The Dorm Transformed,
of a College House
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
affiliateresident sherry parties. This is how a Gazette article
(March 1972) describes life in the Universitys first college house.
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.
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.
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 Hon70 that "this would be a terrific alternativefor
the people who wanted it"to the existing housing arrangements.
they had Meyersons 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
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.
the Gazette piece makes clear, Van Pelt was not a utopia. In typical
fashion, some students complained about being excluded from the following
years 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."
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."
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 Penns 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."
advocate of living-learning communities like Penns 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. "Its 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
benefits go beyond the merely philosophic. "If you look at the [college]
graduation and retention rates, theyre 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"
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."
front-page article in the March 3 edition of The New York Times
attributes such initiatives, in part, to competition sparked by distance
learningthe 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."
strongly rejects the notion that, under a college-house model such as
Penns, 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."
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. Brownlees 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.
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. Stouffers 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. (Stouffers parent company) enthusiastically
permitted the house to replicate in Latin, speaks for itself.
of the fun is were trying to create traditions," says Sue Smith,
the associate director for communications in the college-houses office
who is overseeing the project. "Were 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 traditionthe
College House Experience.