Residential life remodeled: Princeton moves into new four-year college system
From the Sept. 16, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin
A new era in residential life at Princeton, years in the making, dawns this fall with the launch of the University's four-year residential college system.
The opening of Whitman College, the University's sixth residential college, is the most visible element of a massive campuswide effort to enable undergraduates from all four classes and graduate students to more closely share their Princeton experiences.
Since 1982, five two-year residential colleges have provided housing as well as academic and social support for freshmen and sophomores, while juniors and seniors have lived in upperclass housing. Planning for the new system, which has included faculty, students and administrators, began in 2000-01 following trustee approval of a recommendation to increase the size of the undergraduate student body by 11 percent. The new system establishes three four-year residential colleges and pairs them with three two-year colleges.
Upperclass students now have the option of living in these close-knit college communities, where they can take full advantage of the opportunities the colleges provide for housing, dining, programming and advising, and for interactions with graduate students who will live among undergraduates. Even upperclass students who choose not to live in the colleges will have opportunities to take meals in the dining halls and will retain academic advisers in the colleges. The new system responds to the desire expressed by many juniors and seniors over the years to remain a part of the residential college system, according to planners of the four-year colleges.
"There are two primary benefits of the new four-year residential college system," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "One is the creation of new living and dining options for juniors, seniors and graduate students. The other is the expanded opportunity for freshmen and sophomores to meet more upperclass students and graduate students, and to participate in a broader range of college-based academic and nonacademic programs.
"The most innovative and exciting element of the new system is the way it seeks to integrate the academic and nonacademic aspects of University life. The colleges are places to live and dine, but they are also places where academic advising will take place, classes will be held and extracurricular activities will occur," Tilghman said, noting that Whitman will include a theater, dance studio and digital photo laboratory as well as the Princeton Writing Program and classrooms.
While Whitman opens as a four-year college, Mathey College has been renovated significantly in being converted from a two-year to a four-year college. Butler College will become a four-year college in fall 2009 after many of its previous dormitories have been replaced with new construction; it will remain a two-year college until then. Renovations also are under way or planned at the two-year colleges: Rockefeller, Forbes and Wilson.
"Students this fall will be participating in a major transition in the life of this institution and, I hope, will regard themselves as fortunate pioneers in helping us to take residential life at Princeton into its next era," said Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel.
Malkiel, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein and Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson have overseen planning for the programming and physical spaces of the new college system. The effort has involved hundreds of campus community members, including students and faculty who served on planning committees and offered feedback in open forums as well as staff members across the University in areas such as academics, campus life, facilities, dining services, recreation and information technology.
"President Tilghman has focused the energy of her administration on trying to take advantage of this moment in time to improve the Princeton experience as much as we possibly can," Burstein said. "It has been a major investment by many members of the University community.
"What I think is most unique is the scope and fluidity of the program. At the center of our program was the decision to create more choices for students and to eliminate economic considerations as they make their choices," Burstein said, citing the increase in financial aid to cover eating club contracts, the availability of two meals per week in college dining halls for all upperclass students, and the opportunity for juniors and seniors to split their meal contracts between the colleges and the clubs. "We hope this will give undergraduates access to a range of options and allow all undergraduates to elect the options that are best for them."
Junior Stephen Sims, a Whitman College resident and member of its college council, said he is excited about contributing to the development of the new system.
"I decided to live in Whitman College and remain in the residential college system because it was a chance to be part of something that hasn't been around at Princeton. When I toured Whitman during the spring I was astounded by the amount of opportunities that it has for all who are living there. I love being a part of new things and the unknown, and I couldn't pass this up," Sims said.
"I am most looking forward to being able to leave a lasting impact at Princeton. It will be awesome one day to bring my kids back to Princeton and tell them that I was part of the first years of this new residential college," he said. "I have a chance to start traditions that will last as long as the college stands. What is great about being on the college council is that we are being given a significant amount of flexibility in the activities that will be going on. The council members were told, ‘This college will be as good as you make it.' We certainly plan to make Whitman an amazing four-year residential college."
Benefits for all students
Plans for the new residential college system took shape after Princeton's trustees approved a plan in 2000 to increase the undergraduate student body by 500 students to 5,200 by 2012. Once the student body increase is complete, each four-year college will house approximately 400 freshmen and sophomores, 100 juniors and seniors and 10 graduate students, while each two-year college will house approximately 475 freshmen and sophomores and 10 graduate students. The residential colleges also will include apartments for faculty members, who may be Prince-ton professors or visitors.
Juniors and seniors who choose not to remain in residential colleges will live in upperclass dormitories. But the benefits of the new system are intended to be shared by all students, not just those who live in the colleges.
Professor Harvey Rosen, master of Whitman College and a member of the Four-Year College Program Planning Committee, said, "One of the most important goals of Whitman College, and of the four-year college project in general, is to broaden and deepen the already considerable sense of community here at Princeton.
"Having students who are members of all four classes will strengthen the bonds across classes. Having resident graduate students will lead to more friendships among undergraduates and graduate students. Having faculty teach and eat in the college will lead to more interaction between professors and students," Rosen said. "Because all advising is to be done in the residential colleges, even upperclass students who don't live in them will be drawn back to the colleges, strengthening links among friends who met when they were freshmen and sophomores."
A major component of the effort to build a stronger community of students is the overhaul of college dining options, including the enhancement of menu selections, the creation of more intimate eating spaces and flexible arrangements that allow upperclass residents to take all meals in the colleges or share meal plans with the independent eating clubs. In addition, all juniors and seniors can eat two meals per week in any college dining hall, whether or not they reside in a college.
The design of Whitman's dining facility and renovations elsewhere in the colleges are intended to diminish the institutional feel of the dining halls and implement a "marketplace" concept featuring greater menu options and a more retail-centered, cook-to-order format. Each college dining hall will have its own chef-manager who will design a distinct menu.
"In the past students had one entrée station, one salad bar and a grill area. Now they will have a pizza and pasta station, a ‘sizzling salad' station and a ‘Euro' station where food will be cooked to order," said Stu Orefice, director of dining services. "The benefits are a higher quality of food being presented, less waste and more of the foods students are asking for because we can provide a greater variety.
"For the chef-managers there will be more of an entrepreneurial spirit, as if they're running their own restaurants, rather than the same menu items being offered campuswide on the same day," Orefice said. "Each of the facilities will have its own unique style. You might have one of the chef-managers who leans more heavily toward seafood items or food from a particular culture or region, so I think the students will benefit from that."
Renovations at the existing residential colleges and new facilities available in Whitman also will provide venues for students to develop programming — related to academics, athletics, the arts, social gatherings or other activities — to attract their peers from across campus.
To appeal to older students, for example, Whitman staff and students are planning programming related to junior papers, senior theses, careers and graduate school, said junior Hope Connolly, a Whitman resident and college council member.
"The colleges couldn't merely continue doing what they've been doing for two decades now," Connolly said. "They have a different audience and students who are at a different stage in their collegiate career; thus, new activities, speakers, etc., must be created to capture their attention and make them feel like the college can provide them with something worthwhile."
Each of the colleges has added a new director of student life, who will assist students in promoting a strong sense of community and in making the best use of nonacademic resources. They will provide guidance and support around personal and social issues while serving as the primary liaison to other campus life offices.
"We see these positions as integral to the success of our new residential college system," Dickerson said. "The directors of student life will complement and support the work of the deans and directors of studies, and will strengthen and enhance our network of administrative supportive services."
Malkiel said the four-year college planners expect that students ultimately will create a signature activity or program in each of the colleges.
"The example we use is BlackBox, the dance club in Wilson College, which has been a collaborative venture with Wilson students and those in other colleges," she said. "BlackBox has been one of the hottest new social venues and activities on campus, and it was student-generated and student-run. What we expect is that each of the colleges will have something as exciting for their students as BlackBox has been for the students at Wilson, and the cumulative effect of having six signature activities simply has to enrich the experience of all undergraduates."
More levels of support
Through changes in the advising structure and the presence of upperclass and graduate students, the new system will offer greater levels of academic support for students in the colleges. Juniors and seniors now will return to see their residential college deans and directors of studies for nondepartmental academic advising, which previously had been handled by a junior class dean and senior class dean in the Office of the Dean of the College.
Steven Lestition, dean of Mathey College, said upperclass students will benefit from the continuity of retaining their college advisers for all four years, while freshmen and sophomores will find support from older students who dealt with many of the same questions and adjustments they are facing.
"The advantages from our viewpoint are consistency, follow-through and the benefits of familiarity," Lestition said. "As directors of studies and deans, after the first two years of interacting with students we know the range of their problems, concerns or achievements pretty well. To not be able to follow through on their junior and senior year experience was, in a sense, a loss for us. I also think it was a loss for the freshmen and sophomores who didn't have as much contact with an upperclass experience as they would have liked."
Connolly said, "Hopefully, encounters at the dinner table or on a Broadway trip will lead to conversations where freshmen and sophomores can gain advice and wisdom (and perhaps reassurance or encouragement). For example, it is incredibly helpful when someone struggling through freshman math or physics hears from someone who's been there that everyone suffers and everyone finds it tough."
For upperclass students, she said, junior papers and senior theses "can be tough and grueling, and having the dean (or master, or secretary) know you by name and ask you how things are going is something colleges can offer that regular upperclass dorms definitely don't have. Upperclass students will also be able to pick the brains of the resident grad students, asking for advice not just on grad school, but post-college life in general."
Enabling graduate students to live in the colleges was an integral part of the four-year college planning process, creating an opportunity to break down social barriers and establish valuable mentoring relationships.
"The presence of resident graduate students in the residential colleges will promote informal interactions with undergraduates, complementing the more formal contact through teaching and thereby enriching the experiences of both populations of students," said Graduate School Dean William Russel. "Having graduate students on the main campus also has symbolic value in demonstrating their centrality to the educational mission of the University."
Rosa Andujar, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in classics, is now living in Mathey after serving as a graduate fellow in the college last year. Andujar came to Princeton after two years of graduate work at King's College at the University of Cambridge, where she also was a resident graduate student in an undergraduate dorm. Andujar believes her experiences at Cambridge and as an undergraduate at Wellesley College will help her establish a rapport with her younger counterparts in Mathey.
"When I entered college, I was absolutely sure that the only thing I wanted to study and major in was pure mathematics. But then I came across one exciting course on ancient comedy offered by the classical studies department and years later here I am pursuing a Ph.D. in classics," she said. "I am eager to help undergraduates make the most of their Princeton academic experience by pointing out the many other stimulating and exciting fields of study outside of traditional majors."
Last year Andujar ran Mathey's weekly Spanish conversation table, which she plans to continue overseeing this year. "Undergraduate students and I have discussed a number of fun and serious topics, including Spanish and Latin American customs, jokes and even international politics. Since so much of my time at Princeton is spent in Firestone or in my academic department, being involved with such events at Mathey has been a welcome change," she said.
As the four-year college system takes its first steps this year, organizers will continue evaluating its progress — gathering insights from students, staff and faculty, as they did in planning the new system. "We'll be in constant dialogue with the people who are living in this new system, who will tell us what's happening, what's going well and what needs to be attended to," Malkiel said.
In addition to evaluating annual surveys of students on educational and residential life issues, Malkiel, Dickerson and Burstein will meet with undergraduate leaders and host open forums for students to provide feedback before the next round of housing decisions are made in the spring.
"One of the statements President Tilghman has made many times is we really won't know the full repercussions of these changes for many years," Burstein said. "So we will be regularly collecting feedback and suggestions and making periodic adjustments, while also keeping an eye on longer-term trends and on our overall goal of providing Princeton students with the best possible residential experience."