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Woodard-Lehman: A House Plan for Messiah College

How can nearly 3000 students housed in transient cohorts and no longer sharing a prescribed core curriculum meaningfully experience community and common learning?

—Derek Woodard-Lehman

A fine example of alumni advocacy for the collegiate model—like the residential college editorial by MIT alumnus Jay Weber—this essay by Messiah College alumnus Derek Woodard-Lehman appeared in the 12 April 2002 edition of the Messiah College student newspaper The Swinging Bridge (vol. 80, no. 15, p. 9). The text is reproduced here in full.

Boyer (in the) House: A Proposal to Restructure Community at Messiah

Our Once & Future Legacy

Though undoubtedly our most notable alumnus and a patron saint (of sorts) to some, Ernie Boyer remains a representative of an elusive ideal. Like most prophetic visionaries, his ideals and convictions lend themselves more easily to spirited discussion than disciplined implementation. While admiring his ideals, we seem unable to live up to “the hard sayings of Boyer.” My own encounter with Boyer’s work began as an undergrad, grew as a cocurricular educator, and blossomed as I prepared my MA thesis for publication. Nearing its centennial, Messiah College must review its past, reflect on its patron saint, and rediscover its future.

The College began as a small Bible and missionary training school, later growing into a mid-sized Baccalaureate College–General (Carnegie Classification). Essentially, this means Messiah is now a mid-size institution embracing the diversity of a university curriculum, while retaining an emphasis on undergraduate instruction—as opposed to focusing on research and graduate education (research university), or eschewing applied and pre-professional education (liberal arts). Concomitant with this expanding educational mission were increased enrollment, an enlarged faculty and administrative structure, and additional facilities. Messiah College currently enrolls nearly 3000 students, has adopted a university administrative structure, and intends major expansions of academic, residential, and social facilities.

While such expansion of mission, curriculum, enrollment, and facilities inspires, it portends dilution of those ideals and experiences distinctive of the Messiah experience. These ideals, ensconced as the College’s Foundational Values, are Boyer’s own. Of these, none perhaps is more vital than the “significance of community,” which serves as foundation and umbrella for the others (pick your metaphor). Community is also a central element of the College’s Wesleyan and Anabaptist heritage. Wesley’s “method” organized church members into “classes” for the purpose of discipleship. These were the original small groups providing for prayer, study, and accountability. The believer’s church ecclesiology of the Mennonite & Brethren traditions empowers the whole community of faith for ministry—not just clergy and professional staff. Indeed, Boyer’s profound public piety as leader of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching served as a “ringing call for the renewal of community” within the enterprise of American higher education. Thus, the question remains; how can nearly 3000 students housed in transient cohorts and no longer sharing a prescribed core curriculum meaningfully experience community and common learning?

An Education Remembered

By way of an answer, allow me to reflect on my own experience as an undergrad. I entered Messiah as a student-athlete and immediately connected to a community through the men’s soccer program. From day one, actually from two weeks before everyone else’s day one, I had a stable peer group encompassing first year students to seniors. Moreover, during summer orientation and registration, Dean Curry signed me into a closed 300-level history course, which technically prohibited first-year enrollment. Incidentally, the class included three upperclassmen from the team. The happenstance of Dr. Curry taking a risk on my intellectual aptitude and the big brother nurture of those teammates facilitated my transition into college life socially and academically.

Later, similar communities of educators and students invested in my learning. The student and staff leaders of Issachar’s Loft developed my ministry and leadership abilities, and then compelled me to invest in others. On a 40-day summer wilderness trip, Doug Bradbury (Founder and then Director of Issachar’s Loft) literally saved my life, risking his own in the process. Through a short stint as a Swinging Bridge writer, I made the acquaintance of Jonathan Lauer (Director of Murray Library). He and his family opened their home and hearts to me, including me as one of their own. Over the years they have served as an immense source of encouragement and strength. Through their mediation, my own family has experienced significant healing and reconciliation.

Tyrone Wrice (then Director of Multicultural Student Development) opened my eyes to the realities of racism and oppression. Through an informal discussion group called the Tribe, I encountered the community of color in Harrisburg. He, and those off-campus colleagues he gathered, met with my friends and me from 10:00 pm–2:30 am most Friday nights for the better part of two years. Through that group, I became a member of Wesley Union African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for seven years. I graduated and founded the Peniel Community Initiative, shaping a service-learning community allowing Messiah students to live, worship, and serve in the city, while commuting to classes in Grantham—profoundly integrating faith, living, and learning. A year and half later, I was deeply honored to serve a three semester interim stint in Tyrone’s post when he moved on.

In short, these people and learning experiences changed me forever; and they pushed me to invest in my peers, pursuing similar transformation in their lives. Regrettably, these most enriching educational experiences of my undergraduate career were not a part of the official program of education. They resulted from the extraordinary efforts above and beyond, or sometimes instead of tasks officially enumerated in job descriptions. Though involving learning from my coursework, more often than not my deepest education was outside the classroom and defined curriculum. And, they were by no means common to most of my peers. In answering the original question, another arises: How do we make such extraordinary learning experiences common and normative for most Messiah students, rather than joyous aberrations?

Home-Schooling Undergrads

All these include three common, and indispensable, factors: 1) Personal contact with educators outside the classroom producing deep relationships characterized by trust and respect, 2) Sustained proximity with other students (across the spectrum of classes, majors, ethnicities, etc.) throughout varied learning experiences, and 3) Nurtured connections between cognitive understanding, spiritual formation, and enacted living. Messiah College, reflecting on its heritage and legacy, wrestling with the vision of Ernie Boyer, and imagining its future must return to the bedrock of its mission and values: community.

One time-honored and proven means of mediating the tensions of the university ideal (breadth of knowledge and institution) with the liberal arts ideal (depth of common learning and intimacy of institution) is the residential college, or House system. The House system organizes all students into middle-level communities. Neither as large and anonymous as an entire entering class, nor as intimate as a small group Bible study, a typical house consists of 250–500 students. Houses are decentralized, residence-based societies co-led by faculty and residence educators, organized to provide for each student’s intellectual, social, and spiritual development throughout that student’s tenure.

Such a system creates stable communities over the course of a student’s four-year enrollment by eliminating the rampant transience of the lottery system. Additionally, the radical segregation of under- and upper-class students is overcome, allowing young to learn from old, enhancing peer education. Houses create a seamless educational experience through intentional, structural, and overt collaboration between faculty and cocurricular educators. And, as each House is responsible for its own program of activities, events, traditions, etc., a House system makes possible a plurality of student leadership.

In short, a House system offers every student a stable home in which she can know and become known by others. Students enjoy sustained proximity with peers, faculty, and cocurricular educators throughout every learning experience. Such a system provides an effective mode of delivery for those famous Messiah goods to every student, not just those fortunate ones, like myself.

A Modest Proposal

As the College proceeds with its strategic planning, imagining the Messiah of the future, let it consider the virtues of a campus-wide residential education program implemented via a House system. Minimally, this will encourage fruitful dialog between faculty and cocurricular educators, and between trustees and administrators, and between students and the institution serving them. Such discussion may yield plans in addition to, and in concert with existing plans such as the proposed student union. Moreover, this process may reshape and redirect current plans toward new and more innovative ends. Messiah College, through adoption of a campus-wide House system, will join other leading institutions on the cutting edge of innovative residence education, places like Oxford, University of Bremen, Universidad de las Americas, Yale, Harvard, Northwestern, Rice, University of Virginia, Colby, St. Lawrence, and Vanderbilt. In addition to joining such esteemed company, Messiah would take the lead as the only CCCU institution implementing a campus-wide residence education initiative.

When the College builds its next residence hall, let it be a House; not a sterile cinder block warehouse. In honor of our patron saint, let us call it Boyer House. And may it be a place where students, faculty, and cocurricular educators find a home. May it truly embody Boyer’s ideals, and those of our Foundational Values. As John Henry Newman said, may Boyer House be a place where “the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each.” Let Boyer House become “an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one.” A House System embodies the best of our tradition and heritage. It implements the vision and hope of Ernie Boyer with disciplined creativity. Home-schooling undergraduates is our once and future legacy.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021