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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Cornell University Starts Along the Collegiate Way

— For many years, Cornell University embodied much of what is wrong with the residential aspects of university life, particulary in its notorious racially-segregated dormitories. But it looks like Cornell has turned an important corner, and its students will be much better off for it. Recent moves on the Ithaca campus toward the establishment of a residential college system are detailed in this story from today’s The Cornell Daily Sun:

Becker House Debuts

New residence hall opens on West Deckhead

Months of anticipation ended Friday, when West Campus’s new Carl L. Becker House opened to students, a little more than a year after its groundbreaking. Named for the legendary Cornell history professor, the 147,000-square-foot complex is located between Alice Cook House and Noyes Community Center.

Becker’s north wing, known previously as House #2N, had been completed by last fall and was incorporated into the Alice Cook House system while the rest of Becker was built. The north and south wings are connected indoors through a corridor that also leads to the house’s new dining hall. Becker houses 360 students.

“The whole point of Carl Becker House and the West Campus Residential Initiative is to blur the boundary between classroom and residence life,” said Human Development Professor Cindy Hazan, who will be living in Becker as House Professor for a three-year term with her husband, Nutritional Sciences Professor Rick Canfield. “One piece of feedback we were getting from graduating students was that they wished they had gotten more interaction with their professors. Here in Becker, we have 6 graduate resident fellows and 31 ‘house fellows’—senior administrators and faculty from a variety of disciplines—who will be eating at the dining hall, participating in house programming, and interacting with students in a less formal setting.”

Before being nominated for her current position, Hazan herself served last year as a house fellow in Alice Cook House. She said that Becker is building on the first-year experiences of Alice Cook House, thanks to the guidance of House Professor Ross Brann and the rest of the Cook House staff.

Cook and Becker are the first of five houses that will cover West Campus by 2009 under the $200 million West Campus Residential Initiative. Each of the five will house 360 students—75% sophomores, 15% juniors, 10% seniors. In designing the new residential college system, members of the West Campus Council visited and studied others—Yale’s, Harvard’s, and Oxford’s among them—and adapted those models to Cornellian needs.

One of the most distinguishing features of the system is the house meal plan in which residents must enroll. Under it, they are given unlimited meals in the house dining hall, 250 Big Red Bucks, and 50 out-of-house meals—up from 20 by student demand. Residents may also take advantage of a 24-hour pantry, complete with snacks, coffee, and leftovers.

In Becker, Alice Cook House’s mandatory Wednesday night dinners will be replaced by a rotating monthly schedule of meals—a Wednesday dinner, a Sunday buffet, a Wednesday late-night foodfest and a Sunday all-house brunch.

“We’ve decided to mix things up a bit,” said Hazan. “We’ll see how it goes, and obviously we’ll make adjustments based on student feedback.”

“Ultimately, it’s the residents who’ll be making the decisions about how they govern their living space,” said Jeff Ellens ’98, Becker House’s Assistant Dean and a former student of Hazan’s. “Whatever the students’ vision for Becker, we will help them bring it to life. This is their house.”

Ellens and Hazan said that students will take the lead in planning house programming through committees that will be set up in the coming weeks. Some ideas are already in the works, however, including visits by “Science Guy” Bill Nye ’77, an expert on Japanese hip-hop music from MIT, and a masseuse during study week. The two said that though Becker’s programming is not supposed to differ in any academic direction from Cook’s, they hope to integrate more of the arts.

This year, Becker will also host two courses, Philosophy 381: Philosophy of Science, and a Freshman Writing Seminar, History 100.61: Twentieth-Century African Icons, taught by graduate resident fellow Carina Ray.

Ellens said that he believes the West Campus and North Campus initiatives have succeeded in breaking down some of the ethno-social barriers that existed when he was an undergraduate: “Our statistics show that Becker is demographically representative of the Cornell population.”

Residents in Becker and other West Campus dorms will suffer through noise from the ongoing construction over the coming years, with all remaining Class-of halls and the Noyes Community Center being demolished to make room for the other three as-yet unnamed houses and a brand-new Noyes Community Recreation Center.

Despite the annoyance, Becker residents are thrilled with their new home: “I’m so psyched to be living here,” said Alyssa Pizzolanti ’07. “Becker is like Alice Cook House minus all the flaws. What can I say? This place is a palace.”

Like Cook House residents, Becker students will be allowed to reserve a place in their house in an end-of-the-year internal lottery. A significant number of Cook House students placed bids last year and, from the their reactions, it seems like many in Becker will as well.

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