Making Student Life Educational

Colgate wants to enrich the out-of-classroom experience by giving undergraduates more responsibility.
March 30, 2005

On a Saturday night in upstate New York, about 40 Colgate University students, mostly underclassmen, swirl and sway in front of a student band dressed vaguely like the Village People.

One woman stands in front of a picture of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and shakes an arm full of bangles. Another, wearing a vinyl mini-skirt, dances on a speaker, flipping from side to side a ponytail that juts diagonally away from her head. Most of the students, however, are in jeans, cautiously bopping their heads to the music.  

This is the second annual "Decades Party" at the Bunche House, a Colgate dormitory for students interested in social justice. Ilyse Morgenstein, a senior, is the one wearing the mesh tank top over a t-shirt. She organized the get-together. Right now, she is busy swing dancing, thrusting one striped-sock-clad leg between the legs of a friend dressed in a polyester jogging suit. 

Morgenstein is having fun, but she wanted more people to show up. She had to get the party approved weeks ago to get school funding, and spent hours earlier in the day cutting fruit and hanging pictures to emphasize the 1920s to '90s motif.  "To get approved, you have to show that you have a real theme," she said. "So underclassmen who can’t drink can still feel like part of the party."

The caterers, who are in charge of checking IDs so that students do not have to, cost $3,000. With few upperclassmen, the event will be hard-pressed to make back much money from the $2, decade-themed drinks the caterers are selling. "It’s kind of bad to make no money back," Morgenstein said. "Because it might be harder to get funding the next time. That money is for student activities, and maybe they can do other events with it."

Meanwhile, groups of students trudged through the snow outside, passing Bunche House and going further down Broad Street in favor of "something that is going on at Theta Chi," as one freshman put it.  "I don’t know exactly what it is, but it will be the bomb."

The event turns out to be a nacho sale organized by Colgate sororities, and held at the Theta Chi fraternity house. Money from the event will go toward defibrillators for the local police department.  The nacho sale, just a block away, is not a party, but draws 125 students.  

Organized, funded theme parties, like the decades party, are part of a push at Colgate to overhaul student life. Often referred to as Residential Education, or "Res Ed," the new approach, now in its second year, is based on "capturing the educational moment," says Adam Weinberg, dean of the college, at a school historically not known for intellectual life beyond the classroom.

Rather than simply a time to push textbooks under the bed, a Res Ed party is an exercise in planning, from managing finances to safety. So far, there have been no alcohol related problems at any of more than 100 university-sanctioned parties. "I don’t care if they throw a good party," Weinberg said. "I care if they can plan and assess their goals." Weinberg said that he would never expect to be able to eradicate alcohol related problems, but that already there has been a vast improvement over the past, when parties routinely had widespread underage drinking and noise complaints, and sometimes fights and health emergencies.

Colgate’s effort comes while many colleges are struggling with how to promote activities that revolve around more than drinking, and to maximize the education students get outside the classroom. The push at Colgate also reflects a sense that approaches focused solely on prohibition-style alcohol rules are doomed to fail.

One of the most novel Res Ed programs, "Breaking Bread," is an attempt to show students with divergent interests that they can meet in a relaxed atmosphere, even if it isn’t over a beer.

Breaking Bread gives students $100 to go grocery shopping so long as dinner serves multiple student groups that do not typically meet. "After the Constitution, the potluck dinner is the greatest invention of democracy," Weinberg said. One of Breaking Bread’s most resounding successes was a feast for Sisters of the Round Table, an organization of minority women, and Rainbow Alliance, a group for gay students.

About 15 students sat down to corn bread, mac and cheese and fried chicken and talked about gender issues in minority communities. "We talked about family experiences and racism within the queer community," said Jack Skelton, a senior who identifies himself as queer. "It was a comfortable space to talk. It was probably one of the better experiences I’ve had on campus.”

Of course, many student interactions will not be as positive as Skelton’s. But, Weinberg says, even the classic nightmares of freshman year are potential "educational moments." "We don’t want to miss a great moment like that first dispute of college with your roommate or neighbor," Weinberg said, adding that it should be a time to test problem solving skills. "There’s so much potential for learning there."

It is all part of the vision Weinberg has for Res Ed, which he believes will help produce not only educated students, but citizens ready to function in a community. He noted that in the past, when students had problems with neighbors, classes, facilities or administrators, they would come into his office with "10-page manifestos" detailing "what they wanted me to do. Now, they understand that this is their community, not a hotel, so they come in with coherent, one-page memos, and make a business pitch about what they can do, and how I can facilitate that. I’ve seen a complete cultural shift on this campus."

Still, students say that the culture still needs to shift a lot for it to be a "complete" change. Many of the upperclassmen, who entered Colgate pre-Res Ed, are practically oblivious to the program’s existence. And a substantial number of underclassmen not living in theme houses have trouble explaining just what they think Res Ed is.  

Struggles for Resident Advisers

Traditional R.A. roles, which Weinberg sees as too authoritarian, have also been slow to change.  Rather than having R.A.s bang on doors SWAT team-style to bust troublemakers, Weinberg wants residence halls to function like apartment buildings, where tenants try to resolve their disputes. "In real life, you problem solve in your neighborhood. We want students to problem solve in the residence hall.  That’s their community," he said. "If a neighbor is loud, we’d prefer to have the R.A. empower the complaining resident, give them the skills to address the neighbor, without threats."

But so many of the R.A.s are used to rigid training that equips them only with the ability to threaten troublesome residents with punishment -- for them, a new concept of the job has been slow to take hold. Weinberg hopes to change R.A. training drastically. But, for now, it seems that some of the R.A.s are at a loss for handling dorm troubles without straightforward punishment guidelines.

One morning earlier this year, Sophia Gerde woke up to slamming doors on her floor after a night of fitful sleep. It was not the first time. "There was constant door slamming in the morning, and yelling," the freshman said. "I asked them to 'Please stop,' and they said, 'Yeah, we’ll try.' But they wouldn’t listen to me." So Gerde sent an e-mail message to her R.A. asking for help. The R.A. simply never replied.  "Sometimes you just need somebody to be forceful," Gerde said.

Other R.A.s are still confused about their social duties in the changing system.

One R.A., Niccos Andrade, once felt certain that planning events was part of his charge. "I really wanted a Super Bowl party," he said. But now social planning for dorms is largely shifted from the R.A. to a group of students called the "community council." Many of the R.A.s, like Andrade, who has not met his community council, are still in the dark about where their job stops and the council's begins.  

"I was going to plan the party, but I was told that was the community council’s job," Andrade said. He went downstairs to the lounge on Super Bowl Sunday expecting to watch the big game with food and friends, but the lounge was empty. "I was totally disappointed," he said. "If I didn’t think they would do it, I would have organized it myself."

Some R.A.s, though, have begun to find the community council an excellent means to involve students naturally in dorm life. When a few residents came to Kathryn Tripp about planning a movie and pizza night, she referred them to the community council. The women attended the next council meeting and were given money for pizza. The event came off so cleanly that they decided simply to join the council. Now, instead of going to Tripp, their R.A., the women simply "take initiative on planning projects for the building," Tripp said.   

Tim Mansfield, the associate director of Residential Education, is trying to inform students about their community councils and find and fix problems that emerge for R.A.s as they make a transition to their new roles.  

Mansfield walks briskly across campus. He is easy to spot, a tall figure in jeans and a black winter coat, going door to door on a quiet night on campus. Mansfield walks into an underclass dorm. He slumps so easily, legs extended out, on a couch draped with a maroon Colgate blanket, that it is easy to forget he is not just another student, albeit an older one, in a meeting where R.A.s air grievances.

The R.A.s, strewn about chairs and the floor, are comfortable being honest with Mansfield. They treat him more like a peer than a superior. "Look," Mansfield says matter-of-factly, "we’re in this together.  We’re going to take your job, put it in a box, blow it up, and make it something better," repeating what seems to be a Res Ed catch phrase.

The R.A.s have wildly different thoughts to share with Mansfield, ranging from total frustration with disobedient residents, to an “I love my job.”  One R.A., Anand Kapur, a sophomore, shares a story that sets Mansfield’s eyes aglow.  

Kapur said that several times residents have come home after parties and vomited in the communal bathroom. Rather than hunting the offenders for punishment, "I sent a mass e-mail offering the key to the the janitor’s closet," he said. "So far, people have cleaned up their own mess every time."   

Safety Measure or Land Grab?

At another meeting, an R.A. complains about one of Colgate’s most explosive issues. The university has purchased nearly all of the fraternity houses, a process known as "acquisition" on a campus where fraternities have traditionally dominated the social life. Any fraternity that does not sell its house will be barred from living in that house by the university next year. Dave Birken, a senior R.A., said he was coached on how to explain acquisition to his residents, but that it "utterly destroyed my relationship with them."

According to the administration, acquisition is largely aimed at giving Colgate officials access to Greek houses in case of emergency. "With difficult liability laws, we really need access to places where students live," Weinberg said. Many of the students, however, view acquisition as the administration’s attempt to "control the social experience, to put their stamp on Broad Street," according to Sam Higgins, president of Colgate’s oldest fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon.

DKE alumni, one of whom has his name on the athletics field house, have not yet agreed to sell the house. Instead, the DKE alumni corporation is suing the university for an "illegal land grab," according to Higgins. Asked about the suit, Weinberg, usually quick with answers, paused, and said, "We really want everyone on board." 

On Sunday morning after the Decades party, Broad Street glistened in the snow. It was quiet, at the bottom of the hill looking up at campus. A snow sculpture contest was scheduled for the day. The event was an attempt to bring together students from the Broad Street community, particularly those from fraternities and those from theme houses, for a little fun. The idea was that participating houses would build snow animals in their front yards.

About 14 students showed up, enough to build a single, giant sea-turtle in the snow in front of the Creative Arts House. All of the snow sculptors worked together handily to craft the five-foot-diameter reptile, dyed green with food coloring, staring out from Froot-Loop-encrusted eyes. Only two students from fraternities showed up.


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