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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Fundamental Decency, and, The Students Shall Lead

— I recently had conversations with faculty members at two different universities that are taking preliminary steps in the residential college direction. One faculty member is the first at his institution to live in a campus residential building, and the other oversees a new sophomore-only program headquartered in a residence hall.

The faculty member overseeing the new sophomore program said he and his colleagues had been expecting about 70 applicants for their program and wound up with more than 130. To my knowledge, this has been the experience almost everywhere that residential colleges have been tried. Universities that have only one or two residential colleges often find that demand for membership greatly exceeds the spaces available. When the University of Virginia established its first residential colleges they had long waiting lists of students seeking admission. When my colleagues and I established Strong College at UNC Greensboro we developed a waiting list very quickly even though the campus as a whole had a 20% vacancy rate. Although institutional leaders are often skeptical when the collegiate model is proposed, the students usually show by their own leadership that a collegiate environment is the kind of educational environment they want. As long as the students keep leading, the leaders will eventually follow. That should be a source of encouragement to us all.

My other colleague, John Richardson at American University in Washington, D.C., moved into one of AU’s residence halls this past year and is now known as “the professor down the hall.” (Whether that’s his official title or not I don’t know; perhaps we need a Latin version of it to make it official.) John was kind enough to send me a copy of an internal report he had written about his experiment, and I was especially struck by one very simple observation he made. I quote it here with his permission:

Most residents with whom I have become acquainted are smart, hard working, idealistic, considerate and fundamentally decent. American University’s student body is populated, predominately, by some very fine human beings.

This has been the observation I have also made about students in residential college settings, and it is something that most faculty are never really able to discover if their contact with students comes only by way of the classroom. I have been amazed, again and again, by the generosity, compassion, dedication, and loyalty that students exhibit, once they are given a stable framework within which those values can be expressed. The stable framework is the college itself: a rich and fertile collegiate ground will always yield fruit in abundance.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021