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


Publication note: This news article by Mary Geraghty about the residential college system at Murray State University in Kentucky is quoted in full from the 18 October 1996 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Two student photographs that accompanied the article are not reproduced here. See the Collegiate Way’s Recommended Reading page for more publications about residential colleges.

A Rural Public University Groups Students in Residential Colleges

Murray State hopes approach used by Oxford and Harvard will improve student retention rates

The least likely comparisons that come to mind upon visiting Murray State University are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Murray State’s utilitarian, tan-brick dormitories—with interiors done in cinder block—evoke none of the architectural grandeur of residential colleges at the British institutions. And while Oxford and Cambridge draw top students from around the world, about 86 percent of Murray State’s students live within 150 miles of here. Many go home each weekend.

But Murray State administrators have decided that although they can’t duplicate the physical structures or the student body of Oxford or Cambridge, they can bring the concept of residential colleges to this public university in rural western Kentucky.

Some elite private universities in the United States—including Harvard and Yale—have used the residential-college model for years, but few public institutions have tried it. The State University of New York at Binghamton is one of those that have, but it includes only undergraduates who live on campus.

‘More ways to get involved’

This fall Murray State assigned all faculty and staff members, all students—even those who live off campus—and even members of the Board of Regents to places in eight residential colleges.

University officials hope to give students something extra in which to take pride, as well as a place that feels like home on this 8,500-student campus. “If we break down the university into eight smaller subunits, there are more ways to get involved, more leadership opportunities,” says Don E. Robertson, vice-president for student affairs.

The president of Murray State, Kern Alexander, says students who feel a personal connection to some part of the university—in this case, their college—will stay through graduation.

Institutions like Murray State are struggling to keep students from leaving without graduating. A report last summer from the American College Testing Program showed that 26.9 per cent of all college freshmen did not return as sophomores, and that graduation rates at both public and private institutions were the lowest since 1983.

Low retention is a “major shortcoming” at many large public universities in the country, including his own, Dr. Alexander acknowledges. The freshman dropout rate at Murray State is about 32 per cent, and the overall graduation rate is around 50 per cent. “Students come and move into a big, high-rise dorm and have no attachment to the university in a social context,” he says.

He became convinced that residential colleges would improve student life after watching his sons participate in college activities when they attended Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge.

At Oxford and Cambridge, the rowing teams provide some of the most ardently defended traditions in the residential colleges. Murray State may establish a rowing club, but for now softball is the sport of choice for individual colleges in pursuit of glory.

Men’s and women’s teams from each college play twice a week through the fall. Before games, the players often agree that the winning team will be awarded the flag of the losing team’s college and can fly it upside down, beneath its own college flag.

Much of the university’s effort is now focused on activities that will create a sense of college unity, but Murray State officials hope that such athletic and social competition will carry over into intellectual pursuits. Murray State will encourage the colleges to compete in terms of academic rankings of their students.

‘Such strong value’

Dr. Robertson worked for two years with Dr. Alexander and with students and faculty members to bring residential colleges to Murray State. They also met with officials in charge of residential colleges at Yale and Binghamton. After studying those models, Dr. Robertson says, Murray State decided to convert the whole campus to residential colleges, rather than having just one or two colleges and leaving the rest of the dormitories as they were, as at other public universities testing the model, including the Universities of Michigan, Missouri, and North Carolina at Greensboro.

“We felt this was something of such strong value that is should be comprehensive,” Dr. Robertson says.

Explaining the plan was difficult at first. “Folks on campus had a hard time understanding that it didn’t mean, for example, that all the business majors would live together,” he says. “We’re also trying to stay away from one college’s being known as the ‘jock college.’ The idea is that if you pull out one of these colleges, it should be just a smaller version of Murray State University.”

Planning for the transition

One faculty member was selected to head each college. They, in turn, worked last spring and summer with a transition team of student leaders to plan for the opening of the residential colleges this fall.

When students arrived, the start-up process moved into high gear. Each college elected officers to a council, designed a crest, wrote and ratified a constitution, and started planning fund-raisers, athletic competitions, and other group activities.

Many of the colleges pride themselves on the variety of extracurricular activities they offer. Now, instead of joining in such activities with unfamiliar people from all over campus, Dr. Robertson says, students now join smaller groups whom they know from their residential colleges.

“Now, instead of having one opportunity campuswide for an activity, there should be eight”—one at each college—says Jim Brauer, director of student life.

“The easier we make it for our students to get involved, the more likely it is that they will,” he says. “Even a hurdle such as having to come across campus to sign up may be a roadblock they choose not to go around.”

Heather Fletcher, a senior and president of Regents College, says keeping many activities in the residential colleges makes them more visible to students who might not otherwise participate. “When they see all of us walking out to softball practice in our jerseys, they want to join,” she says.

She says she “didn’t feel one way or the other” about the decision to convert the campus to residential colleges. But many students and some parents were not happy about the decision.

When the plan was announced, says Christy Sivia, a junior, she was opposed mostly because the dormitories would become coeducational. “This is the middle of the Bible belt,” she says. “It was a big adjustment.” In the end, there was enough opposition to coed living that two of the residence halls were left as single-sex options; the two halls together make up the coed Springer-Franklin College.

Ms. Sivia also wasn’t convinced that the residential-college system would change anything. “I didn’t see how changing the name from Elizabeth Hall to Elizabeth College would make Murray State less of a suitcase college,” she says.

But now, she says, she sees more than just a name change. There’s a new attitude on the campus, she says, as more students sign up for intramural sports teams and vote in college-government elections.

About 80 per cent of the students in Ms. Fletcher’s college voted in the first election of officers to the College Council, she says. Previously, only about 20 per cent of residents voted in dormitory elections.

‘A more friendly atmosphere’

Jason Sykes, a sophomore, sees a marked difference in just walking around between classes. “There’s a more friendly atmosphere,” he says. “People say ‘Hi’ just because they recognize me as being somebody from Hart College.”

The faculty heads of the colleges say they have a connection with students that was not possible when they were together only in classroom settings. Their teaching loads are reduced by half to free up time to spend with students in informal settings.

Jane Hall, faculty head at Springer-Franklin, walks through her college’s hallways on her way to a meeting of students planning a float in the annual Homecoming parade. She greets each student as she passes, stopping to chat or to make sure that an earlier problem has been resolved.

Earlier in the evening, she was at the softball diamond, cheering for Springer-Franklin’s men’s team and making calls from a cellular phone to recruit a few more faculty players for the women’s game later on.

Ms. Hall and the other faculty heads say they’re doing what they can to encourage friendly competition among the colleges, as a way of increasing students’ pride and attachment to their colleges.

At the Homecoming-parade meeting, members of the Elizabeth College women’s softball team come in, elated and out of breath, to declare, “We beat Hart!” They do so with all the excitement of a victory over a long-time rival.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021