President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Continuing Evolution of Residential Life at Princeton
December 13, 2006
Next fall, after seven years of deliberation, negotiation, and exhaustive planning, we will begin a new chapter in Princeton’s residential life. Whitman and Mathey Colleges will open their doors as the first two of three residential colleges to accept substantial numbers of juniors and seniors. When the physical renewal of Butler College is completed in the fall of 2009, it will join the other two as a four-year college. By then we expect that approximately 300 upperclassmen will be choosing to spend their last two years at Princeton in a residential college, and every junior and senior will maintain a formal affiliation (including non-departmental academic advising) with the college in which they spent their freshman and sophomore years. I have devoted two previous President’s Pages to this topic, but as our preparations near completion, I thought it would be helpful to review what we are seeking to achieve, as well as some of the practical steps we are taking to realize our objectives.
Two basic goals have guided the four-year residential college planning process: to increase the living and dining options available to our students and to strengthen and diversify the colleges themselves. The first of these goals is rooted in the fact that roughly a quarter of our student body has consistently expressed dissatisfaction with the two alternatives available to them in their junior and senior years, namely, to join an eating club or to live independently. As some of you know firsthand, there was a time when upperclassmen had a third choice. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, Woodrow Wilson College and Princeton Inn College (now Forbes) successfully accommodated members of all four undergraduate classes, but the introduction of the two-year college system spelled the end of this inclusiveness. By restoring—and enhancing—an option that many students once embraced, we hope that the quality of undergraduate life can be improved without detracting from the two alternatives that presently exist. Indeed, the number of additional spaces we plan to create for upperclassmen in the residential colleges has been carefully correlated with the approaching expansion of the undergraduate student body, ensuring that the pool of students on whom Princeton’s 10 eating clubs can draw will remain the same as now.
Some alumni have nevertheless expressed the fear that the four-year residential college system has been designed to compete with the eating clubs, reducing their appeal and, ultimately, achieving what Woodrow Wilson tried and failed to do with his Quadrangle Plan a century ago. This is not the case; indeed, I believe that a robust four-year residential college system is not only compatible with a vibrant Prospect Avenue, but also that Princeton will be a stronger University if both thrive. Nor should the residential colleges and eating clubs be viewed as mutually exclusive choices. Much time and energy this past year has been devoted to creating bridges between the two, ensuring that upperclassmen can, if they wish, enjoy the best of both worlds. As I write, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein is working with the eating club leadership to create a new meal plan that will enable club members and those who choose to live in residential colleges to dine in both locations. There are many details—and, yes, differences—to be resolved, but I am optimistic that our students will soon have the option of membership in both an eating club and a residential college if they so choose.
The importance we attach to broadening access to the benefits of both eating club and residential college life is also reflected in a number of other initiatives. In November, the Board of Trustees approved a plan to increase the amount of financial aid available for student board to cover the average cost of a club meal contract, which today is roughly $2,000 greater than the University’s typical meal plan. Previously, students had to cover this differential themselves or through University loans, discouraging some from joining an eating club. I am hopeful that a wider range of students will now give serious thought to doing so, making the Street an even more diverse environment than it is today. We will also make it possible for all upperclassmen, regardless of their living arrangements, to dine in the residential colleges on occasion. Beginning next fall, they will receive two free meals a week in the college of their choice.
In addition to giving students a greater variety of living and dining options, we see the advent of the four-year residential college system as an opportunity to make all six of our colleges a more faithful microcosm of Princeton as a whole; to end their purely underclass associations and create more multifaceted communities in which social and intellectual activities are actively pursued by all undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. The Sixth Residential College Program Committee highlighted the importance of bringing students of every age together when they wrote, “One of the most common regrets among undergraduates is the division that the current residential college system creates between students in their first two years and those in their latter two years. Possibilities are now limited for friendship, mentoring, and learning between relatively more experienced and less experienced students.” By mixing under- and upperclassmen, adding 10 resident graduate students to each college, and creating living space for college masters and visiting faculty, we will be introducing to the residential college system a much wider range of experiences, perspectives, and interests.
We also plan to support more activities in the residential colleges, creating new instructional spaces and improving the facilities and equipment available for student-sponsored recreational and artistic programs. At its November meeting, the Board of Trustees also approved an allocation of resources to encourage new student-directed activities within each residential college. If, for example, students want to stage a play, they should be able to do so efficiently and economically within a college setting, rather than scrounging for accommodation elsewhere on campus. It is our hope that students will develop a “signature” activity, such as Wilson College’s popular BlackBox dance club, in all six colleges. Coupled with a new approach to residential college dining, in which chefs are expected to design distinctive—and more appealing!—menus, the development of signature activities will help to distinguish the colleges from one another, further broadening the range of options open to our students and making our University community a more satisfying place for all.