Faculty Who Live Among Students

Through 26 years serving as a residence hall faculty adviser, James E. Moore II discovered there are many ways to do right by the students with whom we live.

May 31, 2017
USC Honors House

I moved into an apartment in a University of Southern California undergraduate residence hall as an assistant professor in the summer of 1989. I anticipated serving as a resident faculty member for two to five years. When I exited the USC Honors House in May 2015, my service had spanned the Los Angeles riots, the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, Generation X, the rise of the internet, Sept. 11, two Gulf wars, helicopter parenting, the millennials, the Great Recession, and the U.S. Department of Education’s wild-eyed overreach with respect to Title IX.

I would still be at the Honors House today, rolling out the welcome mat for Generation Z, but the facility is being repurposed for child care. Expanding the university’s support for employee and graduate student families is an essential step in a relentless competition for talent.

In my role, I have attended multiple weddings involving Honors House alumni. My favorite ceremonies are the two marriages between couples who met at the Honors House, and the one in which I was enlisted to walk the bride down the aisle. Three Honors House alumni are now tenured university faculty members, and a fourth just stepped on the tenure track. Future faculty appointments are likely: several former residents are at present postdoctoral scholars or advanced graduate students.

One size does not fit all with respect to resident faculty work. There are many ways to do right by the students we live with. What follows is the approach I chose and some of the lessons I learned along the way -- not only about the role itself but also about student life more broadly.

The Senior Tutor

USC’s resident faculty program started small in 1979 and was incrementally expanded as part of the university’s shift away from its previous status as a commuter school. That transition included establishing a residential college system and recruiting faculty members to live in student residence halls and provide guidance and friendship to undergraduates. The effort remains an advanced work in progress, with USC currently constructing a $700 million project on a former shopping center site across the street from campus that will add 2,700 new beds to the campus housing stock, including eight residential colleges. USC Village is set to open in the fall of 2017.

Initially, we resident faculty were left to our own devices to define our roles. I defined mine as “freelance ombudsman.” Most often, the institution meets its obligations to our students very smoothly. Nine times out of 10, when a problem emerged, all I needed to do was suggest to the relevant personnel that we could do better. Scrutiny or the implied threat of scrutiny was all that was required. Nine times out of 100, I actually had to do some work to persuade someone else to do their job.

Eventually, I found standard language to characterize my role. At 36 residents, sophomores through seniors, the USC Honors House was too small to qualify as a residential college, and it would be an aggrandizement to label myself a faculty master. Instead, I decided that I was a senior tutor, a role subordinate to that of a faculty master, but including special responsibility for the academic progress of my residents.

Most senior tutors are tenure-track faculty members who are early in their careers, but I never aged out of my chosen role as I was promoted. I kept on using the senior tutor label, because it positioned the Honors House as part of USC’s emergent residential college system, and I liked what it communicated to my colleagues in the Division of Student Affairs about how I perceived my role, and how I intended them and the students to perceive it.

Many parents I met over the years seemed to share a (mostly) unspoken concern. Why was an aging, single man opting to live with their children? Was I sexually predatory? Physical intimacy with any student was a line I was never tempted to cross, even in my late 20s, when I first joined USC. I expect most or all institutions expressly prohibit sexual relationships between student residents and resident faculty, and USC is no exception. This stricture was moot in my case. Even in the abstract, the prospect of sex between any faculty member and any student felt to me just like what it is, a betrayal of both the student’s interests and the highest hopes of his or her family.

Over the years, I’ve watched the USC student affairs function and staff professionalize, just as they have at most other institutions. Positions that were once filled by staff members from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds are now held almost exclusively by school of education graduates from programs that focus on postsecondary education. One consequence of that shift has been a narrowing of perspectives and opinions within this group. The education profession includes a sharply defined emphasis on social justice, and most education graduate students complete courses that cover elements of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Unfortunately, competing points of view such as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia usually do not make the reading list.

Taken to the extreme, such a homogenous background can lead to outcomes such as the University of Delaware’s controversial residence hall program, which originators saw as a treatment mechanism for incorrect student beliefs on social issues but critics like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have called “Orwellian.” Then there were the administrators on Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee who felt compelled to offer students pre-emptive advice concerning the insensitivity of culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. USC has no staff members whose job descriptions include issuing unsolicited advice about Halloween costumes. Still, low-level tensions between the student affairs staff and me occasionally emerged over the respective roles of faculty and staff within our shared sphere and, I suspect, my libertarian views, which include a general disdain for identity politics.

My strategy for defusing conflicts with my staff colleagues was to emphasize our common ground however I could. I identified and focused on points of philosophical agreement between us, and deferred the implications of different opinions indefinitely. In general, that approach worked well. The staff could see what I was doing, and reciprocated.

My approach failed in a significant way only once. When student resident advisers were to be evaluated in part on the quality of the diversity programming they mounted, I required that any definition of “diversity” programming for and at the USC Honors House include diversity of ideas. The growing Rawls contingent on the staff was unenthused with my position, and in the end, the evaluation scheme being set up to track programming was shelved.

The episode crystallized my thinking about how best to serve my residents. Research university undergraduates are busy. Providing them with high-profile residential programming options reflects well on staff leaders, whose focus is by definition co-curricular, but is too often of limited relevance to the students the programming is supposed to serve. Undergraduates value practical help pursuing the objectives they have set for themselves and occasional assistance in selecting those objectives. New calls on their time are much less welcome, though I did talk the residents into letting me host them for a monthly discussion group with faculty from the USC Emeriti Center focusing on the two most recent issues of the Economist magazine.

Of course, every resident faculty member does the job in their own way. I know those who have arranged for a constant flow of administrators and colleagues into their homes and their facilities’ common rooms to meet and converse with students. Other colleagues have mounted film-making competitions, written and directed professional plays that they arranged for their residents to be able to attend, and brought prominent men and women to campus to visit with and speak to students in intimate, personal settings.

I focused most of my time with my residents on entertaining them and helping them to determine how to accomplish what they believed they wanted. My longest-standing teaching assignment is statistics, a staple and often stressful requirement across many majors. Multiple evenings were spent each week helping small groups of residents and their friends work through statistical concepts. You never forget seeing the light flip on.

My emphasis on academic support was a source of frustration for some staff members, possibly because it displaced a co-curricular focus in which the staff could assert standing with a curricular function in which they could not. One intoned that I had “really become just like a resident adviser,” a role performed by student staff. He has no idea the magnitude of the compliment he paid me. I was what you get when you combine the boots-on-the-ground, nuts-and-bolts focus of an RA with the academic experience and authority my staff colleague seemed to want for himself.

Lessons Learned

In 26 years in the role, I learned several important lessons from resident faculty service -- a superset of the lessons I expect all parents learn from interactions with their young adult children. Men and women respond to stress differently and ask for help differently. At any large university, there is some unknown number of students at risk of self-harm, and I learned vigilance. Nationally, women are relatively more likely to attempt suicide than are men but unlikely to succeed -- and generally are signaling for help. Male students attempt suicide less frequently, but those who do are much more likely to make lethal attempts. I encountered only one attempt in 26 years, and the young man survived.

Even the brightest young adult minds frequently exhibit irrational levels of risk tolerance. I learned to be ready to arrange for the occasional bail bond, and to have enough cash on hand to pay the bondsman’s 10 percent fee. Nobody deserves to spend the night in jail as the consequence of an excessively exuberant scavenger hunt or orderly civil disobedience -- at least, not if they lived with me.

Millennials are all too often sold short. They are ambitious, conscientious and compassionate almost to a fault. They can easily be motivated by shaming, but I had to be very judicious about using shame for behavioral control: it is their kryptonite.

Some lessons are lighter hearted. Hanging a few framed pictures in an institutional hallway has a profound impact on how residents perceive and treat the physical plant, and Goodwill Industries has a lot of framed art for pennies on the dollar. After some initial hesitation, I eventually put up a small Christmas tree in a common area, but not until jointly petitioned by a Jewish boy from Sacramento, a Muslim girl from Jakarta and a recovering Communist from the People’s Republic. They saw the tree as an opportunity for acculturation.

The most important lesson I learned is that I had an unexpected opportunity to lead the residents in the formation a temporary, evolving, but genuine family. I knew that if I let them get close to me, I would miss them more when they graduated, but I was going to miss them greatly in any event, so I learned to make my time with them as meaningful for us as I could. By the last decade of my service, I had matured sufficiently to open my heart to residents in the way that I expect real parents do.

As usual, men and women responded differently. I am very grateful for the handful of Honors House sons I acquired over the years but joyously astonished by the river of daughters who surged through my life. In the end, I understood that I was not being shortsighted or unprofessional if I loved them, and that it made them and me happy if I did.

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James E. Moore II is a professor in the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.


James E. Moore II

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