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'Living as They Live'

'Living as They Live'
January 6, 2011

To invoke the image of a typical residence hall at a public university is to conjure pictures (or memories, perhaps) of cinder block high-rises packed with students living cheek-by-jowl for maximum cost efficiency. In recent years, however, a small but growing number of public universities -- from the University of California at Berkeley to Appalachian State University -- have installed faculty members in residence halls to live among students.

These programs may carry a variety of labels, such as residential colleges, residential learning communities or residential commons, and they span the continuum from smaller, themed housing in which faculty maintain a dedicated living space but seldom stay the night, to more tightly knit settings in which faculty and students live and study together. Such programs remain uncommon, according to the Association of College & University Housing Officers-International, and the reasons for resistance at public universities typically include the perceived cost of the arrangements.

And yet, some public institutions have turned to these programs because they can provide a range of benefits, from curtailing vandalism to boosting retention rates. In its report, "Promoting a Culture of Student Success," the Southern Regional Education Board noted that some public institutions have started learning communities, which it defines as a curricular model that actively engages students "in a sustained academic relationship with other students and faculty, often for longer than one course." The authors remark that larger universities, in particular, stand to benefit from the increased sense of community and connection that these efforts -- which include live-in faculty programs -- can bring.

While any growth in interest in residential faculty programs among public universities must still be called small and anecdotal, the administrators and student affairs officers of these institutions tend to cite a common rationale: it's a matter of how and where college students spend their time, said Gene Luna, associate vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina. “We’re beginning to see institutions be much more intentional about the connection between the 15 hours students are in class and the vast number of hours they spend outside of class,” he said.

The integration by public universities of residential college models reflects decades of data showing the benefits of living on campus, and how profoundly such environments influence everything from peer interactions to graduation rates, said John Gardner, president and co-founder of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. "They are venues where students are a captive audience for intentional influencing by the institution," Gardner wrote in an e-mail. "Thoughtful institutions don't want to leave this influencing to chance. It is just too important an opportunity to influence for good."

South Carolina boasts one of the more far-reaching efforts at a public university to inject an intellectual dimension into life outside the classroom. About 1,800 underclassmen, or nearly 40 percent, live in one of 15 "living and learning communities," Luna said. Each is organized around a theme. Some unify students of similar academic backgrounds -- there's a residential college for transfer students and another for honors students. Others orbit around a major or career goal -- for those interested or enrolled in pre-law, pre-med, engineering or music programs. Still others are based on areas of intellectual interest or lifestyle -- such as conducting research, sustainability, or health and wellness. And, perhaps most crucially, each has a faculty member living on-site.

Putting faculty members in close and informal proximity with students breaks down the barriers that can inhibit students, particularly early in their college career, from seeking help from professors, say many experts in student affairs. Maximizing the number and quality of interactions between students and faculty members can pay dividends later, they say. "Students will engage with the university and persist and graduate if they have meaningful contact with faculty and staff," said Luna.

In the broader context of higher education, such living and learning situations are not new. Private colleges have a long history of making use of this arrangement. Harvard and Yale Universities imported the idea from Oxford and Cambridge, and the concept retains support among these institutions. For example, Southern Methodist University is building new or retrofitting old residential facilities so that it can require, by 2014, all its freshmen and sophomores to reside on campus with live-in faculty. “We want to involve faculty in the lives of our students,” said Lori S. White, vice president of student affairs, explaining the rationale.

Some public universities cite similar English antecedents for their residential college programs -- though some began with relatively modest aims. West Virginia University launched its residential college program in 1996 at the behest of David Hardesty, who assumed the presidency there the year before. Hardesty attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and saw the benefits of the residential college firsthand. Still, the initial goal at West Virginia was humble: to minimize vandalism in the residence halls, said Trish Cendana, director of residential education. The idea worked. Not only did damage decrease, but a more important shift occurred. "It changed the tone in the residence halls," said Cendana. "It provided almost like an adult, a faculty member who was a mentor to the students who could say 'This is your home. This is your living environment.' It changed from a dormitory to a residence hall."

Since then, the goal of the program at West Virginia, which houses a professor in each of its residence halls (or in a suite adjacent to the building), has gone beyond law and order. It's now about academic support, mentoring, and creating an environment of academic success, said Cendana.

Such efforts depend, of course, on faculty willing to live among people much younger than they are. Tim Pearson, an associate professor of accounting and chair of that department, has been the resident faculty leader at West Virginia's Brooke Tower for 11 years. He and his wife, Lori, (who serves as co-faculty leader with Pearson), along with their children and dog, live in a townhouse about 100 feet from Brooke in exchange for a lighter teaching load, reduced service commitments and a $15,000 stipend. Pearson, now 53, said he initially became intrigued by the idea of living on campus after he received tenure, and he and a colleague were lamenting the motivation of their students. "What I wanted to try to see was where these students were coming from," said Pearson, noting that it can be too easy, over time, for faculty members to distance themselves from their students. "What I’ve kind of learned along the way is that they need to be engaged with the faculty -- both inside and outside the class."

Pearson and other professors at public universities who live in residence halls say the arrangement helps them as much as it does their students because it renders each party less foreign to the other. But it is not without its stresses, said Jesse Wolfe, 40, an assistant professor of English at California State University at Stanislaus, who has been living among students as a faculty-in-residence for four years. "Occasionally, a prankster awakens the whole dormitory at 3 a.m. by pulling the fire alarm, sending off piercing bells and flashing lights," Wolfe wrote in an e-mail. "And, of course, there are occasional very severe problems with drunkenness, dropping out of school, etc., but these are rare."

The problems are so rare that Wolfe said the biggest surprise of his job was how well-behaved the students are. And, while some students who are in an academic crisis will knock on his door at night, such interruptions seldom occur. More often, students flag him down in the dining hall to ask for help with a paper. "This kind of spontaneous interaction is a pleasure. Yes, it can mean rearranging my day's schedule, but it's rewarding," he said. Living in the residence halls is central to allowing those spontaneous interactions to occur and for relationships to form, he added. "My living in the res hall is essential to my work -- in fact, it's built into the job description," he said. "I eat dinner almost every night in the dining hall, which means that students regularly get to see a prof living as they live."

Though the program at Stanislaus is relatively small in scale, it has made a larger impact, said Jennifer Humphrey, interim director of housing and residential life. During the past decade, graduation rates among students who live in on-campus housing at Stanislaus have grown far more than for those who live off-campus. More than 35 percent of the CSU-Stanislaus freshmen who entered in 2000 and lived in residential housing graduated five years later. Those who started in 2005 and lived on campus graduated in five years at a rate of more than 47 percent. In contrast, between those two periods, students who lived off-campus saw their 5-year graduation rate remain flat, while their four-year graduation rate declined.

Murray State University, in Kentucky, noted similar benefits, though its program does not have a faculty member living in its residential colleges full-time. At most, faculty sleep three or four nights a week in space converted for their use in the residence halls or, in newer buildings, in a separate apartment that is part of the facility, said Don Robertson, vice president for student affairs. The program assigns all of Murray State's 10,000 undergraduates -- including commuter students -- to live in or be members of one of the campus's residential colleges, each with its own colors, intramural activities, honor societies and occasional seminars. When the program started in 1996, the idea was to make the university more intimate and, in the process, to improve retention, said Robertson. There is some evidence to suggest that it has worked as part of a larger, campus-wide push. The retention rate from freshman to sophomore year stood at 62 percent before the residential colleges program started. Now, it's at 78 percent. The six-year graduation rate went from 45 percent to 58 percent, according to college data. "There’s been a number of factors, but I think the colleges have been a major player in that," said Robertson.

For all of the apparent effectiveness of residential colleges, obstacles to their wider adoption remain, particularly at large, public research universities. In many cases, the tenure process doesn’t reward this type of service the same way it does scholarship and teaching, observers say. This often limits the pool of potential residential faculty to those who have received tenure, and not every professor who has passed that milestone wants to revert to living with undergraduates. Moreover, while it once may have been the duty of faculty members to attend to the out-of-class life of their students, this has been seen for decades as the province of student affairs officers.

Another reason is money. Separate apartments for faculty, along with space for seminars, dining halls and formal and informal learning, do not generate revenue the way a typical dormitory does. "That begins to be an expensive venture," said Luna of South Carolina. "The pushback on non-revenue space comes from the business part of the university." Money can seep out in other ways, too. At many colleges, residential faculty trade half of their teaching load for the added responsibility of serving in their live-in capacity. The university has to find other people, who are adjuncts in many cases, to carry the remaining classes. This tradeoff can bring with it another set of academic and philosophical implications. "One of our challenges is that our college heads are some of our best teachers," said Robertson of Murray State. "The downside is that you’re taking that person out of the classroom."

Gardner argues that a larger philosophical decision must be made in order to counteract a long-held assumption of what residence halls are. This is made clear by how residence halls tend to be categorized in a college's budget. For decades, colleges have classified income from housing as an auxiliary source of revenue, he said, and not as "E&G," or education and general money that is seen as central to a college's mission. "That has changed in a big way in recent years. The focus now is on regarding residence halls as academic facilities to promote, very specifically, academic learning," said Gardner. "If all we want is 'housing,' we should let Marriott do it. We aren't in the housing business. We are in the higher education business."

 

 

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