President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Princeton’s Four-Year Residential Colleges: A Preview
May 11, 2005
The rising walls of Whitman College are a vivid reminder that the day is not far distant when Princeton will have six residential colleges. Not only will the opening of Whitman College allow us to expand the undergraduate student body by 11 percent, it will also usher in a new era of four-year colleges. Many alumni have asked me to explain the rationale behind these colleges, as well as their salient features, and I would like to use this opportunity to do so, beginning with a little history.
A century ago Woodrow Wilson proposed that we adopt a collegiate system that would, in his words, “associate the four classes in a genuinely organic manner and make of the University a real social body.” His Quadrangle Plan envisioned the absorption or abolition of Princeton’s eating clubs and was ultimately rejected by the trustees, but the communal spirit he sought to foster was destined to express itself in other ways.
The creation of Woodrow Wilson College and Princeton Inn College (now Forbes College) in 1968 and 1970 marked the formal beginnings of Princeton’s collegiate system. Both colleges integrated freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in a common physical, intellectual, and social environment under the leadership of a master drawn from Princeton’s faculty. Thanks to a wide range of college-based activities—from lectures to jam sessions—and the presence of resident and non-resident faculty, students had an opportunity to build a multifaceted community, offsetting the compartmentalization that all too often occurs in institutions such as ours.
Our current system of two-year colleges—Butler, Forbes, Mathey, Rockefeller, and Wilson—was introduced in the early 1980s to ensure that all freshmen and sophomores would have a place to call home as they adapted to life at Princeton. While this arrangement has served us well, it has not allowed us to take advantage of opportunities for intellectual and social growth that arise when under- and upperclasss students live beneath one roof. How to create such opportunities for those who would find them appealing has dominated many discussions of undergraduate life.
The decision of the trustees in the spring of 2001 to establish three four-year colleges will address this challenge by offering upperclass students a new living and dining option whereby they will be able to remain in a residential college for all four years. In keeping with Wilson’s original vision of a community of scholars, 10 spaces will be offered to graduate students in each college.
Beginning in the fall of 2007, Butler, Mathey, and Whitman Colleges will each accommodate approximately 100 juniors and seniors, a critical mass that will neither under- nor overwhelm the 400 or so freshmen and sophomores with whom they will reside. Forbes, Rockefeller, and Wilson Colleges will continue to function as two-year colleges, but each will partner with a four-year college to allow their freshmen and sophomores to take advantage of the presence of upperclass students in the sister college. Those students in two-year colleges who wish to remain in the residential college system will be able to move to the partnered four-year college for their junior and senior years. Moreover, all juniors and seniors will retain a formal affiliation with one of our six colleges, even if they choose—as many will—to center their social lives on an eating club or lead an “independent” existence in Spelman Hall or elsewhere.
This affiliation will permit an important measure of social and intellectual continuity, particularly with respect to non-departmental academic advising, which will now be based entirely in the colleges. The presence of a significant number of resident juniors and seniors will also encourage their non-resident classmates to participate in collegiate activities, helping to ensure that a student’s ties to his or her college are more than purely academic ones. In the words of the Four-Year College Program Planning Committee, “The colleges should be magnets that draw students back, places that complement, not compete with, other places where they may eat and live.”
As this statement suggests, the four-year colleges are also predicated on expanding the choices available to juniors and seniors while enriching the residential experience of freshmen and sophomores. In recent years approximately 70 percent of upperclass students have been members of the 11 eating clubs, while 30 percent have chosen to live independently. In the Undergraduate Student Government’s recent Survey on Race and Campus Life, 61 percent of upperclass students who belong to eating clubs and 81 percent of those who do not expressed the view that Princeton lacks sufficient “social alternatives” to Prospect Avenue. Our own research suggests that many upperclass students will welcome an opportunity to live in a residential college setting.
To ensure that students are presented with a truly attractive choice when considering whether to live in a four-year college, a task force chaired by former Rockefeller College Master Michael Jennings is currently exploring ways in which to broaden and improve the dining options available to students. There is general agreement that the quality and variety of food served in Princeton’s dining halls must be significantly improved in order to approach the standards set by Frist Campus Center and the eating clubs, that our serveries and kitchens must be modernized, and that the ambience, furnishings, and configuration of the dining halls themselves should be enhanced. We believe that each college should offer students a unique dining experience that is more akin to a restaurant than to a cafeteria. We are also committed to easing the restrictions that currently govern meal plans, especially in terms of their portability, and we are working closely with the eating clubs in this regard. I am delighted to say that a new spirit of cooperation has emerged from these conversations, which augurs well for the future relationship between the eating clubs and four-year colleges.
Finally, we are looking at ways to make our colleges more conducive to social interaction and instructional activity through improvements to their infrastructure. Whitman College, with its creative mix of common and private spaces, will set a high bar, but we are confident that our existing colleges will have their own appeal, giving all students a fuller sense of community and a wider range of alternatives than ever before.