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


Publication note: This editorial by Reynolds Price, James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, is quoted in full from the Duke University Chronicle for December 9th, 1993. It was one of the first of a series of editorials and reports on student life at Duke written by Price, William Willimon, Thomas Naylor, and others. Some of their other works are cited on the Collegiate Way’s Recommended Reading page.

Residential Colleges Hold Key to Fostering Intellectual Life

One year ago on Founder’s Day, I raised a question about the intellectual and spiritual health of Duke University. It was a question that had been neglected for years, with grave consequences for our community. A few months after Founder’s Day, William Willimon published his meticulous and devastating report on the quality of undergraduate life at Duke. Together, the speech and the report have triggered an outbreak of discussion that, however delayed, was eager to begin.

A quick retrospect of this talkative year seems in order now. As I’ve listened to numerous thoughtful groups of students, faculty and administrators, it seems to me that the initial question has at last defined itself: Does Duke University—and above all Trinity College, the heart of the institution—provide students with an environment that encourages an invigorating immersion in the life of ideas, the exploration of humane duties in private and public life, and the maturing of human relationships of a rewarding kind?

Almost invariably the answer I’ve heard is “No,” a “No” that ranges from querulous to thunderous. Without doubt, a sizable number of the citizens of the community believe that, if those negative responses are to prove fruitful, the question must be revised: Can and will the Duke community, in all its parts, develop and sustain a permanent atmosphere which focuses our energies on the steady expansion of our minds?

Some important related questions include: Isn’t our admissions policy woefully unambitious in its search for a serious and varied student body? Is our administration really interested in responding to the profound dissatisfaction of a large number of students and their teachers? Is the faculty conscious of its collusion in the ongoing failure to focus our energies? Is our endlessly rescrambled residential system remotely adequate to student needs? Should we continue to surrender to fraternities their all-male hegemony over a large percentage of prime campus real estate? Aren’t a great many students agreeing to lock themselves into a ruinous collaboration with the worst enemies of their last chance at an advanced academic education? Is the University so fragmented and somnolent that it cannot gather its wits and determination and find long-term solutions to these problems?

The first attempts at answers have been well-meant but, naturally, they have also been self-defensive and hopelessly inadequate to the size of the problem. We all know the exhausted but still repeated suggestions: Take a student to lunch. Lead a professor to cappuccino. Shift the freshmen to yet another quarantined location. Omit this keg or that keg. Find ever-more sympathetic R.A.’s. Create more interest-oriented, but so far ephemeral, living groups. Develop, after two decades of intellectual sleaze, a challenging undergraduate curriculum with responsible major departments. And end the epidemic of demeaning grade inflation.

To speak as one who has worked here since arriving as a freshman in 1951, it’s my conviction that, while the present dialogue is enlivening, it’s doomed to rapid failure if students, faculty and administrators don’t cooperate soon to envision and then inaugurate the kind of large-scale plan that is required before repair can begin. I’m likewise convinced that the absolute root of our environmental problem lies in the fact that our residential policy continues to deprive students of the physical foundation on which a far more meaningful education could be built. Until students have a permanent residential base from which to pursue their studies and their friendships with contemporaries and teachers, they can hardly be expected to function at their best.

Our dormitories, alas, were built as warehousing with no thought for intellectual or personal intimacy. Most of our dining halls are hostile to relaxed eating and conversation. Our agreement to segregate male and female students in a number of dorms, including all fraternity sections, is, in a private and nonsectarian institution, an indefensible discouragement to one more chance at a challenging atmosphere.

While I have no personal stake in a particular blueprint for responding to such enormous needs, I can summarize my own sense—after much listening—of the direction in which we must agree to move. First, we must commit to a fully gender-integrated version of the residential-college system of campus organization that lies at the core of many great universities, American and European. Such a commitment would require remodeling our present spaces, all in the effort to provide students with the civilized adult living conditions for which they’re presently paying but are not receiving.

The details of such extensive remodeling would develop as our vision developed. One physical necessity for all residential colleges, however, would be an onsite dining facility in which members of each college, with friends and teachers as guests, would eat together a good part of the time. A large portion of delightful and significant human communication has always occurred over food.

A thorough revision of our communal life, with more energetic cooperation from the faculty and a far keener eye in the admissions office, would, I’m convinced, provide at last the reliable base for beginning the improvement we need. I’m likewise sure the change would require two huge efforts: First, the development of a plan which all community members would commit ourselves to follow for decades and second, money for the project. Given that the University has learned to raise the millions for anything it really wants to accomplish—say, a business school or an immense medical research facility—I’m certain that would permit the creation of at least two colleges per year until all are completed.

The only remaining question is this: Do we actually mean to make of ourselves the great institution we claim to be—a real “alma mater,” a nourishing mother? I hope we all choose to be realistic and begin to say, “Yes.” If not, let’s admit we’re amateurs and have the guts to cancel our claim.

Reynolds Price is a James B. Duke Professor of English.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021