members of the college (1.3.4) who are already in residence. This insures that new resident tutors will be familiar with the life of the college, and will know many of the students and staff already. (In such cases you should always move them onto new corridors within the college when they are appointed, to minimize any possible conflicts caused by familiar relationships they had established in their old locations.) When it is not possible to appoint resident tutors from an existing resident population, consider selecting some graduate students in the university to serve as non-resident tutors for a time before they are appointed to resident positions. If they regularly attend college events and get along well with students and staff, be encouraged. If they initially express interest but do not follow through, consider looking elsewhere.

In addition to being responsible for the overall welfare of the students on a corridor or staircase, each resident tutor should have some special responsibility that cuts across geographic lines and that will insure that all the students know all the resident tutors. One can be placed in charge of the college library (2.1.5) and its student volunteers, for example, and another can be in charge of maintaining the college e-mail discussion group (3.2.2). Put a well-traveled resident tutor in charge of keeping students informed about travel and scholarship opportunities, and put a medical student in charge of special advising for pre-medical students. Put an energetic resident tutor in charge of organizing intramural sporting events with other residential colleges, and make another resident tutor the college computer expert in charge of organizing an emergency strike force for students who have disk crashes in the middle of the night. In each case, these should not be solitary functions that the resident tutors carry out on their own: they should be organizing roles that bring students together and provide them with examples of leadership and opportunities for involvement.

Undergraduate resident assistants: Most universities in the United States do not have graduate students serving as regular staff in dormitories, but instead have undergraduate “resident assistants.” I have seen wonderful work done by these undergraduates, often under very difficult conditions, and they deserve unqualified praise for that work. I still believe, however, that it is better in general to have graduate students serving in these positions than it is to have undergraduate resident assistants. Simply by virtue of being three or four or more years older than most of the residents in their charge, graduate students command a measure of respect. Their graduate standing puts some professional distance between them and the majority of their residents, and the time many of them have spent at other institutions gives them a broader reservoir of experience on which to draw. They also require less direct supervision. The common rationalization from residence life departments for having undergraduates serving in these positions—the claim that residents won’t be able to “relate” to older graduate students who aren’t their peers—is edu-nonsense. Undergraduates can often perform excellently with proper support, and a residential college setting can indeed provide that support. But the advantages of having graduate students serve as resident staff are considerable. If for some reason it is not possible to hire a full complement of graduate students as resident tutors, consider appointing a mix of graduate resident tutors and undergraduate resident assistants.

1.2.5. An Administrative Secretary — Every residential college should have a skilled secretary who enjoys working with students, and who will make the college office (2.1.6) into an inviting place that students not only visit, but spend time in. Simply by being there every day the secretary will become a focal point for news and information, as secretaries do everywhere. Be sure to include the secretary in discussions about student welfare and the overall health of the college community. If you are starting a new college, it will be essential to have a secretary with a can-do attitude who is able to work over, under, around, and through the university bureaucracy. If you are poor or your superiors are cheap, consider sharing one secretary between two colleges as an initial arrangement.

1.2.6. Housekeeping, Maintenance, Food Service, and Security Staff — Any university with dormitories and dining halls will already have a staff of housekeepers, maintenance workers, food service people, and security officers who help to keep the buildings and grounds safe and in good order and the college members well-fed. Do not underestimate the importance of these people in contributing to the health of a residential college. In the first place, it is common courtesy to keep them informed about the life of the college in which they spend their working hours. But don’t simply keep them informed: involve them in the life of the college as much as possible. Include them in the college facebook (3.2.1). Be sure they are receiving the college’s weekly newsletter (3.3.2), and in one of the early numbers each year include a personal item about each of them. Invite them to attend some administrative staff meetings, share your concerns about particular students with them, and always ask them what they are hearing and seeing around the building. The importance of good housekeeping (2.1.9) is hard to overestimate, and by involving the housekeeping staff in the life of the college you will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

Be sure that you know the police and security officers in your area very well. Talk with them at length. Stand with them by the front entrance as you talk, and let the students going in and out see you talking to them. Ask about past history, before you came on the scene, and what things were like then. Ask about the state of things in other buildings. Where are the hot spots? What do they think creates these hot spots? What needs to be changed in the landscape, or the roads, or the policies to fix these problems? Take them on a tour of your buildings and have them tell you about things they notice, while you tell them about things you notice. (Do you notice pencils on the ground by the entrance doors? Do you recognize them as tools that are being used to prop open locked doors inconspicuously? Do you notice which rooms have had their window screens removed so people can climb in and out? Do you know which night of the week is discount-drink-night at the local bar?) Craven student affairs administrators sometimes say that students don’t want to see security officers around their buildings. That is nonsense. Responsible students like them, befriend them, respect them for their professionalism, tell them about their lives and troubles, and feel comfortable and safe when they are around. And faculty do too: whenever I returned to Strong College late at night and saw the security guard standing on the front plaza, arms crossed and resting his foot on the wall, I knew all was well.

Eyes and ears open: What can you learn from support staff? Sometimes you can learn how bad things really are. At one institution the dormitory buildings were rented out each year during the summer to institutionally-beloved (i.e., lucrative) high school sports camps. The “campers” urinated on the beds, smeared feces on the walls, destroyed fire alarms, carved up doors, and in a week committed more vandalism than 250 undergraduates did in an entire year. (The so-called coaches who were supervising them were stumbling in drunk in the early hours of the morning.) The housekeepers knew all this had been going on for years, of course: they were the ones who had to clean it up. The security officers knew it had been going on for years. When faculty and students finally exposed the scandal, residence life administrators and athletic officials claimed they had no idea anything was wrong. The director of residence life exclaimed, “How was I supposed to know?” Perhaps by talking to his own staff? Obviously in this case there was a more serious institutional breakdown: the lower echelons had long ago given up reporting problems to their superiors because whenever they had, either nothing happened or they were slapped down for complaining. That arrangement guarantees failure. You can guarantee success by listening very carefully to support staff and acting on their recommendations.

1.3.  Residential College Junior Members

The junior members of a residential college are its students. Most of the junior members of any college will be resident in the college, but it is certainly not necessary that they all be. It is unfortunate that the term “residential” has been attached to the collegiate idea, because some people mistakenly believe that all members of a residential college must be in residence. (The term “residential college” is commonly used because within large universities in the United States the term “college” typically refers to an administrative grouping of faculty, as in a “college of music” or a “college of nursing,” groupings that in other countries are usually called “faculties.” As George Douglas observed, American universities often contain “mammoth colleges called the ‘College of Arts’ of ‘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.”) In the phrase “residential college” the emphasis is on college rather than residential. Residential colleges are collegia in the original sense: societies, not buildings, and their members may reside anywhere. Ordinarily there will be a building or a collection of buildings that most of the members of the college occupy, but any number may be “livers-out” as they are called on some campuses. These non-resident members (among whom will be most of the fellows) are full members of the college in every respect but residence, and should have ready access to all college facilities and opportunities. The convenience of electronic communication makes it much easier than it once was to remain in contact with non-resident members: an e-mail distribution list can be set up for announcements of special interest to this group. The non-resident members should always be given the opportunity to move back into the college if they wish. In a similar vein, students who leave for a semester or a year to study abroad should always be considered members while they are away, and should continue to be listed in college directories and should remain in regular contact with the college by e-mail whenever possible. Occasional reports from members abroad are received with much pleasure by their friends back home, and serve to encourage hesitant students to consider foreign travel: knowing that they can remain in touch with their friends while they are away makes the prospect of leaving less frightening.

1.3.1. The Importance of Genuine Diversity — It is popular on many university campuses in the United States to create “theme halls”: dormitories that house only nursing students, say, or only science students, or only art students, or only athletes. It is strange that institutions which promote the importance of “diversity” actively encourage this kind of segregation in their housing arrangements. The membership of a residential college should not be the product of segregation, but instead should be a cross-section of the university to which the college belongs, and it should display the full range of interests, temperaments, talents, and backgrounds that are present in the university as a whole. It is fundamental to liberal education—to the education of free citizens—that people of different interests and backgrounds should be encouraged to get to know each other well so that they will be able to learn from their differences. Who will play Mozart in the athletes’ hall? Who will write epic poetry in the science hall? Who will program computers in the arts hall? Would you want to be treated by a nurse who spent four years in college living only with nurses and no other kinds of people? Even Harvard’s President Lowell, who in the 1930s had a far narrower view of social diversity than we have today, was closer to the mark than many modern theme-hall advocates when he argued that Harvard needed a collegiate system so that men of different backgrounds would be brought together, and not allowed to self-segregate as they tended to do when left to their own devices. On some campuses, students may well have a legitimate complaint that they don’t have enough opportunities to get to know other students with similar academic interests. If this is so, then that problem needs to be addressed within the academic departments. Are the departments providing their students with enough social opportunities? Does the university have a biology club, and a philosophy club, and a nursing club, and an English club with regular meetings? Does each department host social events for its students? The departments are the places where students with similar academic interests should be brought together; the residential colleges are the places where students with dissimilar academic interests should be brought together.

Another common practice in many large universities is to group the first-year students together into special freshman halls. This can sometimes be beneficial, but it has many drawbacks. It can be beneficial when it is done with specific historical purposes in mind. At both Harvard and Yale, for example, the freshmen live together in the oldest section of the campus (Harvard’s Yard and Yale’s Old Campus). This gives all the students in the university the opportunity to live for one year in the core of the campus in buildings that have housed students for centuries, and this experience is valuable in uniting them with the heritage of the institution. It also permits the development of class identity, so that each year’s new students will come to see themselves as a group. Given the particular physical arrangements of these campuses, there is merit in these policies. In general, however, in the absence of some particularly compelling historical or geographical rationale I think it is better to integrate freshmen directly into a collegiate system upon their admission to the university. They will benefit immediately from being in the presence of older students and the older students will delight in looking after them and introducing them into the life of their college.

Qualifications: Yale does not quite have room for all its freshmen on the Old Campus, and the freshmen belonging to two of the colleges move directly into the college buildings upon their arrival. Those living on the Old Campus are grouped according to their college affiliation, so each building functions as a college annex of sorts. At Harvard, by contrast, students are not assigned to their colleges (“Houses”) until the end of their freshmen year; when they are admitted to the university they are considered to belong only to the freshman class of the Yard. The Yale arrangement—grouping students according to college from the time of their admission to the university—is superior to the Harvard arrangement of postponing college assignments until the end of freshman year. The Harvard arrangement needlessly disrupts the social relationships that develop among the freshmen, relationships that should be an important source of cohesion in later years within the residential colleges. Notice also that at both Harvard and Yale the size of the freshman class, and so of the undergraduate body, is closely tied to the capacity of the Yard and the Old Campus, because both institutions require all their freshmen to be in residence.

1.3.2. Admissions — If each residential college should be a cross-sectional community, how should students be assigned to each college? In a complete system of colleges, where every student belongs to one, the simplest method is to assign students randomly upon their admission to the university. Some consideration can be given to student preferences (wishing to belong to the same college as another family member, for example), but the students must not be allowed to self-segregate: don’t let the college near the science buildings become overpopulated with scientists, nor the college near the playing fields become overpopulated with athletes. Assignments should be made early enough to allow the colleges to contact their incoming members well in advance of their arrival, put them on mailing lists, and welcome them into the life of the college. I have seen wonderful relationships form by e-mail among incoming students who hadn’t even met one another in person yet. If you have a summer orientation week before the school year begins, that is a good time to get the new members of each college together; if you have a complete system of colleges the entire orientation program should be college-based.

If your institution does not yet have a complete college system, some admission procedure will have to be developed for each college. Many colleges in this situation use a simple application that prospective students must fill out in addition to their university application. Students are then admitted to each college according to whatever criteria the college establishes: academic record, personal essay, extracurricular history, or some combination of all these. Several colleges at an institution can share the same application form. Although most students admitted each year will be new freshmen, applications from students in other classes should be welcomed also. (Many of the best students we took into Strong College each year came to us as refugees from out-of-control dormitories elsewhere on campus.) A committee of the fellows in each college should review the applications and make the selections, and in each college one of the fellows should be designated the admissions tutor and should be the contact person for all inquiries about admission to that college. (This is the common practice in the Oxford and Cambridge colleges.) Admission inquiries will be considerable at certain times of year. The Strong College application that I designed was successfully used for several years, and it can serve as a template for those designing their own residential college applications.

Once the students have been admitted, they will need to be assigned to rooms. Some universities are fortunate enough to be able to offer all their students single bedrooms, and so do not encounter the problem of roommate matching. If you do need to match roommates, the most important factors are late-night versus early-morning habits, preferring an orderly versus a “lived-in” (that is, sloppy) setting, and preferring to use the room as a socializing versus a studying space. Students should be questioned about all these preferences on their application forms. Match roommates first according to these personal habits, and then once that is done, try to place each person near, but not necessarily in the same room with, at least one other person with similar academic or extracurricular interests. Roommates do not have to be best friends, but if they come in believing they are best friends and then encounter sharply different lifestyles, their friendship may not last. While I suppose it is possible to make matches of these kinds with a computerized form, the personal touch has much to recommend it, and it will help you get to know the names, habits, and interests of many of the students even before they arrive. (“Ah yes, Mr. Wilson, you’re the fellow who likes to iron his tee shirts; I remember you.”)

1.3.3. Retention — Once assigned to a particular residential college, students will ordinarily remain members of that college for their entire tenure at the university. As undergraduates advance from being freshmen to junior and seniors, however, many will begin to think about moving off campus. If they do move off, they should still remain full members of their colleges, of course. But even so, it is a shame to have them leave: they contribute to age diversity among the residents, and when they are present in the college buildings they have a very good influence on the younger members. It is therefore desirable to retain older students in residence whenever possible. Students who move off campus are usually looking for things that they cannot find on campus, such as more privacy, more space, their own kitchen and bathroom, and exemption from on-campus rules. The way to retain them on campus is to provide them with as many of these things as circumstances permit. If only a few single rooms are available in every college, don’t offer them to the highest bidder: reserve them for the seniors. If some rooms are larger, or offer more privacy by means of separate entrances or suite-like arrangements, reserve these for the seniors also. If you require all students to pay for a full meal plan in the dining hall, allow seniors to partially exempt themselves from this requirement. Talk to the students moving off campus and ask them what would induce them to say. If you recognize a pattern, try to provide whatever it is that they are seeking to the extent that it is possible. (And to the extent that it is reasonable, of course. A running joke I had with a student in Strong College was that if it would help him stay in the building I would try to install a heroin-dispensing machine in the Junior Common Room, but was going to be difficult to find one that would match the existing décor. The student was not a heroin addict, he was just unusually sarcastic. The joke just served to demonstrate that my sarcasm gene functioned as well as his did, somewhat to his surprise.)

Control of policies: As noted elsewhere , these policies concerning admission and retention should be developed and controlled by the faculty with education as the goal. I have seen cases where campus housing was under the control of university business managers and where nearly every established policy undermined academic attempts to create stable communities. When private rooms or larger rooms in suites were available, for example, these were set at a higher price and rented to any student willing to pay. This had the doubly-negative effect of driving out older students who wanted to stay but couldn’t afford the higher price, and at the same time isolating many new freshmen in secluded rooms because their well-meaning parents chose to pay extra to give their children the “best” rooms. (“Best” perhaps in terms of privacy, but not in terms of the social opportunities that those new students should have had.) Campus business managers should act in an advisory capacity, of course, recommending ways in which educational policies can be carried out most economically. But in every case the control of those policies should rest with the faculty.

1.3.4. Graduate Students — Including graduate students in each residential college along with undergraduates is highly desirable, not only for the undergraduates, who benefit from having older students around them with experience on other campuses and in the world of work, but also for the graduate students themselves.

The life of graduate students in big universities is notoriously isolated. Membership in a residential college is exactly what they need to keep them from spending several lonely years in a study cubicle or at a lab bench. A collegiate environment helps to round graduate students out, just as it does undergraduates, by exposing them to a wide range of social and temperamental diversity. In simple terms, it makes them less geekish. A collegiate community also provides graduate students with outlets for their own extracurricular interests: it is a place to play the piano, bake a cake, sing in harmony, and grow tomatoes in the garden.

Graduate students who are future teachers benefit especially from observing and participating in the richness of residential college life. When teaching courses outside their narrow specialty (introductory courses for non-majors, for example), faculty need to be able to make connections across a wide range of fields, and it is by living their specialty in a mixed community that graduate students can discover those connections. A residential college setting also gives graduate students an opportunity to observe how current faculty interact (successfully or unsuccessfully) with students across a range of disciplines, and to make interdisciplinary contacts that may be helpful in their research.

The graduate members of every residential college should be afforded the same privileges that senior undergraduates receive as inducements to remain in residence, and they should certainly be given the opportunity to remain in their rooms year-round. (Most universities require their undergraduates to move out during the summer and during extended holidays. It is of course not reasonable to expect a 30-year-old Ph.D. student to do that.) A population of graduate students is also invaluable as a pool from which to draw resident tutors for the college (1.2.4), and those positions can become an important component of graduate student financial support within the university.

1.3.5. Student Council — Every residential college should have a student council (or “college council” or “house committee”) that sponsors events and activities throughout the year, and provides opportunities for student involvement. The simple structure I developed for the Strong College Council proved to be very successful; the heads of new colleges may wish to begin by copying it and then gradually adapting it to their local conditions as time goes on.

Every residential college student council should have its own room where it holds meetings every week. It can be very effective if this room is large enough to also host a nightly coffee bar or movie showing sponsored by the council. Such a room will usually need to be locked, and the council officers can be in charge of issuing keys to students who sponsor events in the room.

The entire junior membership should elect the president of the student council each year, as well as other officers if there is sufficient interest in campaigning for such positions. It is just as effective, however, to make the president the only elected office, and have the president appoint other officers with the object of proliferating positions until every interested student has one. Maximizing involvement should be the goal. The student council need not be a governing body, per se, though it can be. Unless the college is a genuinely independent corporation, as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges are, it is just as effective to make the council a purely social and recreational entity. The council should always have refreshments at its meetings (food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college), and it should be understood that these meetings are always open to all members of the college: everyone is a member of the council who wishes to participate.

Much of the work of the council should take place through committees. The most important of these is a welcoming committee that works closely with the master and the dean to introduce new members to the life of the college. Others can include committees to run the coffee bar and the movie night, to send birthday cards to members, to maintain the college gardens, to promote recycling and environmental stewardship, to achieve world domination, to take expeditions to local places of interest, to recruit volunteers for charitable organizations, and so on. It is wise to have two chairs for each committee so they can support each other and so there will be someone to carry on the work if one drops out. A common pattern that you may see develop naturally will be for most of the committee chairs to be sophomores, and for many of the active council members to be freshmen recruited by those sophomores.

Proliferate dramatic and creative titles and offices across the council and throughout the college as a whole. The expeditionary committee in Strong College named its chairs “Lewis” and “Clark” after the famous American explorers of the nineteenth century. The committee in charge of advertising was headed by two ministers of propaganda. (Actually one was the minister of propaganda and the other was the propaganda minister, but I could never remember which was which.) The committee writing birthday cards for all the members named itself the card sharks, and the head of the coffee bar was called the despot. Students who were especially well-dressed were appointed ministers of fashion. A secretary of state or foreign minister might be appointed to maintain contacts with sister colleges at other universities (3.2.6). The college office (as opposed to the student council) might directly appoint a curator of the senor common room, or a college archivist and historian.

The dean or the master should attend all the meetings of the student council to offer advice and encouragement, and one of the resident tutors should act as secretary to the council, taking attendance and minutes at its meetings and contributing a sense of continuity. The council room should have a commonplace book (3.2.5) just like all the other common rooms in the college, and that is an ideal place to record all council activities. The council room will develop into a sort of museum of student activities, and this should be warmly encouraged. Further recommendations on the student council and its committees can be found on the page describing college life and the annual cycle.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021