Today, there are nine thematic residential colleges at Northwestern; in each, students live and learn with fellow scientists or film majors or artists—and they do so with inwardly focused/insular fervor.
Someday soon, though, there will be none—that is, if President Morton Schapiro has his way. Before he does, though, we need to fully understand what it would mean for the Northwestern community—symbolically and otherwise—if the residential colleges go away. And what it means may not be acceptable for many of us.
When Schapiro unveiled the strategic plan last fall, I realized there was no mention of residential life in the document. Schapiro said dorms were omitted deliberately, partly because the plans for improving residential life on campus are very much underway—tens of millions of dollars spent every summer renovating dorms, for example. It’s more medium-term than long-term, and that’s good.
He quickly added that he was still on the fence on whether thematic residential colleges—Communications, Jones, Slivka and others—fit into the residential roadmap for the next few years, as housing facilities campus-wide are renovated, rebuilt or even newly built. That’s not so good—at the very least, not for the RC system and quite possibly for the foundation of Northwestern community as we know it.
What he said struck me as a rhetorical flourish very similar to President Obama’s view on same-sex marriage: “it’s evolving.” I take this to mean that the President supports it, can’t do so openly just yet, but will work towards it in the meantime anyway.
Likewise, many in the RC system have reason to believe Schapiro would like to phase out the residential colleges, won’t say it aloud, and will instead make a series of incremental but significant changes around campus that point in that general direction.
For many outside the RC system, though, this doesn’t seem like such a big deal; most of campus either lives in big residential halls with nothing beyond wing- or floor-level unity or in disconnected off-campus houses.
But the dismantling and replacement of the cohesive residential colleges will also bring a major shift in Northwestern identity-building efforts and in the Northwestern experience. Contained in Schapiro’s I’m-on-the-fence-but-hey-here’s-an-alternative strategy is a clear rejection of the kind of community Northwestern seems to thrive on already. We may not have the strongest campus identity, or anything close to a sense of university-wide cohesion, but we do have incredibly close-knit, intensely loyal sub-communities. Northwestern is a dazzlingly colorful quilt of diversity and passion—a patchwork of academic enclaves, special interest syndicates, ethno-cultural clusters and fraternal networks. Schapiro’s plan might replace it with a brand new, this-size-fits-everyone blanket. I just hope it’s home-made, not factory-produced.
But enough with the bedding wordplay. You get enough of that at parties for innuendo-happy literature majors.
For university officials looking to steer campus culture away from fragmented, creative chaos and towards unified, synergistic brilliance, residential colleges—and residential facilities in general—are low-hanging fruit. Entirely dependent on the university, the structures are counter-intuitively rather malleable and severely susceptible to subtle, gentle weakening by clever economists. It’s easier to change a dorm from "thematic" to "non-thematic" than it is to coerce 400 student groups to engage in more collaborative programming and unconventional partnerships.
From this perspective, it makes sense to slowly eliminate these bright, self-contained spots of intense community in favor of a dimmer but broader network of residential communities.
The evidence pointing to a gradual phase-out of the RC system is clear. In the last two years, a new class of housing has risen on campus: the residential community, which rather suspiciously shares initials with the system it will eventually replace (the University wants to call them ResComs, but I haven’t heard that catch on just yet).
Elder was the first to be converted into a large, non-thematic facility with a live-in faculty master; as promised, Allison was then renovated and repurposed into a residential community last year. According to official predictions at the time of Elder’s transformation, there will be one new residential community every year for five years. In the same article, former Vice President of Student Affairs Bill Banis called the new class of housing “residential colleges on steroids.”
For the uninitiated, housing ‘roids apparently strip out the "thematic' element of a residential college (communications, science & tech, fine arts), enlarge the physical structure and add in a live-in Rather Old Person (and his/her family, quite possibly). It’s the combination of the diversity of sprawling, relatively undistinguishable residence halls and the heavy faculty presence of the deeply insular, homogenous residential colleges. According to purely anecdotal reports from my sources in Allison, the faculty master hasn’t quite been able to recreate the charm and small-college feel of the passionate, inward-focused residential colleges. But maybe we should give them time? And lots of money?
On top of the tens of millions of dollars every summer are spent in renovations (although Allison hardly needed them), and the president and his senior staff have repeatedly committed to adding a thousand beds on campus in the next few years (does that make us sound like a hospital, prison or both?).
The new vice president for student affairs, Patricia Telles-Irvin, toured residential life facilities days after arriving on campus, and has since declared that most are in order for serious updating and de-funking (not her exact words, as you might imagine). To that end, she’s hired Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, a veteran student affairs official and expert in housing development as the new assistant vice president for Student Auxiliary Services, with direct control over residential life and services.
I don’t have the answer to the residential life question, but I do believe we need to have a serious conversation about the kind of living and learning communities we want to create and sustain here at Northwestern before we move away from one of our campus’s community success stories.
Change is coming to one of the key pillars of the community we do have, and it’s time for us to decide how—and even if—we want to change residential life.