February 28, 2001

Moving Westward

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As the Residential Initiative continues to take shape and students learn more about plans to transform West Campus into a living-learning environment, concerns have risen from several sectors of the Cornell community.

The West Campus Residential Initiative was first conceived in 1998, as a committee of students, staff and faculty proposed a plan to replace the class halls and Noyes Community Center with a recreation center and five living-learning houses. Each house, complete with classrooms, dining facilities, live-in faculty members and graduate student resident advisors, will accommodate 300 students.

According to Jean Reese, project leader for the Residential Initiative, the West Campus plan will be further developed over the next two years. Once final approval is received from the University and the City of Ithaca, construction will begin.

At the earliest, Reese said, construction of the first living-learning house will begin in 2003 and students will occupy the house in August 2004. The four additional houses will be completed by 2009.

“The Residential Initiative is intended to create stronger linkages between students’ environments on the academic campus and the residential campus,” Reese said. “We want to decrease the divide between students and faculty.”

This divide will lessen, according to Reese, as students interact with their live-in professors in a more relaxed environment. However, the combination of work and play does not appeal to some students.

“I think that residential life should be separate from the classroom,” said Amy Gerhard ’03, who is a resident advisor. “There needs to be a social atmosphere in place, different from the school atmosphere. I don’t think these living-learning communities will decrease social pressure on campus. In fact, I think it will boost academic pressures.”

Other students echoed Gerhard’s concern, uncertain that a living-learning environment would succeed at Cornell.

“Overall, I think the idea of living-learning houses is good, but I don’t think they are right for Cornell,” said Jaimie Hanlon ’03. “Most universities where they work are smaller, with no Greek system, and everyone lives on campus. Because we are different from those schools, I don’t think Cornell will be able to achieve the same sense of unity and activism within the house.”

Reese acknowledges that factors such as the Greek system and the size of the campus will make the living-learning houses at Cornell different from those at other schools. However, she does not think they will take away from the intended atmosphere of the new West Campus.

“There will certainly be a programmatic focus on community building in each house,” Reese said.

“They [living-learning houses] have all the attractions you’d want in a program house,” said Leslie Barkemeyer ’03, member of the West Campus House Council, the committee heading the West Campus Residential Initiative. “The houses will be really plush. They will have all the good things about a program house without the time commitment.”

As living-learning houses replace traditional residence halls and Noyes Community Center ceases to exist, many students worry about the isolating effects these changes will have.

“I think students are going to be isolated in these self-contained facilities because there won’t be any interaction with the rest of the students,” said Farah Meghji ’04. “Without Noyes, there won’t be a facility where everyone can go. On North, they have [the Robert Purcell Community Center], and that’s a place where you see almost everyone else on North Campus at least once a day. Without something like that, it will take away from the social interaction.”

According to Reese, students need not fear a lack of social interaction in the living-learning community. The proposed recreation center, a 65,000-square-foot facility complete with a gym, basketball courts and fitness facilities, will serve as a gathering place for students.

Additionally, students can choose to eat in any of the living-learning houses.

“There will still be friendly competition among the houses, as well as a lot of mixing,” Reese said.

Many participants in Cornell’s Greek community expect competition will also play a factor in their relationships with the living-learning houses. In particular, several fraternities expect to see competition in terms of membership and housing options from the new facilities.

“As the President of the new fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau, I am primarily concerned with the healthy competition [from the living-learning houses],” Tom Aichele ’02 said. “During the A.D. White Leadership Conference [for fraternities and sororities], President Rawlings specifically outlined that one of the roles of the West Campus initiative was to strike up what he called ‘a healthy competition’ between on-campus housing and Greek houses in hopes of increasing the standard of living for Greek houses.”

According to Suzy M. Nelson, associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs, the living-learning houses could serve as a positive force of change in the Greek system.

“We are investing heavily in increasing the quality of our facility, which is definitely in response to any possible decrease in the size of the Greek community,” Aichele said.

“I think competition improves what you in turn offer,” Nelson said. “If you have no one with whom you compete, you don’t work as hard. I don’t think Greeks need to feel threatened because what we offer is really good. We might have to tweak our program a bit, offer new services and adapt, but I don’t think Greeks should feel threatened. Greek houses serve a function, and I believe they always will serve a function, to a certain population,” Nelson said.

Reese asserted that because the number of beds available on West Campus will not increase and living on campus is not required, Greeks will feel few effects from the Residential Initiative.

“There are some students who will find this type of living attractive, but others will want the independence of Greek life and choose to live off-campus,” Reese said.

For upperclassmen who choose to live on campus, a primary concern has always been the availability of parking. According to Carl Cohen, Assistant Director of Transportation Services, while parking can be an issue on West Campus, a great majority of those students currently seeking permits are able to attain them. However, the living-learning houses will be entirely upper-class facilities, and Reese admits that this will decrease the availability of parking on West Campus.

“We know upperclassmen tend to bring cars to campus at a higher percentage than freshmen,” Reese said. “We know there will be increased demand for parking on West Campus, and we know we won’t be able to meet all the parking needs.”

According to Reese, the West Campus House Council is working in conjunction with Transportation Services to devise solutions to this problem. Their primary focus is finding ways to expand parking on the periphery of campus to meet the increased demand.

“At this point, we don’t know exactly where the buildings will be, so it [changes in parking] is still pretty up in the air at the moment. It will all depend on where we are able to find space,” Cohen said.

Cohen doesn’t think limited parking availability will play a factor in students’ decisions to live in the living-learning houses.

“I know that what attracts students to living on campus is the program,” Cohen said. “If the quality of what’s going on in the program is of interest, students will want to live there. I
don’t think parking is what’s going to make that housing attractive or unattractive. It’s going to be what’s going on inside.”

Students generally agreed with this sentiment, although several said parking would still be a consideration in their housing decisions if they had the option of living on the new West Campus.

“I know that parking would be something I would have to think about,” said Abby Campbell ’03. “I don’t think I would choose to live there or not solely on that issue, but it is a big consideration when you have a car on campus.”

Despite their concerns with the potential effects of a living-learning environment on the campus community, most Cornellians saw merit in the proposed changes.

“I think Cornell is trying to do something really different, and change like that always causes some problems,” said Julie Kluka ’03. “But I think that if they are able to work through the issues, these living-learning houses could be a nice option for upperclassmen who want to live on campus.”

Archived article by Abigail Conover