College masters play defining role: Mentor, sounding board and friend

 

col·lege mas·ter (käl´ij mas´ter, mäs´-) n. 1. A senior faculty member at each resi-dential college who serves as mentor, sounding board and friend to the freshmen and sophomores who live at the college. 2. A wonderful teacher with the ability to imagine what undergraduate education outside the classroom might involve and the creativity and administrative talent to realize that vision. 3. A person equally eager to accompany students to a performance of New York's Metropolitan Opera as to sit in the college dining hall talking about life.

    

Princeton NJ -- The college master is a pivotal figure in the lives of incoming students at Princeton. Those who serve as head of one of the University's five residential colleges welcome freshmen to their new home, get to know them over meals and at gatherings and often become seminal figures in their undergraduate experience. On many occasions, masters end up forming lifelong friendships with former residents of their colleges.

"The most memorable part of being a master is the opportunity to make a difference in the educational experience and personal growth of students," said Nancy Malkiel, dean of the college, who served as the founding master of Mathey from 1982 to 1986.

Princeton's residential college system was established in the wake of a 1979 report of the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life. By creating the five residential colleges involving all members of the freshman and sophomore classes, administrators hoped to more extensively integrate dining and social life with academic life. Appointing a faculty member to head each college was a key part of the plan.

"It's a great job -- you get to build your Mr. Chips fantasy and create your small liberal arts college," said Miguel Centeno, a professor of sociology who has been master of Wilson College since 1997. Over the years he has continued discussions started with students when they lived at Wilson by e-mail long after they graduated.

"One young woman and I have been having a political battle for the last six or seven years, and she still writes to me as 'Master Centeno,'" he said. "It's very funny to have 27-year-olds still call you master."

The most delightful part of the job is getting to know so many of the nearly 500 students living in each college, said Lee Mitchell, a professor of English who became master at Butler this year.

  Students at Forbes College    chat with master Andrea LaPaugh
 

Students at Forbes College get the opportunity to chat with master Andrea LaPaugh at the weekly "Tea and Talk," a tradition at the college. Here, (from left) sophomores Yanshu Guo and Brittany Davis relax with LaPaugh and classmate Peter Landwehr.


"They're fascinating, extraordinary," he said. "They speak many languages, they are champions in various sports, they are extraordinarily articulate, they take courses I couldn't even dream of, and in 30 years they are going to be the leaders in this country. It's a delight to get them when they're young, eager and a little bit anxious, and to help them."

Serving as master brings the professors in contact with a group of students they might otherwise never meet. "You get to know the 95 percent of students who will never take your class," Centeno said.

And the interactions are very different from those in the classroom. "It's quite a change from being solely in a department and seeing students in computer science classes," said Andrea LaPaugh, a professor of computer science who has been master at Forbes for three years. "It's an opportunity to see students from a different perspective and to get to teach in a different way, not in a formal way."

Working in tandem with Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students, Malkiel finds candidates to fill the five masters positions. They keep an eye out for exceptional teachers, pay attention to faculty members who are especially gifted at relating to undergraduates and talk to department heads and sitting masters to get their ideas. "Sometimes we start the conversation with a prospective master years in advance of making the appointment," Malkiel said. "The timing has to fit." Those with young children or hefty research projects may be too busy to take on the position, which masters hold for one or two four-year terms.

Malkiel and others are now looking at how the work of the masters and the rest of the residential college staff (see related story below) must be adapted to handle the revamping of the system that will come with the expansion of the undergraduate student body. Beginning in 2006, Whitman College will open as a four-year college, and two of the existing colleges, Mathey and Butler, will be transformed into four-year colleges. In the new system, each two-year college will be paired with a four-year college to create more interaction between younger and older students, graduate students and faculty.

A learning community

As the people in charge of life at the colleges, masters are busy, juggling teaching loads and research with their duties at the college. They work closely with their staffs to build supportive communities and to devise programs and activities to extend education beyond the classroom. They invite speakers to the college and plan excursions to cultural events to enrich the students' intellectual lives. They participate in the training of resident advisers and in the delicate process of pairing roommates. And as the school year begins, they meet all the incoming freshmen and instill in them the philosophy of the college.

Michael Jennings, a professor of Germanic languages and literatures who was master at Rockefeller from 1991 to 1999, said, "We wanted an atmosphere of tolerance, generosity and warmth, where people understood they were living in a community and had not just rights but obligations, where they took responsibility for their actions."

One of the most rewarding aspects of the position are the frequent dinners and receptions with small groups of students. "It's a less formal way to get to know the students, and a way to talk to them about all that the University has to offer," said Jennings.

Masters often act as a substitute parent in a crisis, serving as a confidant for problems with roommates or schoolwork. That role exposes them to the vast resources of the University, of which they may not have been aware. "What is remarkable is this incredible support system the University has put together for the students," said Antoine Kahn, a professor of electrical engineering who is the master of Mathey. "It's a very tight system that acts rapidly when we hear of a problem, be it academic, psychological or social."

Masters dine frequently at their college and often bring their families, turning their rapport with students into a family affair.

"My kids love the Wilson dining hall," said Centeno, who has a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. "My son only eats beige food, and they have such variety in the dining hall that you can always get something beige, like pasta or fries. My daughter likes going there and hearing people say, 'Oh, she's so cute.' Plus, they don't have to do any dishes."

Maria DiBattista, a professor of English and comparative literature, became master of Rockefeller after her sons went off to college -- "maybe an extreme way of dealing with empty nest syndrome," she said -- and it taught her a lot about undergraduate life.

"It has enriched my experience of what a university is and what our connection to students can be outside of the classroom," she said. "It has really enlightened me."

 

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