Features - December 1, 1999
Masters of the House
The residential college masters offer students scholarly inspiration and emotional support. Their mission is to extend intellectual life at Princeton beyond the classroom walls.
Ted Champlin remembers the time he had to resolve an acrid dispute between two roommates in Butler College, where he serves as master. Tensions ran so high, he recalls, that one parent suggested dividing the students' room in half with police tape.
While Princeton's college masters do have the final say in such disputes-Champlin skipped the police tape and, in a rare move, assigned one student to another room-these professors do much more than mediation. They are building communities that help to make Princeton's two-year residential college system, instituted in 1982, a bridge between the academic and social lives of underclassmen.
"The colleges give new students a sense of identity and community within the larger university," says Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the college.
Each of the five residential colleges offers its 400 or so freshmen and sophomores much more than a place to eat, sleep, and do laundry. The colleges have their own libraries, TV rooms, and snack bars; some have extras such as dance studios and darkrooms. Each college organizes frequent cultural activities, study breaks, film series, trips to the opera or Yankees games and brings faculty fellows and guest speakers to its dining hall.
And heading up these operations is the college master, a senior faculty member chosen by the university administration as much for academic excellence as for student rapport. Three of the current masters have received the President's Award for distinguished teaching, and all provide students with scholarly inspiration as well as emotional support. The masters divide their time between teaching and overseeing their colleges. They live a few blocks from campus and eat many meals in the student dining halls. They are the faculty at the frontlines, and their mission is to extend intellectual life at Princeton beyond the classroom walls.
"Sometimes I feel like the Queen of England," Ted Champlin says of being master of Butler College. "A big part of the job is simply making a presence and taking an interest in students' lives."
Now in his fifth year as master, Champlin has been teaching classics and Roman history at Princeton for 25 years. "It's the only job I've ever had; the world is passing me by," he says, only half joking. "One reason I took the job of master was to get a fresh perspective on things."
When Champlin first signed on as master, he had to resolve a vital issue for Butler students-how to make the dorm's window screens squirrel-proof. The problem was easy to fix with the help of Bill Traubel, the university's maintenance director, but it was Champlin who became known as the Great Screen Man.
Champlin also pushed for the addition of a new basement lounge next to the college's soundproof music room. "We figured that would be a really good thing for the community," he says. There's also a rickety baby grand he'd like to replace. "If anybody wants to donate one to Butler College, I'll pay for the transportation, and we'll put a little plaque on it," he says, smiling.
"When students can't get something done, or can't find who to ask for help, they'll tend to drift up here," Champlin says of his second-floor office. Nonstudents find their way to him as well. Champlin notes that in the first week of classes, two sets of parents had already phoned the college, saying, "My son isn't answering the phone-is he lying dead in the middle of his room?"
As an undergraduate, Champlin attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto. "There were 700 people, and that was my home, all my friends, everything," he says. The same goes for his time as a graduate student at Oxford. "My loyalty is to the college rather than the university."
But Champlin remembers "wandering around in a fog for weeks not knowing anybody" as a freshman. "There was no structure of any kind. You went and got some papers stamped, and that was it." In contrast, Princeton's Freshman Orientation program offers a week of nonstop lectures, meetings, and social activities. "Orientation may seem overkill," Champlin says, "but I think it's a great success, even though it seems at the time like everybody is going to drop from exhaustion."
To Champlin, the most important thing a college can do is to pick a good group of residential and minority affairs advisers, the juniors and seniors who live in the college and watch over individual groups of freshmen. These advisers aren't just "the guys at the end of the hall you go to when you need more toilet paper," Champlin says. Princeton's RAs and MAAs help freshmen deal with everything from the stress of exams to racism and sexual abuse. "Even though the average freshman doesn't realize it, his or her life is probably much happier because of the college system," Champlin says.
Like the other masters, Champlin eats several meals a week in the student dining hall. "My 11-year-old loves that he can eat ice cream with every meal," he says. But Champlin is taking a very hands-off approach to his other son, a sophomore in Princeton's Rockefeller College, which means not secretly checking up on him or pumping him for information.
Like his fellow masters, Champlin hopes to increase faculty participation in the college. "It's very difficult for a nonstudent to come and just sit down cold in a dining hall and start chatting with the students," he says. "Faculty are shy, too."
An expert on social change, Miguel Centeno is trying as master of Wilson College to build a community from the bottom up. With Russian political posters lining his office walls and a picture of Che Guevara behind his desk, this sociology professor might seem a bit of a radical. But the changes he advocates involve more common sense than revolutionary ideals.
How about a rule requiring students who throw room parties to clean up their own beer cans and vomit? "That to me is simply courtesy to the janitorial staff," Centeno says, adding that it also encourages 19-year-olds to take responsibility for their actions. Then there is Wilson's policy of community responsibility: If serious property damage occurs in a dorm, everyone in that hallway will be held financially responsible, unless it's obvious who's to blame.
"You have two choices, it seems," Centeno says. "You can either have cameras, informers, and secret police, or you can have a community that says, 'Hey, don't do that, don't break the urinal.' " But enforcing rules is only a small part of being a master.
"My job is to encourage a better integration between social life and academic life," Centeno says. And that means trying to get faculty more involved with students and promoting social activities "that demand more than 5 percent of your brain," he says. Wilson students can now borrow Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and other classics from the American Film Institute's top 100 movies of all time. A film society is in the works, and Centeno's wife, freelance writer Deborah Kaple *91, leads Wilson's book club. The college also subscribes to about 100 magazines and 50 newspapers from around the world.
At 42, Centeno is the youngest of the masters-he accepted the job two years ago when he received tenure-and the only one with small children. Alex, 6, and Maya, 2, appear on Centeno's Website and can often be seen marveling at the frozen yogurt machine in the dining hall. Before coming to Wilson, Centeno served as resident faculty adviser at Princeton's Mathey College for four years, which means his son has been eating dorm food since birth. "And I suspect that when he goes off to college, the first thing he'll do is move off campus," Centeno says, laughing.
Born in Havana, Centeno started grade school as a Communist Pioneer, Castro's version of the Boy Scouts, before he moved to the United States at age nine. After graduating from Yale in 1980, he worked as an actor, a consultant, and a marketing executive before returning to Yale for business school and a Ph.D. in sociology. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1990 and has taught courses on the sociology of war, the rise of capitalism, and contemporary Latin America.
As a master, Centeno enjoys working with the residential and minority affairs advisers, at times becoming close enough to students to meet their families, attend their weddings, and even to lend them security deposit money after they leave Princeton. These advisers play a crucial role in changing the social atmosphere at Wilson. "My job is to instill in them enough desire to have this intellectual life, to have this community life, that they pass it on to their advisees," Centeno says.
Joel Cooper is testing the waters. He's filling in for a year as master of Mathey College while David Carrasco takes a sabbatical, and during this trial period, Cooper will decide whether he'd like to sign on for a four-year term.
A psychology professor, Cooper specializes in propaganda and persuasion, and says that during Freshman Orientation, he succeeded in reassuring a few anxious parents. But he usually tries to keep his academic interests separate from his work as a master, a job he views as closer to "raising a family."
"As the person ultimately responsible for the college, I've got to set limits, and my limits and my neighbor's limits may be very different," he says. "We both may be very good parents, but we both have to be consistent within what we do. On the other hand, I want to be a person students can come talk to. They may need a little extra guidance on how to work the system, an adult presence who can give them parental advice."
Cooper has parental experience, too, with two of his sons having graduated from Princeton in 1995 and 1998. "When the system works well, you shouldn't notice it," he says, describing how the colleges shepherd new students into Princeton life. "As your adjustment gets more and more complete, we all step out of the way, so by the time you finish with the residential college, basically you're saying, 'What system?' But if you're having trouble with your classes, or throwing loud parties and breaking furniture, then you'll notice us."
Cooper was a faculty fellow at Forbes College for many of the 30 years he's been teaching at Princeton. "We try to show students that we're human beings, that faculty don't bite," he says. As evidence, Cooper hopes to lead a ski trip this winter for Mathey students.
"Believe it or not, you can reach relatively decent skiing two hours from here," he says.
The Rockefeller College office smells of new carpet and summer renovations. It's mid-September, and between Hurricane Floyd and Freshman Orientation Week, Rocky's new master, Maria DiBattista, has barely had time to move into one of the three masters' residences on University Place (the others are on Alexander and Prospect avenues), let alone fill up the bookcases in her office.
Having just signed on for a four-year term as master, DiBattista is brainstorming with residential advisers and staff about new programs for the college. An English and comparative literature professor, she is the third woman in Princeton's history to be appointed a master. DiBattista chairs the Film Studies committee and has served as acting director of the Women's Studies program, and plans to share these interests with the college. She also plans to bring into the college visiting writers and poets from the Humanities Council.
A California native, DiBattista went to Stanford and earned her master's and Ph.D. degrees in English at Yale before joining the Princeton faculty in 1974. She says that, like many professors, as she gained seniority, she taught more upper-level and graduate courses and had less contact with underclassmen. Her experience shows how the university's Freshman Seminar program, which started in 1986 and now offers 65 courses a year, can help rekindle faculty interest in younger students. She became interested in the role of master after teaching two freshman seminars: "They were really terrific experiences, and I wanted to see if there was some way that we could extend or prolong that excitement students have when they first come to Princeton."
Four years ago, DiBattista served as acting master at Rockefeller when German professor Michael Jennings took a year's sabbatical. "That experience started me thinking about how removed we are from the undergraduate living situation," she says. "It was interesting academically, sociologically, psychologically. There's something about these kinds of human interactions that I just find intrinsically appealing. It's interesting to see what students are going through and to think about the university as something that extends beyond the perimeters of the classroom.
"There are these stark divisions between what happens inside the classroom on your time and everything that happens outside," she says. DiBattista adds that she waited until her own children left for college to become a master, "even though I really don't think I'm exchanging two boys for 400 students," she says, laughing.
"I just couldn't do it all when my kids were young," she says. "There's a little more juggling involved when you're a single mother."
With one son who is a junior at Yale and another who is a freshman at Harvard, DiBattista says having college-aged children has helped her prepare for the role of master. "From my own boys, I know the last thing they would want if they were sitting around with their friends would be my coming in and trying to be part of the party," she says. So, as DiBattista sets out to meet more students in the Rocky dining hall, she approaches the ones who are eating by themselves or with one or two friends.
"My kids tease me a lot, and they're always trying to educate me, so in that way, I feel a little more prepared for the reactions from students," she says. "A sense of humor and a sense of where you are in your own life should help a little bit. I'm hoping it will."
At 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Forbes master John Gager picks his way up Princeton's climbing wall in the Armory. Rock climbing has not only taken this religion professor around the world but has allowed him to become close to the small group of Princeton climbing enthusiasts.
Gager is sitting in his office, looking like an L.L. Bean ad in his polar fleece vest and Birkenstock sandals. He responds enthusiastically when former student-and fellow climber-Igor Brodsky '97 makes a surprise visit. "Igor!" Gager says warmly, and at once asks how Stanford's microbiology department is treating him. Their conversation testifies to Gager's striking memory as well as his affection for his students. "Do you see much of Emily Senecal '96? She must be starting her residency now. How about Sarah Stein '97? What's she doing out there?" Igor mentions he recently went climbing with Josh Sharp '97, and Gager smiles. "Josh Sharp, he looks like a California beach boy, comes from Lewes, Delaware."
"Gager has a reputation for knowing the name and face of every student in his college," says Butler master Ted Champlin. "He's about as good as they get, very humane, low- key." Wilson master Miguel Centeno agrees: "On my good days, I try to be as good as John Gager."
How does he do it? "You can't be a recluse," he says. "You have to enjoy or have a fairly high tolerance level for the lives of 18- and 19-year-olds, but it's always challenging. They're going through enormous and very difficult transformations in their own lives.
"As professor, you look at them as students, rarely getting beyond that aspect of their lives," Gager said in an earlier interview. "Here in the college, I see students as roommates and struggling adolescents-getting into trouble, growing, moving out on their own away from families and earlier expectations. As master of Forbes, I try to provide a presence that says it's not just a place to eat and sleep but a place to grow."
Gager notes that Forbes has won 10 out of the last 12 intramural competitions among the colleges. "Do I recruit athletes at Forbes?" he says. "No! It probably has something to do with the fact that people do know one another here, so that when somebody says, 'Hey, we've got a basketball game tonight,' it's not some anonymous person from the other side of the courtyard on the fourth floor whom you've never seen. It's somebody you pass pretty regularly in the hallways."
And these hallways are no small matter. Most dorms in the other colleges are based on an entryway system, where students often have no idea who lives 20 feet away, let alone on different floors. "Entryways are very isolating," Gager says. "In Forbes, people's doors are open all the time, and there's a lot of circulating back and forth."
Gager's undergraduate experience at Yale taught him the value of a college system, he says. "It helped create a sense of unity by breaking down the size of the school into a smaller, more manageable place." He also attended Yale Divinity School and received his Ph.D. from Harvard before joining the Princeton faculty in 1968. Throw in his days pushing for Algerian independence in Paris, a bus trip to Mississippi with the Freedom Riders, and some protesting against the Vietnam War, and you begin to see what drives this man up sheer faces of rock.
In the three decades Gager has spent teaching at Princeton, he and his wife, who died a few years ago, raised a family with strong ties to the university. Of his three children, two have earned Ph.D.s from Princeton-one daughter is now an editor at Princeton University Press, and his son married a Princeton and Forbes alumna this summer-and his youngest daughter is currently a second-year graduate student and a faculty fellow at Forbes.
Now in his eighth and final year as master, Gager is one of several faculty members who would like to expand the colleges to a four-year system. "Because the colleges are tilted toward the younger students, we get the brunt of the difficulties that go along with those transitions and transformations," he says. "And except for the upperclass advisers who stay on in the residential colleges, we don't always get a lot of the payoffs."
Julie Rawe, who lived in Butler College, works for Time magazine.
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