5. Res Life and the Decline of Campus Community (Part I)

Tom Wood

Previous postings in this series have examined the ideological and pedagogical pathologies of Res Life programs at U Delaware and U Mass-Amherst. More programs at other institutions will be uncovered and discussed in future postings. Before we proceed any further with that, however, it is a good idea to step back briefly and place these programs in perspective. These rogue programs need to be seen within the larger context of Residential Life programs at residential colleges generally.

Res Life programs at all colleges must respond to profound changes that have taken place in all the extracurricular aspects of campus life in the last twenty or thirty years. Like the wider society of which it is a part, college life has become more complex and diverse. Institutions continue to maintain distinctive identities, and parents and students spend a lot of time and money trying to identify these campus identities when they decide on which schools to apply to or to attend. But the increasing complexity and diversity of society without, and the increasing complexity and diversity of that society as it is reflected inside the university walls, have had an impact. There is still such a thing as a Dartmouth experience, or a University of Wisconsin at Madison experience, or for that matter, a Cal State Fresno experience, but the task of maintaining and identifying distinctive campus cultures and identities is undoubtedly getting harder.

No section of the present-day campus administration is more concerned with maintaining a sense of campus community than the Res Life division. The growth in these programs in the last several decades has been extraordinary. Statistics to document this phenomenon have been hard to find, but a statistic at one particular college probably gives a pretty accurate idea of the phenomenon generally. Hamilton College, which has about 1,600 students, currently employs 23 Res Life student affairs specialists. In the 1960s it had only three. Over those years, the size of the student body hardly changed at all.


That statistic comes from Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You (John Wiley, 2005). Barrett Seaman, who wrote the book, is an alumnus of Hamilton from the 1960s and a trustee of the college. Seaman became intrigued by the changes in campus life he had observed as a trustee at Hamilton, and when he took an early retirement from Time, he decided to study changes in student life at Hamilton and eleven other highly regarded institutions of higher education. Over a period of two years, Seaman spent much of his time, with the permission of their college administrations and students, living in dorms and coops at colleges across North America: Harvard, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Hamilton, the University of Virginia, Duke, Indiana University-Bloomington, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, Pomona, and Canada's McGill University.

Seaman was struck by how important Residence Life is at the colleges he visited. In fact, he ranks the growth in the role of these programs with the advent of coeducation as the most significant development in higher education since the 1960s. Binge will be a real eye opener to anyone who has not been following changes in campus life in the last several decades, and especially to those who are unaware of the dominant role that the Student Affairs and Res Life divisions now play in all residential colleges in the United States, including the very best ones.

One of the chapters of Seaman's book is entitled, appropriately enough, "Who's in charge?" Seaman's answer is: Student Affairs and Res Life.

Undergraduates spend about ten hours per week in the classroom. The rest of their time on campus is extracurricular, and all the extracurricular aspects of campus life are now pretty much in the hands of Res Life professionals and student residence advisors (RAs). Typically, this important division of the university reports directly to the administration, and has no established line of communication to the faculty.

The fact that the typical campus organizational chart shows a clear disconnect between the faculty, which is responsible for the curriculum, and Res Life, which has primary responsibility for everything extracurricular, is significant. It is symptomatic of the disconnection that many campus observers have noted between in-class and out-of-class activities on the contemporary campus. If anything, this disconnection is as bad at the leading colleges and universities, which have better faculty-student ratios, as it is anywhere, since at the elite colleges the disengagement between students and faculty has proceeded even further.

It is true that students at the leading colleges report that their faculties are accessible for coursework related issues. However, even at the elite colleges, students give the faculty low marks for interest and availability for extracurricular issues like personal and career counseling. Furthermore, while out-of-class contact with instructors is available at the leading colleges, it is not expected or particularly encouraged. Fewer students seem to be seeking faculty contact, even when it is related to coursework. Consequently, the isolation and separation of undergraduate campus life from the classroom and the faculty appear to be accelerating at most campuses.

With the increasing disengagement of the faculty, responsibility for sustaining a vital campus life and a coherent sense of community has fallen increasingly to the Student Affairs and Res Life divisions of these institutions. The faculty remains in control of the curriculum, but everything else in campus life, pretty much, is now in the hands of student residential assistants and advisors and Student Affairs and Res Life professionals, who are expected to handle everything from roommate disputes to creating a sense of community for the university in its residence halls.

Seaman is concerned about this, and to judge from his reports, things are not going well. Nevertheless, Seaman professes to be an optimist. He believes that American higher education is still the world's best, and that the elite residential college will continue to define the college experience for the nation. But it is certainly possible to be skeptical about this, since (as Seaman himself acknowledges) universities must now create, or recreate, a sense of campus community and coherence in the face of powerful social forces impinging on them from the outside over which they have no control.


Seaman is not alone in believing that Res Life programs are failing to meet the current need for sustaining a sense of campus community.

Howard and Matthew Greene, two leading college placement consultants, recently conducted focus groups and distributed 3,700 questionnaires on twenty of the nation's leading residential colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale. They report their findings in their book, Inside the Top Colleges: Realities of Life and Learning in America's Elite Colleges (Collins, 2000).

The Greenes found that it is typically the extracurricular aspects of college life on the leading campuses that receive the lowest marks.

For example, Inside the Top Colleges provides student assessments of value received for money spent on tuition versus money spent on room and board. The Greenes do not say what they intended to cover by the term "room and board," but it is likely that far more is covered by the student responses than complaints about the quality of food served in the dorms (a very common complaint, as in ages past), since the same division of the university that is responsible for the meals and the residence hall rooms and facilities is also responsible now for virtually everything extracurricular on the campus.

Generally, the Greenes found that most students feel that they are getting good value for their "tuition" money:

Excellent: 20.5
Very good: 40.2
Satisfactory/Average: 26
Somewhat less than satisfactory: 7.9
Poor value: 3.1
[Total = 97.7]
However, they are much less happy about what they are getting for the money they are spending on "room and board":

Excellent: 6.5
Very good: 19.6
Satisfactory/Average: 39
Somewhat less than satisfactory: 20.5
Poor value: 11.9
[Total = 97.5]
The Greenes also found that when students are asked to name the elements of campus life that bother them the most, they usually identify the elements of campus life that are now the responsibility of the Student Affairs and Res Life divisions.

When asked to identify the elements of campus life that bother them the most, one or more of the following responses were given by students at Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale:

Improve the social life
Improve campus and social activities
Create more living and social options
Create a student center
Students frequently criticized the lack of a sense of community and campus cohesiveness as well. One or more of the following open-ended responses to the question "What bothers you the most about your campus?" were given by students at Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania:

Eliminate campus polarization and divisiveness
Create more campus cohesion
Create more school spirit and a sense of community

The responses also show that students are concerned about racial, ethnic, and gender tensions on campus. "Lessen racial and ethnic segregation and cliques" and "Diversify the student body and faculty" were among the aspects of college life that bothered students the most at Cornell, Georgetown, MIT, UC Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wesleyan, and Williams.


It seems that racial and ethnic relations on campus, even at the best colleges, are not great. However, to blame this state of affairs entirely on P.C. and tenured radicals is simplistic. Faculty politics undoubtedly has something to do with it, but it is not the whole explanation. Compliant, spineless administrations are also responsible, but that, too, is only part of the explanation. Many of the offensive and divisive programs are run by the Student Affairs and Res Life divisions on the campuses, and in many cases (like the Shaha troupe at U Mass Amherst) these are run by student residence advisors. These student RAs, who are often highly active politically, are well represented now on virtually all of the campuses.

They are also representative of a relatively new reality on today's campuses: sociologically and racially diverse student bodies that make it intrinsically more difficult to maintain a sense of campus cohesiveness. The old residential college model, built around and upon the "privileged white male," is out, with no other model of anything equally homogeneous, cohesive, or even coherent to replace it. About all that is left to celebrate, many on campus appear to have concluded, is diversity itself.

Maintaining a sense of campus community is made more difficult by a multitude of other factors. Increasingly, students take an instrumentalist view of their college education, regarding it as valuable primarily as an entry point to a successful and prosperous upper middle class life. The faculty, especially at the elite colleges, is rewarded for research, not for teaching. The campus revolts of the 1960s led to the virtual disappearance of the in loco parentis role of the university. There is more pressure from parents, the wider society, and by students themselves, to succeed in and out of college. (Cheating to get ahead is widely acknowledged as a serious and growing problem.) Students are more stressed. It is estimated that more than a quarter of all college students now are on psychotropic medications, and more demands are being placed every year on the mental health services on campuses.

So it is important to place Res Life programs in their total context. Diversity indoctrination programs like the one at U Delaware have not taken over programs and institutions that were healthy and already in place. They have instead moved into a vacuum--a lack of a sense of genuine community within campus culture that appears to be a real and growing problem.

Of course, the ideology of difference, and practices built around it, are not a solution. The evidence is that they exacerbate all the problems. One can find evidence in the Seaman and Greene books that PC on campuses has simply succeeded in intimidating students, who are afraid to appear politically incorrect. There is also a widespread perception on the part of white students that the campus climate supports a double standard that favors minority students. These perceptions create resentments that are real, even if they are not always expressed.

Political correctness and thought reform projects within Res Life programs are a real and serious problem on many campuses. But they are also part of a larger picture that is important in its own right. Even if all the offending programs were reformed or terminated--and that will be difficult, given their support by organized, activist student groups on campuses, the dominance of leftwing politics on campuses, and faculty and administrative apathy and indifference--the larger problems, including especially the vacuum that the philosophy of difference aims to fill, will remain.

To judge from student evaluations of their campus experiences, the larger problems might actually be more serious, because they are more pervasive and more deeply rooted. To a large extent, attacking them involves dealing with very powerful and no doubt irreversible social and cultural tides. But today's campuses must find a way to navigate through them unless a genuine sense of campus identity, cohesiveness, or community is to become, irreversibly, a thing of the past.


Barrett Seaman: Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You

Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning: Inside the Top Colleges: Realities of Life and Learning in America's Elite Colleges

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