At peer schools, college systems face expansion

With the anticipated construction of two new residential colleges looming and an increase in student enrollment on its way, students and faculty have been wondering how the landscape of residential college life will change — at Rice University, that is.

As Yale considers adding to its residential college system, two other colleges with similar systems are preparing to make big changes of their own. While Rice intends to expand its residential college system, Middlebury College has decided to halt construction on a developing system. Both schools have used the decades-old Yale system as a model in the past. Administrators at both Rice and Middlebury said they have found some of Yale’s practices work better than others for their students, and they will continue to look to the example set by their Ivy League colleague as they tinker with the system to meet their needs.

Residential Rice

At Rice, in Houston, Tex., the administration has planned to increase the number of residential colleges from nine to 11 in order to accommodate an intended 30 percent increase in their student enrollment, according to the university’s Office of News and Media Affairs.

Rice’s first four colleges opened in 1957 and were, like Yale, modeled on the college systems at Oxford and Cambridge, said Wesley Morris, co-master of Hanszen College, one of the first four colleges. The role of a college master at Rice mirrors the corresponding position at Yale.

“Our role is really to oversee all the operations of the college from academic advising to personal advising to disciplinary problems of a serious sort,” Morris said.

Masters at Rice live in houses next to their college, although at Rice all residential colleges are run by married couples, and husband and wife serve as co-masters. At Yale, masters’ spouses are given the title of associate masters, and are not seen as figureheads of the college community. Morris said sharing the role of master has many advantages, primarily because the position encompasses too many duties for one person. Also, students may want to speak to one master instead of the other in certain situations, he said.

While there are no “deans” at Rice, each college has at least one resident associate who lives within the college. Because masters and faculty advisors are focused on academics, the resident associates are more involved in student life, sometimes living in the same hallways with students, said Teddy Bucher, a senior at Rice.

“If the master is the parent away from home, the resident advisors are like your brothers or sisters,” he said.

Just like at Yale, students are assigned to a residential college before arriving on campus and remain associated with that college for all four years. Also, each residential college at Rice includes a dorm building, a dining hall and some common spaces as well, Morris said. Each residential college has its own student government, known as the college cabinet.

Each college cabinet receives a budget of $125 per student and uses a large amount of discretion when appropriating these funds, said Bucher, who is president of the Jones College cabinet. Jones College, which has the largest student population, has a budget of slightly less than $43,000 this year, he said. In the past, Jones has appropriated these funds to pay for laundry services for its residents.

Digging for dorms

Still, Rice is not always able to accommodate all the students who want to live on campus. According to Rice’s Web site, about three out of every four students lives in their residential college. At Yale, 87 percent of students live on campus, according to the most recent survey available conducted by the administration.

But unlike Yale, which offers annex housing, at Rice, the remaining percentage live in non-university-affiliated housing. Each college has a separate set of procedures to deal with overflow, Bucher said.

One significant complication to housing at Rice is the growing popularity of study abroad, Morris said. Currently, about 40 percent of Rice students study abroad, and as the program mushrooms, housing setups become increasingly complicated, Morris said.

“Our study abroad program is expanding rapidly, and that’s making it more and more of a problem,” he said. Morris said it is difficult to shuffle around student housing as different students leave or return at the semester mark.

Currently, only about 5 percent of Yale juniors study abroad during the academic year.

Morris said the anticipated expansion of the residential college system will likely complicate things further. At the moment, the new colleges are expected to be “significantly” larger than the existing nine colleges, he said. Before construction began in May on Rice’s 10th college, which will be named McMurtry after two donors, Morris said Rice sent officials to Yale to observe the University’s residential college system.

A ‘commons’ practice

As construction workers at Rice break ground on the new projects, construction of new dormitories has ground to a halt at Middlebury College.

Located in Vermont, Middlebury modeled its “commons” system — implemented roughly 10 years ago — after Yale’s residential college system, said Katy Abbott, associate dean of the college.

When the Middlebury college system was first introduced, the school planned to establish five different commons, each with a “faculty-head,” a position equivalent to master, as well as a dean and a separate dining hall, she said. Also, like at Rice, there are two faculty heads for each college, usually a married couple. Faculty heads invite speakers to campus through a system similar to Yale’s Master’s Teas.

“The role of the faculty head really has to do with creating opportunities for conversation between students and faculty that are not simply within the classroom,” said Stephen Donadio, co-faculty head of Atwater Commons.

The faculty head works closely with student governments for each commons.

“The idea is that the students will self govern and determine what they want the fabric of the social life within the commons to look like,” Abbott said.

Each commons dean, on the other hand, deals with the “nitty gritty” and academic matters, she said.

The Middlebury system grouped existing dorm buildings, and originally, it was understood that the commons system would allow students to remain in the same college through all four years, Donadio said.

While the commons system has many benefits, Abbott, the faculty head of Ross Commons, admits that it has not had overwhelming support on campus because it was “superimposed” on the existing housing system. Some Middlebury students say the commons system has a fairly loose feel, especially because each commons does not have its own dining hall.

“It is not really like a binding thing, and it’s not that important to people,” said Sofia Zinger, a Middlebury freshman. “I think for upperclassmen since it’s open [room draw], it doesn’t end up being commons related at all.”

Currently, Middlebury students are assigned to a commons their freshman year, but they are given the option of switching out of their commons each year. Students wind up “migrating” to and from different commons, making the current housing stock somewhat uneven, Abbott said.

A housing plan divided

The original commons design has not been fully brought to fruition, and with only three of the five needed dining halls built, the new president of the college, Ronald Liebowitz, has decided to change the initial plan.

Liebowitz determined that the plan would put too great a strain on the school and its endowment, Abbott said, pointing out that the college must be able to pay for not only the construction of new dining halls and dormitories, but also their upkeep and operation.

As a result, only two of the five total commons will likely ever exist on Middlebury’s campus as originally intended.

The adjusted system will next year call for students to remain in the same commons for their freshman and sophomore years, she said, and they will remain affiliated with that college as long as they are at Middlebury. Although juniors and seniors will have to enter an open housing draw, but the dean from their affiliated college will continue to oversee their academic lives and disciplinary concerns.

Some students have criticized the commons system by arguing that it unnecessarily compartmentalizes the already-small college, Abbott said. She responds to students who raise this complaint by explaining that their college “is their neighborhood, it’s not their whole life.”

Also similarly to Rice, the high percentage of students studying abroad can become an issue when it comes to housing, Donadio said. The fact that roughly 60 percent of juniors study abroad makes the housing system “enormously complicated,” he said.

While the eventual structure of the Middlebury commons system has not been finely-tuned, administrators agreed that some difficulties are bound to arise with adjustments to housing systems — a concern that Yale administrators will encounter as they continue to explore plans for expansion.

“There is no ideal system,” but what else is new?” Donadio said.

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