September 19, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Defining the Cornell Community through Residential Living and Learning

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Housing options for undergraduate students, after their first year, may seem endless.  But they are about to increase.

Finding good living arrangements while learning at Cornell is harder than grabbing an apartment near your first job after graduation.  As the sociologist Karl Mannheim noted, “free choice of personal companionship in private life, the inviolability of family life and tradition, and the right of free association should be protected from all interference…”. For independent minded, and self-reliant personalities, the choice of undergraduate housing can make or break an entire undergraduate career. Some Cornell housing options encourage self-reliance; others do not.

I can only refer to my own experience as an undergraduate (1966-1970) and my current experience as president of the educational foundation of an international legacy fraternity, and as president of an educational foundation associated with one of Cornell’s fraternities.   In that local role, my organization has has a huge old house that can accommodate up to 55 persons, and we need “heads in beds” to pay insurance, real estate tax, utilities, and for constant upgrades and repairs.  I guess that puts a slant on my point of view, but here are some facts:

For now, Cornell needs Greek housing.  The University’s housing stock, on campus, can accommodate about 3,000 students.  The rest live off campus – in Collegetown, Downtown, or further afield.  (One semester, I lived in a trailer near Greek Peak.  The night skiing was great.) Upperclass students can opt for University housing, but many do not.  Cornell now has a Master Plan to build a “sophomore village” on the (far) north campus, to house sophomores in one section and other upperclass students, in as many as 20 new residences.   This new construction will be funded by debt, secured by the approximately 275 additional students to be admitted to the University each year, starting in 2020.   Cornell, I’m told, estimates the cost of this new housing to be $160,000 per bed.  I guess you could build some nice residence halls for $44mm, each year, but somehow, I think it will cost more than expected and the construction may take longer to get started.

For the time being, this leaves rising sophomores with the old dilemma of what type of off-campus housing to choose, or to try for an on-campus room, usually with a room mate.

As part of the University’s research for its Master Plan, an undergraduate survey was taken in Spring of 2016.   (Cornell Residential Housing Master Plan Survey Results, Spring 2016). Cornell found that students living off campus were more satisfied with their accommodations than those living on campus.  Two reasons cited were: there is no supervision, and usually there is no room mate.   As an early, and steady resister of In loco parentis, I am heartened.  However, according to its Student Housing website, Cornell is offering something valuable that needs to be considered.  The current West Campus Residential House project, as well as the proposed north campus housing, offer “live-in staff support”, or Residential Advisors, some Live-in faculty, and even visiting Frank T. Rhodes professors.  These individuals relate to students through Dining Discussion Programs, and other means, sometimes on a daily basis.  Granted, it could be helpful to create relationships with these University representatives, and to partake of the on-going educational programming they offer, but one wonders, is there ever a break?  Is there ever a place and time for an undergraduate to figure out her personal life through direct experience, such as paying monthly rent and other expenses?  Dealing with everyday things in a responsible way?  I think that’s the draw of unsupervised off campus housing.

Some students want that off campus housing life, but also want to be close to campus, and to have more organized meal plans and social (not to say, also educational) activities.  Greek housing comes into consideration.  The program houses, and multicultural fraternal organizations, also offer self governance and small group intimacy.  Hopefully, the new north campus developments will provide distinct and substantial housing for MGLC, LGBTQ groups and other small organizations that see housing as a crucial element in their efforts to find haven, general recognition, and a way to create networks of undergraduates and alumni.

When healthy, and not compromised by personal agendas, Cornell’s fraternities and sororities are self-governed in the manner proposed by historian Carl Becker in his address, Freedom and Responsibility: with an inner sense of responsibility, a sense of decency and fair play, and, indeed, a mere selfish-impulse to justify themselves, as well as fidelity to all who compose the Cornell Community.

The Greek system certainly has its detractors, and there is a never ending list of dangerous or obnoxious practices that 18 to 24 year old invincible people can create.  Yet, these societies survive, some for over 150 years, because they offer that one thing no other housing solution has:  genuine, diverse, small group relationships that can connect on a global scale.  Referring back to my own experience, to suggest that these relationships are still limited to a particular class in society is incorrect. There are fraternities and sororities that emphasize diversity; I am part of one of them.

The Cornell Community can be a harsh place.   Students in competition with each other, horrible weather, and ultra-rigorous academics are factors that need to be managed.  Small residential groups provide a respite from them.  The University knows this, and has committed to a plan that portends to offer the same small group living experience.  But somehow, off campus, self-devised small group living, with strong networking capabilities,  seems to be a more enticing educational experience.


Donald A. Noveau graduated Cornell in 1970. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.