August 30, 2017

LAM | A Residential College System for Cornell, Revisited

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With the arrival of a new president, perhaps an old idea should be revisited. Under then-President Hunter S. Rawlings III, West Campus was transformed from a collection of undesirable concrete “U-Halls” into state-of-the-art dormitories with modern amenities, welcoming staff and gourmet food. The change was not merely physical, however. In 1998, the administration envisioned a community of “living-learning houses, each with faculty leadership and involvement.” And indeed, West Campus has become a set of houses led by faculty, and offers students a plethora of programs and activities. This was a good first step, but as the University plans to improve Cornell’s housing system, it should strongly consider an even bolder initiative: a fully implemented residential college system for all.

In the 1920s, Yale pioneered residential colleges in America and Harvard followed suit shortly after with a similar system that restricted membership of its “Houses” to only upperclassmen. Cornell has more or less emulated the latter, establishing North Campus as solely for freshmen and reserving West Campus Houses for a lucky few upperclassmen and transfer students. Housing on campus is in fact not guaranteed for upperclassmen, and much of the stress for Cornell students at the end of their first year ironically comes not from finals but from the hunt for a place to live next year.

Even West Campus, which is considered to be the “best” housing option for upperclassmen (irrespective of price), may only seem ideal from the outside. In fact, the community below Libe Slope can be best described as apathetic. Last year, I went to a film screening hosted by a friend who was a Student Advisor on West. In a dining hall that can host almost a hundred, a few trickled in for the entirety of the event.  When I asked whether she had put the wrong date on the promotion materials, she commented “Oh, it’s always like this.”

It turns out that even among the few attendees, most people were there simply to earn enough house “credits” to stay on West next year, and not because they actually cared about the picture. This screening was actually considered successful, as I later learned, since it’s not uncommon for only two or three residents to show up at other houses’ events.

One poorly attended screening should not condemn the entire West Campus initiative — as a previous resident of Rose House, I did go to and thoroughly enjoy some interesting professor talks.  But it does warrant a closer look into how far from the original vision the community remains after nearly a decade of service. During my time on West, I saw far too many lunches eaten alone at dining halls, programs unattended and residents uninspired. We can and should do better.

Cornell could finally fully commit to a residential college system similar to that of Yale. Residential colleges would be established on both North and West campuses and be open to students of all years, serving as the nexus of student life outside of classes. The existing smattering of residential halls on North Campus would be reorganized and converted into colleges themselves.

Currently, North Campus only houses freshmen, and while it is important for the freshman class to bond together as much as possible, the lack of exposure to more experienced upperclassmen can lead to new students making mistakes like succumbing to peer pressure and occasionally feeling totally lost. From my experience, knowing some upperclassmen personally can make all the difference in the world. In a possible new North Campus configuration, freshmen floors in the residential colleges would be interspersed with floors of older students, so that the new class can both bond among themselves and have access to experience and advice just a flight of steps away.

A feature that is key to a successful residential college system is the random assignment of incoming freshmen to a college with which they will be affiliated for their entire undergraduate experience.  A 2003 article in the Harvard Crimson asking why students at Yale seem to be happier fleshes this out: “In contrast to Harvard’s system of letting students create a blocking group during their first year, Yale first-years are randomly assigned to a residential college before arriving on campus. The emphasis on community engenders a strong devotion to the residential colleges.” For new students, receiving an affiliation to a part of the university automatically, after jumping through the hoops of college applications, can lead to not only to a sense of relief, but also an immediate inclusion in a new community.  And this effect will elicit more campus pride and engagement than all the free water bottles, lanyards and t-shirts the University can order in the world.

In New Haven, student concerns over the amenities and locations of building that are so common in Harvard and Cornell also fade away since students there feel such a large degree of pride for their colleges. For example, a respondent to the author wrote in an email that “‘I love my residential college — Ezra Stiles is the best college on campus,’” despite the fact that the concrete-based Ezra Stiles College is considered one of the architectural “ugly ducklings” at Yale. In fact, the author observes that “it appears that all Yalies feel they got placed in the “best college.” This overall feeling of excitement and pride is the goal the University should aim towards with the development of new housing. With random assignment, the problem of self-selection and the resulting lack of diversity is also avoided.

Presently, Cornell is effectively relinquishing its influence in student life by providing nothing more than the status quo of limited and uninspired housing. The housing problem in Ithaca and Cornell is a major headache for the administration, but can also be an inflection point for the University’s offering of campus life.  A larger vision is needed for this to happen though.  The recent Housing Master Plan survey found that many more Cornellians want to live on campus after Freshman year than expected.  And it is tempting to simply build more dorms, as is currently proposed.  As it considers its options, however, the University should remember that a fully committed residential college system can provide infinitely more value to students than a set of swanky sleeping quarters ever will.


Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.