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Nihil domo similior.

mblazoned on a scroll beneath a blue shield depicting a moon, a star and a dragon-like beast known as a wyvern, those three words roll mysteriously across the tongue, like the password for some ancient fraternal order.
   
What they form, rather, is an approximate Latin translation of the Stouffer food company motto, "Nothing comes closer to home"–hardly the stuff of secret handshakes and clandestine meetings, but a clever coat of arms for Stouffer College House (named after Penn benefactor Vernon J. Stouffer W’23). One of Stouffer’s student residents created the design during a coat of arms contest held in the spring for the University’s dozen college houses.
   
This nod to heraldry represents one small way that folks in the Office of College Houses and Academic Services hope to crystallize a sense of tradition and community throughout the University’s revamped system of on-campus housing.
    Last fall Penn turned all 12 residences into college houses where undergraduates live among faculty masters and fellows, graduate associates, resident advisers and house deans (see box). It made some modest building renovations (and planned much more ambitious ones; see story on page 22), hired additional staff and conducted extensive training on topics ranging from academic advising to cultural opportunities in Philadelphia. More than 100 non-resident faculty were recruited to participate in college-house activities throughout the year, while several faculty-in-residence took advantage of special funds to teach in-house seminars.
   
Penn dedicated space to three new residential programs for students with shared intellectual interests and expanded the delivery of academic-support services through the houses. It also attempted to better mix freshmen and upperclassmen, with the hope of promoting lasting ties to individual residences.
   
Across the country, universities appear to be adopting housing initiatives with a similar spirit. In the Ivy League alone:
   
Columbia University has created a new system of class deans whose offices are located in the residence halls and is constructing a new upperclass dorm that will serve as a living/learning center for seniors.
   
Dartmouth University is studying ways to provide more choices, continuity and interaction within student residences, with the goals of decreasing the number of students living off campus and eliminating student alcohol abuse.
   
Cornell University is developing plans and considering options to phase in a residential-house system for its upperclassmen.
   
College-house organizers at Penn say they weren’t motivated by trends or the drive of competition, but a long untapped opportunity to support the University’s academic mission through all of its residences, while also making better use of electronic communication.
   
"This happened now because the president and provost recognized what 30 years of planning reports have said all along: that this was an unutilized opportunity that Penn possessed," says Dr. David Brownlee, the professor of art history who serves as director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services. "It’s not a matter of a new or stronger argument, or really substantially different set of circumstances, but of leadership. President Rodin and a succession of provosts–credit must be shared by [former provosts] Stanley Chodorow and Michael Wachter–saw that this was a really powerful idea." Although changes probably have made Penn more competitive, he adds, "the leading issue was our responsibility for our own students–the ones who are, in fact, already here."
   
Whether students will fully engage in the opportunities provided by college-house living remains to be seen. The new system also has some critics, including Dr. Alan Kors, the professor of history who helped found the first college house at Penn three decades ago. By duplicating this residential model on such a large scale, he argues, "What you’re going to end up with is a college-house system in name rather than in programmatic spirit."


Sidebars:
A Tour of the Neighborhood
Civic Lessons

 

 

 

 

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/27/99