The Dorm Transformed,
Sitting down in April to talk about the college-house
experiment, Brownlee surveys the campus residences like a patient gardener,
tending to the individual needs of his seedlings. "We are now engaged
in the process of harnessing the human resources that we put in place
to the project of building communities. And that isnt a top-down
process where you say, You go out there and build a community using
Formula 227 out of the handbook for community building. It is like
gardening. You plant things and step back and watch to see what grows
in a particular climate, where the soil is enriched by faculty and graduate
students of a particular kind with students of a particular kind, in facilities
of a particular kind."
To give an example, Brownlee refers to a blood drive
taking place that day in Hamilton College House, the residential tower
where his office is located. "I think its fair to say that
no high-rise in the past had sponsored a blood drive. But now this is
Hamilton College House, and it is the seat of the community-service residential
program." (Students committed to community outreach occupy the buildings
Harnwell College House, the high- rise where he lives
as faculty master, has traded in on residents interest in the arts
to organize a variety of cultural activities, including Saturday-evening
concerts in its rooftop lounge. With improved lighting, says Brownlee,
this long-neglected space has become a viable study and social venue.
Building upon its 29-year tradition as an active residential
community with a focus on African-American culture and literature, W.E.B.
DuBois College House sponsored a scholarly, community-service conference
this springa logical extension of a course taught on site by faculty
master Dr. Howard Stevenson, professor of psychology in education. The
house also has commissioned collages by a local neighborhood artist and
is raising money to create the Paul Robeson Student Research Center.
"These are the different flowers that are beginning
to appear," says Brownlee. In the coming year, he adds, "The
principal thing is to stand back and continue to provide as much support
and nourishment as we can for these things to develop in diverse ways."
Brownlee wasnt present for the germination of
Penns college-house system in the early 1970s, when a small group
of faculty, including Kors, organized Van Pelt Manor House around the
idea of undergraduates, professors and graduate students sharing intellectual
ideas and living space. He was heavily influenced, however, by his own
undergraduate and graduate years at Harvard, where he lived and tutored
in college houses. "I would say that the great lesson for me was
the splendid ordinariness of an academic community in which it is just
taken for granted that someone down the corridor knows something that
youd like to learn. When you have an interest, you can find support
for doing it, and when you have a problem, you can find resources for
solving it within the community."
On the surface Penns college-house system resembles
programs that have thrived for decades at Harvard and Yale. "It recognizes
that universities, when they operate real estate, ought to be operating
it to support their primary mission, which is education, not real estate
development," Brownlee says. But there are striking differences,
as well, he points out. Penn, for example, currently can house only about
55 percent of its undergraduates on campus in university-owned buildings;
as a result, a great number of students live in apartments off campus
or in Greek houses. Penns program is also distinguished by the large
number of faculty living among students on campus (currently 28), the
growth of small residential programs within the larger houses (with the
addition of a program focused on entrepreneurial management at Spruce
College House this fall, they number 19), and the 21st Century
Wheel projecta spectrum of academic-support services that can be
accessed from the residences, either electronically or in person.
those of us who have watched the evolution of the college houses over
the years, its quite a gratifying moment," observes Dr. Peter
Conn, an English professor and the newly appointed deputy provost of the
University. He has served as the first faculty master in two college housesHill
and Communityduring his three-decade career at Penn.
began as "a bottom-up, almost counter-cultural statement, has emerged
as a central part of the Universitys educational undertaking,"
Conn notes. "Students find themselves coexisting in their residential
spaces with all sorts of activities and academic services."
continues, "A large number of people deserve credit for this significant
accomplishment, including [emeritus English professor] Bob Lucid and [English
professor] Al Filreis, who led the residential faculty in the formative
days of the college house program, and David Brownlee, who is providing
superlative leadership right now."
even supporters of the college-house system, like Conn, are aware of challenges
ahead. "One of our principal challenges in the coming months and
years is to embed this new organization securely in Penns academic
culture, not just among students, but among faculty as well. Not all of
our students are going to be equally enthusiastic about the new system,
and not enough of our faculty are fully informed about what were
up to. But it needs to be emphasized that all of this is very much a work
in progress, and will take several years to mature."
students with late-night hunger pangs have long been able to phone for
pizza delivery, but those seeking help with differential equations typically
have had few resources to call upon after hours. With the development
of the Wheel, Penn undergraduates can avail themselves of a range of academic-support
servicesincluding math, computing, writing, library and foreign-language
advisingwithout leaving their dorms, or in some cases, even their
week we get an e-mail from two math advisers at Spruce," says Mike
Pezzicola EAS02, who has benefited from the Wheel. "They say,
These are going to be the hours, and they normally sit right
over here on the other side [of the study lounge]. You just go and sit
down and say, I need help with this concept or this problem or this
practice exam." In-house computing help made PC hookups at
the beginning of the school year a cinch, he adds.
many, the 21st Century Wheel Project is one of the most exciting
components of the college-house system. It "represents an exceptionally
shrewd use of technology and of administrative staff," Conn says.
"It also exemplifies our larger purpose, which is quite simply to
transform the nature of the undergraduate experience." In the near
future, he adds, "the Wheel will expand to include additional support,"
including a public-speaking component.
of the push to develop the Wheel, explains Brownlee, "was the fact
that Penn has four undergraduate schools with no center to provide these
services. What the college houses offer is one place where students in
all four schools can find these things."