David Brownlee

He and his colleagues had talked about Penn's residential system for years. The point, however, was to change it -- and it finally happened in the space of one short year.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Professor of the History of Art David Brownlee has sat on more than his share of committees charged with examining the undergraduate residential experience at Penn since his arrival on campus. And just about every one of those committees came to the same conclusion -- that Penn needed a "college house" system with advising, faculty residents, support services and special activities in each residence.

But not much happened.

Until two years ago, when Brownlee was asked by former Provost Stanley Chodorow to head the committee charged with implementing a campus-wide college house system. That committee came to the conclusion that the best way to set up such a system would be to just do it, which they did over the course of the past year.

Now, Brownlee is both the man who's in charge of the new system and an intimate part of it. He's director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services and faculty master of Harnwell College House.

Brownlee sat down with the Current last week and explained the workings of the new and improved college house system.

Q. How does the new college house system differ from the old one?
The principal difference is that it's vastly simpler. We have a housing system now that organizes all undergraduate housing as 12 college houses. Our previous model was three, or depending on how you counted it, maybe four different systems that ran parallel to each other. Each of the 12 college houses provides fundamentally the same services, and is staffed in essentially the same way, and reports to the Provost through the same mechanism, the Office of College Houses and Academic Services.
   Each of the college houses has a faculty master. Each has at least one faculty fellow. And each has a team of diverse graduate associates and resident advisors in residence. And across the board there exists the same ability of the college house to support programming and activities beyond the academic sphere.
   And we have matched that investment in human resources with some substantial construction projects to create new physical facilities. All of the college houses have computer laboratories. Almost all have seminar rooms. All have house offices out of which the activities of the house and senior staff can operate. These were all projects that were accomplished this summer, with the extraordinary efficiency of our colleagues in Business Services to thank for that.

Q. The new system draws on some things that had already existed here in some form, such as the themed programs like Science and Technology Wing. Do these survive in any way in the new system, or have they been transformed?
I think that I can say very, very confidently that all of the very substantial strengths of our residental system in the past have been preserved, and in many cases amplified, by the new system.
   You had mentioned just one of the things our system had in the past. It had within it some small programs where groups of students with shared interests come to work and play together. All of these programs continue -- we have grouped them under one general rubric, we call them residential programs now, and they continue to exist nested within and supported by the college houses.
   For instance, in the college house where I'm a master, Harnwell, there are half a dozen smaller programs within it, constituting one or two floors of students who come together around a particular area. The college houses can now offer these substantially more infrastructural support. There's now a house office to help them with their budget needs and with the pure logistical problems that you face in running a program: Where do you leave a phone message? How do you find a Xerox machine?

Q. Speaking of infrastructure, in some senses, our physical plant is not well-suited to the collegiate model we've just adopted. How have we adapted our space to fit it?
I think the bricks-and-mortar part of it is a significant issue because in some ways, the observation you've made is the one that has stood in the way of implementing a plan in the past. And we came to realize, as we surveyed our physical plant over the last two years, that the very diversity and variety of our housing is in fact something that we can claim as a strength -- that we offer lots of alternatives to students who at different times in their academic career want different types of housing, or to students who want for a particular reason the same sort of housing throughout, but it's different from what everyone else wants.
   What we are guaranteeing is that no matter where they will go, they will find the same supportive environment ... advising, counseling and tutoring support in mathematics, in computers, in writing and in library research.

Q. This actually sounds like a decentralization of some of the support we now offer. Was this a main goal of the new system?
I think it was certainly a conscious decision based on the realization that certain kinds of services are better provided in residence -- that there is, for instance, no great utility and substantial disadvantages in requiring students to physically pick up and move their computers from their room to a central location.
   Similarly, the fact is that most students find they need advising and support in things like writing and math during the time that they're studying, which is usually in the evening, and that finds them at home in their college house, and that's where to carve out that support.
   Likewise library research. They may be stumped late at night trying to figure out how to go further with a research project, and even after the library is closed, with the enormously broad and deep stream of data available electronically, they can actually conduct a substantial amount of research if they're guided as to where they can find it. And that's where the on-site library professional can serve them.

Q. My experience here is that usually, large and ambitious projects tend to take years to fall into place. How did this manage to happen so quickly?
It happened quickly because we decided it couldn't happen any other way. The reason that it had not happened in the past was that we approached it in a piecemeal manner and we had tried to micromanage it to an excessive degree. What we have succeeded in doing was to establish a broadly-defined, quite flexible program, and put it all in place at once.
   We received the commitment of the president and provost to do this last September, and we proceeded to do what they charged us to do, to have it all in place by this September.

Q. So now that the basic building blocks are in place, where do we go from here?
I think the thing that we do now is simple: we step back and let 12 communities of smart people of different interests and different ages work together to devise programming, to invent things, to develop the individual personalities of the houses, while providing, of course, across the board the same essential services. This is a project that works with nature, not against it, that works with people's natural interest in coming together to form communities, to shape those communities, to individualize those communities, and that is what we need to do.

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Originally published on September 17, 1998