The Dorm Transformed, continued


Birth of a College House
    The year is 1972. Near the entrance of Van Pelt, two bulletin boards announce that a room is now available for "all instrumentalists, studyers, dylantants, loners, and students." Reminders are posted about the scheduled "reenactment of the Crimean War" as well as the planned meetings of a dream interpretation seminar and what appears to be a Lord of the Rings discussion group. Two residents use the space to solicit dates for Sadie Hawkins day, while another notice heralds the return of affiliate—resident sherry parties. This is how a Gazette article (March 1972) describes life in the University’s first college house.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and the paper-postings have turned into electronic homepages maintained by each college house, with chat rooms and event calendars. The faculty dinners continue, but the sherry hour that once preceded them has gone the way of lamb-chop sideburns.
That’s not all that has changed, contends Alan Kors, one of the founders of the first college house at Penn. He argues that the current model of 12 college houses dilutes the student and faculty commitment, as well as the diversity, that made Van Pelt such a successful experiment.
Before the first college house was born, Kors recalls, "Penn was a very atomized university. Students, graduate students and faculty rarely interacted on an informal basis, scientists and poets rarely met, the engineers and string quartets rarely met, and seniors and freshmen rarely met." Drawing on their backgrounds as former students at Princeton and Harvard, Kors and Dr. Mark Adams, now associate professor and graduate chair of history and the sociology of science, devised the idea for a living and learning space to bridge these gaps. With the support of several faculty and graduate students, the two convinced former University President Martin Meyerson Hon’70 that "this would be a terrific alternative–for the people who wanted it"–to the existing housing arrangements.
Although they had Meyerson’s strong backing from the start, Kors says, "The residence office back then thought we were out of our minds: No students would want to live with faculty, and no faculty would want to live with students." The diverse mix of 160 undergraduates and 12 faculty and graduate fellows who moved into Van Pelt in the fall of 1971 proved them wrong.
Kors reminisces about noncredit seminars offered in the house on modern poetry and artificial intelligence. On any given Wednesday, he adds, 30 faculty would show up for wine and dinner with Van Pelt residents, knowing that the students would share their enthusiasm.
As the Gazette piece makes clear, Van Pelt was not a utopia. In typical fashion, some students complained about being excluded from the following year’s admissions process. Others raised questions about the elite aura of the house. Another resident complained of housemates who "impose themselves to the limits of my endurance."
Still, Kors speaks of the early days with a tangible wistfulness. "We had no social engineering, no speech codes," he says. "People offended each other all the time. Then they learned how to talk to each other and how to understand each other." But as additional college houses were created, and the residence office gradually assumed control of their operations, he says, "The students who truly wanted what a college house had to offer got spread too thin."
Brownlee agrees that "smaller, self-selected communities [do] have an intensity that no university-wide system can achieve everywhere," but he argues that one can find this in the small residential programs already located within six of Penn’s college houses. On the other hand, he says, "the people who just want a landlord-tenant relationship" can pursue it "in the private-housing community."
One advocate of living-learning communities like Penn’s is architect Jane Wright, of the Norfolk firm Hanbury Evans. Working with universities around the country to redefine student housing, she has observed the trend strengthen each year, representing a return, in her view, to an older model of academic life. From the University of Virginia to Washington University in St. Louis, she says, schools are planning to introduce or add more residential colleges to their campuses. "It’s a way for the larger universities to break down into smaller communities and have a closer relationship from student to student, and from student to faculty."
The benefits go beyond the merely philosophic. "If you look at the [college] graduation and retention rates, they’re higher when relationships have been built," she says. More universities are recognizing the role that housing arrangements play in fostering, or discouraging, community, Wright adds. "There was a point when a lot of universities" had to deal with a space crunch, and were forced to "warehouse students," squeezing as many undergraduates as possible into existing spaces. Such housing arrangements, they found, often contributed to "behavior-management" problems.
In contrast, well-planned facilities can enhance the academic experience. Wright has worked with the University of North Carolina, for example, to create on-campus student housing with modern amenities that will attract faculty. To entice professors to leave the "core campus" to teach, she explains, you offer "a great office, great classroom and a great parking space."
A front-page article in the March 3 edition of The New York Times attributes such initiatives, in part, to competition sparked by distance learning–the process by which students can earn degrees at some schools without stepping on campus. The article also cites parental demands for greater supervision of students. (Or in Kors’ words, "The generation that was stoned on pot every night of their lives is now deeply concerned about undergraduate drinking.") In the early days of Van Pelt, faculty and graduate associates living there served purely as intellectual and cultural resources, Kors says. "Penn has tended to infantilize its undergraduates, so we no longer have the notion of a graduate fellow. We have RAs and GAs who serve a police function."
Brownlee strongly rejects the notion that, under a college-house model such as Penn’s, students are treated like babies. "In all of our discussions there was not [this notion] that we needed to get on the backs of students and pretend that we were their parents. We simply had in our hands the tools necessary to change the general climate in which undergraduate education went forward at Penn, and [believed] we ought to pick up these tools."
No one is forced to participate in college-house activities, or to even live on campus, he notes. Those who do choose to be involved can exercise considerable leadership within their living environments, serving on house councils, proposing seminar topics and consulting on renovations. Even the coats of arms project provides a symbolic way for students to shape and reflect the distinct character of each house. Brownlee’s office selected designs submitted by four houses and had them tweaked by an artist over the summer so they could be reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, flags and plaques.
DuBois’ design excerpts the African proverb, "It Takes a Village," and features a peacock, for dignity, as well as a tree with exposed roots to signify family strength. Stouffer’s fiercely postured wyvern symbolizes valor and protection; the star, celestial goodness and nobility; and the moon, "serene power over mundane actions." The home-oriented motto, which Nestle U.S.A. (Stouffer’s parent company) enthusiastically permitted the house to replicate in Latin, speaks for itself.
"Part of the fun is we’re trying to create traditions," says Sue Smith, the associate director for communications in the college-houses office who is overseeing the project. "We’re relying on the students to bring some spirit to it." And perhaps one day, when they visit campus as alumni with children of their own, they will come across these coats of arms and launch into reveries about that indelible Penn tradition–the College House Experience.


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