The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"A University Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill." ....John Henry Cardinal Newman

Commentary of the Day - November 1, 2001:  Back to the Future: Residential Colleges and the Reform of Campus Life - Guest Commentary by Robert J. O'Hara.

There's an old saying that "all politics is local."  What's true for politics is even more true for education.  Real education -- the substantive development of intellect and character -- depends upon sustained personal contact between students and teachers over the long term.  Common sense tells us this, and Richard Light's much-praised volume Making the Most of College (Harvard University Press, 2001) says that research shows it too.

But universities forgot the fundamental importance of personal contact between students and teachers when they ballooned in size beginning in the 1960s and became ever more centralized and bureaucratic.  No matter how many slogans campus public relations people may develop about being "student-centered" and "caring," a university with massive dormitory towers, vast impersonal dining halls, and central advising offices that students report to for fifteen minutes each term to have their schedules checked cannot possibly offer the sustained, local, personal contact that is fundamental to real education.

For a decade or so, quite a few universities have recognized this problem and have begun casting around for remedies, and so now across the academic landscape one can find learning communities, freshman seminars, theme halls, honors programs, and all manner of similar creations.  But in my view such programs are incomplete, either because they serve only part of the student population, or because they last only for one or two years.

There is a full solution to the problem, however, and it is very straightforward: large universities should be decentralized into small, faculty-led residential colleges.  Far from being a new idea, this is the organizational structure of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain and is one of the oldest ideas in higher education.  Although it is unfamiliar to many American academics, the collegiate model of organization is beginning to catch on at a number of American universities, as well as universities abroad where it had not previously existed, and this is a good thing for higher education.

At Oxford and Cambridge the colleges are independent corporate bodies, separate from the universities in a legal sense.  Oxford and Cambridge Universities can almost be thought of as confederations of colleges.  No one is suggesting that this degree of decentralization could (or even should) be adopted at most American universities.  Those who advocate the residential college model in the United States aim instead for the decentralization of housing and dining, personal and academic advising, and all the social and informal academic activities of the campus.

Residential colleges within a large university are cross sections of the institution as a whole, and include students and faculty from all academic disciplines joined together into a rich and vibrant social community. Because of their small size (250-500 members), they insure that all students are known one by one, and no student is anonymous.  And while the term "residential college" is usually used for these collegiate societies, they need not be entirely residential, and can be established within any university regardless of the number of students who actually live on campus.  Non-resident students can be members of "residential" colleges as surely as resident students can, because the college is a society, not a building.

One obstacle to the creation of such residential colleges, however, is a state of affairs that the faculty brought upon themselves a generation ago.  As universities grew and became more centralized in the latter half of the twentieth century, the faculty were more than happy to turn over the management of student life to a new class of full-time "student affairs" and "residence life" managers.  Now a generation later, the sad consequences of this decision have become apparent.  Detached from the academic structure of the university, the student affairs and residence life establishments have not been able to create meaningful educational environments for students.  Even more noxiously, some universities have come to see campus dormitories as income-generating tools analogous to parking lots and vending machines.  For more than a generation these deep structural flaws have cheated students out of the most important thing a university can offer them: sustained contact with their teachers for several years in a rich and diverse educational environment.

If the residential college model is to be widely adopted, as I believe it should be, much of the management of campus life must be returned to the faculty.  This cannot occur without support, of course.  The way it should be supported is by distributing the functions and budgets of student affairs departments out into the faculty-led residential colleges.  Under no circumstance should student life and housing be treated as business functions of a university.

The most important problem that residential colleges can remedy, one that came along with university growth and centralization, is the terrible loss of social stability in campus life, especially campus residential life in large institutions.  On many large campuses alcohol abuse and vandalism have proliferated, elementary discipline has not been maintained, students have been bounced from "freshman experience halls" to "health and wellness halls" to social fraternity halls to upper-class apartments, all the while never seeing any older adults except the occasional police officer or maintenance worker.  I have talked to students who have described their time on campus as "the worst living experience of my life" and as "unbearable and unacceptable."  For many years universities have been failing in their fundamental responsibility to support student welfare and have produced what William Willimon and Thomas Naylor have called an "abandoned generation" in their provocative book by that name (The Abandoned Generation, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995).

Small, decentralized residential colleges under faculty control can return meaningful social stability to campus life.  I have seen it happen.  Providing students with basic social stability is essential if we wish to encourage them to risk intellectual instability.  Social stability means elementary civil order is maintained, the buildings and grounds are attractive and safe, and most importantly that there is a weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythm of events that give students a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, something that existed before them and will continue after them.  The life of each year must build on the life of the year before, and students must know that their contributions to their college will endure and be remembered. In short, we must provide the students with good homes.

If they are to be good homes, residential colleges must be consciously crafted and continuously cultivated so as to provide a wide range of informal educational opportunities day and night, month after month, year after year.  Their object is to insure that students' formal learning the classroom is integrated in every way with their external life in the world.

Is all this possible?  It is, and it is being done.  The first universities in the United States to establish residential colleges were Harvard and Yale in the 1930s.  Their example was not widely followed, and the fact that Harvard and Yale adopted the model first has led to a misperception that it is only possible at wealthy institutions. Within the last decade or so, however, the residential college model has caught on at institutions of all types, from mid-sized public universities such as Murray State in Kentucky and Truman State in Missouri, to other wealthy private universities such as Princeton, and even to "small" liberal arts colleges such as Middlebury in Vermont, which has recently decided that its student population of more than 2000 needs to be subdivided.

Interest in the collegiate model is rising not only in the United States, but also in other countries where there was no tradition of it.  (Residential colleges have existed for some time in universities in many British Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.)  In Germany, for example, the new International University Bremen is being established on the collegiate model, and in Mexico the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla has recently established a system of colleges.  One of the founders of the collegiate system in Puebla is Mark Ryan who was for many years Dean of Jonathan Edwards College at Yale, and his collection of essays A Collegiate Way of Living (Jonathan Edwards College, 2001) is the best published work now available on residential colleges.

And of course the Web is now beginning to reveal the daily life and ordinary functions of existing residential colleges -- things that are rarely put into formal print -- and so can provide anyone exploring the residential college model with a wealth of ideas.  I maintain a comprehensive web site called "The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and Higher Education Reform" (, and it contains a directory of such residential college web sites around the world, as well as my own further writings on many of the topics discussed here.

By means of residential colleges, even a large university can come to know its children one by one as an alma mater -- a dear mother -- should.  One by one it can know the bold, the shy, the clever, the methodical, the poetic, the prosaic, the careless, the careful, the wealthy, the poor, the compassionate, the cold, the industrious, the lazy, the neurotic, the peaceful, the refined, the vulgar, the emotional, the analytical, the earnest, and the satirical -- in all their pied beauty.  That's how students deserve to be known, and when they are known one by one they get the best education.

©2001 Robert J. O'Hara
Dr. Robert J. O'Hara ( is a biology faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has thirteen years' experience in residential college life and administration.

The IP comments:  Clearly Dr. O'Hara's ideas have merit in the context of institutions where a significant fraction of the student body is in residence.  It is not so apparent that they could be implemented in those institutions where most of the "great unwashed" receive their higher education.  Namely, the community colleges and the urban comprehensive universities where upwards of 90% of the students commute to school.

What are your thoughts on Dr. O'Hara's suggestions?

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