Web Exclusives: Bonus Stories

June 9, 2004:

So close and yet so far
The centuries-old college system at Oxford is a limited model for Princeton

Robert E. Accordino ’03


During my first week at Oxford, a fellow Princetonian there warned me about my clothing purchases by telling me that only tourists wore anything with the university’s crest on it. I looked at all the new undergraduate freshers, who clearly understood the dress code, as they wandered around the city during orientation in their Trinity College tee-shirts, Balliol College sweatshirts, Magdalen College sweatpants, and Hertford College fleeces.

One could summarize the orientation for new students at St. John’s College with six words: “Do not walk on the grass.” If you’ve seen the pristine lawns of the Oxford colleges, you know why they do not want students trouncing on the turf. If you have not seen the magnificent and extraordinarily maintained grass, you should know that like everything else at Oxford, it is part of a tradition and will never change.

During my first week at Oxford, I also attended the International Student Orientation and the Department of Experimental Psychology’s Orientation Program, which began with the moderators’ making almost exactly the same ironic statement, “If I were to create a university, I would not organize it this way.” Thus, the orators dreamed of one day changing Oxford’s core organizational dictum: do not change the functioning of that which has been running for over 800 years (and as no one really knows when Oxford was founded, it may have existed even longer than that!).

Oxford has nearly forty residential colleges and well over two hundred faculties, sub-faculties, institutes, departments, and sub-departments. All of these entities work more or less independently. Each has separate e-mail accounts for its members. Each has its own admission process. Each has a separate library at which one must register. The University of Oxford is thus a loose consortium of entities with varying endowments and facilities of varying quality. It’s no wonder that the academic regulations guide, handed out during orientation, is 1,097 pages.

As Oxford “oriented” me, I reflected on the obvious differences with my orientation activities at Princeton four years before. That program included reflections on diversity, ruminations on roommate disputes, discussions of disorders—from alcoholism to issues with eating, conversations on classes, and many other activities. It covered almost every possibility of what could go wrong in college. During the summer before I arrived, I had received information on my “@princeton.edu” e-mail, which I proudly started using instead of my AOL account. I had been randomly placed into one of the five residential colleges after being admitted by the university. I registered at one library and then had automatic access to all of them. These small differences fostered a sense of cohesion that does not exist at Oxford. After all, it is not just Princeton’s suburban space and the proximity of most of its buildings that enable it to be so unified. The whole university felt so connected. While the colleges held varying activities, students did not have different experiences based on their college placements.

At Oxford, however, your college is everything. Only students in the college can eat in the dining hall or use the college facilities including the library. And students often feel the effects of the university’s de-centralized facilities. I will never forget my first adventure in book retrieval when my college and department’s libraries did not own what I needed. My options were to order the book through my college and wait for it to arrive weeks later or to use the Bodleian Library, Oxford’s main library where no one is allowed to check out books and only University members are allowed to enter as tourists look on. I chose the latter option to increase efficiency. It wound up taking me an entire day (eight whole hours, to be exact) to find the book in the Bodleian because it was not on the open shelves, but in the music collection’s stacks, which can only be accessed by having a librarian “fetch” a book. Then, I was able to look over the book during my appointment with it. It is easy to contrast this experience with the unified libraries of Princeton. Karin Trainer, Princeton’s University Librarian even insists that the word not be pluralized and that Princeton’s twenty libraries be called the “Library.” Thus, this library is comprised of an enormous array of collections for students and faculty to use.

The resources available to Oxford students and faculty, however, depend on the libraries to which people have access. Individuals are entitled to their college library, department library, and university library, and they are not allowed access to all the other libraries, which number around 180. With the college libraries, for example, the varying annual incomes of the colleges are one determining factor of the library facilities. The financial structure of the colleges, however, determines much more than just the library facilities. At St. John’s, with an annual income of £7,950,769, every part of students’ college experiences, from the food they eat to the beds in which they sleep, is subsidized. Other wealthy colleges like Christ Church, with its income of £7,466,813, have an enormous array of grants to which students can apply for travel or books. There are also the poorer colleges like Harris Manchester. With an income of £1,185,282, it’s experiencing major financial problems and is shipping in more American study abroad students, who pay ten times what the British students pay, than it has room for! In a poorer college, housing and food are often more expensive, and students are given fewer opportunities to gain funds for academic use. The 2003 Report on the Distribution of Resources in Oxford University stated that “disparity in college wealth” is so great and has such dramatic effects on the academic lives and welfare of students that “the very nature of Oxford as a university is questionable.”

Princeton must analyze this situation carefully as it embarks on its massive expansion of the college system so that every Princeton student will live in a college during her entire time at the university. Ironically enough, some officials from Princeton recently visited Oxford to explore what qualities of the Oxford system Princeton could eventually adopt. Although I am a huge proponent of the four-year college system, I do hope that the university will improve upon the many shortcomings of Oxford’s archaic structure. And when that day comes, I look forward to seeing Princeton freshmen as they wander around campus during their orientation activities in their Rocky College tee-shirts, Butler College sweatshirts, Forbes College sweatpants, and Whitman College fleeces!

You can reach Robert Accordino at raccordi@alumni.princeton.edu