Charles Gray | Making residential programs work
The Gray Area | A new program is a case study for how residential living should work
October 3, 2011, 7:52 pm · Updated October 14, 2011, 12:00 am·
The Gray Area
Let’s say you have a group of friends who are interested in Impressionist art.
You have spent a great deal of time talking about Impressionism over dinner or in classes, but you realize that you would get a lot more mileage if you actually lived in the same hall.
So you decide to submit an application to create your own residential program that is centered on Impressionism and submit it to the Office of College Housing & Academic Services. You describe what types of speakers and events you would hold during the semester. You also propose a faculty adviser who has expressed an interest in helping you.
CHAS concludes that you and your friends have a viable proposal. So the office works with you to find a College House that can host your residential program, and they help you advertise it in the spring so that others you previously did not know who have a similar interest could join in.
After this process is over, you come back the following fall and bring in art historians, professors and authors. You also see your friends at night and take breaks by talking about this issue. By the end of the spring, you have thought about this topic so much that you have grown as a group and also made relationships that will last a long time.
Thirty years ago, this sort of innovation in residential life was possible on Penn’s campus. Next week, it will be possible once again.
When the first College House was originally formed in the 1970s, it was created by a group of faculty and students who wanted a place where students would drive house programming. There was very little centralized guidance overseeing their efforts. These College Houses were supposed to be very different from dormitories, which already existed on campus.
“The difference between a College House and a dormitory is that College Houses are meant to be communities first and foremost: groups of people who support each other emotionally and intellectually,” Residential Advisory Board Chairman and College senior John Gee said. “These communities, of course, live in dormitories, but ideally they’re held together by more than the building.”
Over time, within these College Houses, residential programs were created where particular academic themes became the focus of a hall or floor.
In 1998, a centralized office — CHAS — was created to help administer housing on campus, and all of the dormitories on campus officially became College Houses.
At the same time, the residential programs moved away from programs that were largely student-driven to programs that were mostly driven by house deans or faculty masters. A formal process was never developed within CHAS to take new proposals from students for residential programs or to end old programs that were no longer successful. As a result, some programs that were developed by students in the ’90s still exist today, even though there seems to be little student interest in maintaining them.
These developments have made it difficult for residents to feel buy-in and take ownership of these programs. Many simply sign up for a program so that they are placed in a particular College House.
To move away from this trend, the RAB and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education wrote a document suggesting improvements to the residential programs. One of the ideas in this document was to create a formal process that would allow students to propose their own residential programs and identify particular College Houses where they would best be suited. Students would be able to put together a proposal during the fall centered around a topic — like Impressionism — that they would be willing to explore with the group of students they lived with.
This year, CHAS has agreed to pilot the proposal by taking student applications until November 7, and it’s a real opportunity for students to show the potential for college housing to be the heart of intellectual life on campus. CHAS has also created a mechanism to sunset programs where long-standing problems have been identified.
CHAS’ management of residential life has the potential to be successful, but there need to be more partnerships like this that can channel the interests of the student body in the spirit of the first College Houses 40 years ago.
However, this pilot requires your involvement if it is ever to become a game changer. During this fall break, get together with some friends and put together your own residential program. It’s time that we again make our residences real College Houses, the hotbed of intellectual life on campus — rather than dormitories.
Charles Gray, a member of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is email@example.com. The Gray Area appears every Tuesday.