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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Time Takes Note of Vanderbilt’s Commons

— Today’s edition of Time magazine, one of the most popular weekly news magazines in the United States, takes note of the new Commons at Vanderbilt University, the first-year component of Vanderbilt’s planned residential college system. Corresponding to the Yard at Harvard and the Old Campus at Yale, the Commons at Vanderbilt will house all of the university’s new students each year, prior to their move into the soon-to-be-built residential college buildings proper.

Although I don’t generally favor segregating freshmen in this way, on particular campuses there can be compelling geographical and historical reasons for doing so, provided it’s done right. Vanderbilt is doing it right, with a great deal of faculty involvement, and with an established plan for incorporating the freshman Commons into the complete collegiate system.

The Time story is written in the breezy, stereotype-riddled style common to popular magazines, and so my stuffy, nuance-riddled self has felt compelled to insert a few [editorial comments] into the text.

A Frosh New Start

If you’ve ever seen a New England boarding school or a Harry Potter film, you can picture the scene in Nashville: an idyllic campus with kindly professors who head the dorms, a dining hall that’s a social hub and a living room, interhouse rivalries and organized activities galore. But if you’re thinking high school, think just a little bit higher; this is the Commons at Vanderbilt University, a brand-new campus within a campus to house the entire class of 2012, 10 professors and its own Dumbledore-like dean. The school spent $150 million and a decade creating this community, designed to help 1,570 first-years get acclimated to college life. And the Commons is just the most holistic example of something that more and more campuses are prioritizing: the new freshman experience.

The goal is a living-and-learning environment that promotes both school spirit and responsibility to community among an increasingly diverse student body. Tactics include creating residential areas for first-years only, encouraging student-faculty interaction, extending orientation to full-term classes and hiring extra staff who plan activities like ice cream socials and watch out for strugglers. [Encouraging student-faculty interaction? Good. Full-term orientation classes? If students aren’t oriented to your institution at the end of the first week you’re doing something terribly wrong. —RJO]

Although some schools are postponing new projects because of the faltering economy, others are forging ahead with plans to emulate freshman programs that have long existed at some of the nation’s oldest colleges. And these schools are investing in neo–Harvard Yards at least in part to compete better for top students and bolster retention rates, both of which factor into the much studied college rankings by U.S. News & World Report. [The hidden headline of the U.S. News rankings is that half of the country’s top universities now have residential college systems. —RJO] That raises a question: Freshman-year coddling may help allay the anxieties of helicopter parents, but is the college experience—the time when students are supposed to push boundaries, establish their independence and become adults—just turning into High School 2.0? [This is a typical rhetorical gambit made by people who are ignorant of the residential college idea. I’ve heard it many times. —RJO]

As higher education adjusts to the needs of 21st century students, schools are trying to borrow from the campus culture of yore, when college kids spent evenings analyzing poetry in professors’ quarters. [Somehow I suspect that spending evenings analyzing poetry in professors’ quarters was never universal, even in days of yore. But the back-to-the-future interpretation is largely correct: the residential college idea is an attempt to reverse many of the socially destructive trends of twentieth-century higher education. —RJO] Research indicates that students are more likely to be satisfied with school and become campus leaders if they spend time with faculty. Which is why the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville created Core Connections, which lets mostly freshmen opt to live in two dorms where attendance at faculty-planned events is required. [Mandatory events are rarely a good idea. —RJO] The University of Maine now makes all frosh live together in dorms with new support networks. Ditto for Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where first-years are also encouraged to go on hikes with the profs who lead their freshman seminars and to debate them at town meetings.

Vanderbilt tries to make palling around with teachers the norm, believing that even casual exchanges with faculty can broaden kids’ academic and social perspectives. As dean of the Commons, Frank Wcislo has films and forums in his living room, a.k.a. Wcislo’s Salon. The 10 profs who live in the Commons’ dorms host similar extracurriculars, and 55 others have agreed to come hang out with frosh. But amid all this bonding with authority figures, there’s a risk that some students won’t learn independence. “A very small percentage of students see me as a father figure, but I try to discourage that,” says sociologist Tony Brown, who opens his dorm apartment on Friday evenings for rap sessions, using bait like cookies, Wii Tennis and his pet rabbit. “At move-in, I can’t tell you how many parents said to me, ‘Oh, good, you’re an adult. Please take care of my kid!’ But this was sold to us as an academic endeavor.” [Ha, commenting properly on this paragraph would require an entire essay. —RJO]

The school knows, though, that today’s parents are more involved with their college-age children than those of a decade ago, and it tries to accommodate, within reason. During orientation, staff members put photos online almost in real time so families can keep an eye on their kids. “You don’t want to just push helicopter parents away entirely,” says Angela Cottrell, associate director of residential education. Even undergrad residential advisers like sophomore Deno Saclarides do some parental hand-holding. After a call from the mother of one of his freshman advisees, Saclarides says, “I wrote on his door, ‘Sweetie, I haven’t heard from you in a while. Call. Mom.’” [Cute. Just right. —RJO]

Recent chats with students in the Commons suggest that the Hogwarts-like haven is off to a good start. Many welcomed the adult attention and said they were less homesick than their friends at other schools. A few were grateful to be able to take baby steps into college. “We’re all here in one place so we can be cheesy and lame together,” says first-year Meryem Dede. Some freshmen, though, complain they’re being deprived of role models closer to their age. “I feel disconnected from upperclassmen,” says Cole Garrett. [That’s exactly what’s wrong with segregationist schemes for freshmen in general. The problem will be alleviated at Vanderbilt in coming years as the full residential college system is established and students (as well as magazine reporters) come to see that the Commons is only the first-year component of the complete cross-sectional system. —RJO]

Corralling frosh makes it easier to prevent their dropping out or becoming misfits. But if you make freshman year one big group hug [More ignorant stereotyping. —RJO], will kids be unprepared for the wilds of second year? Maybe. And yet some colleges have concluded that the way to deal with the problems potentially caused by coddling is to do even more of it. That’s one reason the University of Maine is developing a program to help combat the sophomore slump by building on what first-years learned in Froshville. Vanderbilt has a $1.75 billion capital campaign to turn all the rest of its dorms into neighborhoods where some 5,000 upperclassmen and their professors can live and eat together. [That is, residential colleges. —RJO] “Twenty years ago, there was no talk of retention. It was just about getting kids in the door,” says Michael McLendon, who teaches public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt. “Now we want to make sure their education is social.” Let the study breaks begin.

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