6. Who Educates the Whole Person These Days? Anyone? (Res Life and the Decline of Campus Community, Part 2)

Tom Wood

Our recent posting, "Residence Life and the Decline of Campus Community, Part 1," aimed to place Res Life programs within the wider context of the contemporary American college and university, and in particular to highlight the central role Res Life programs have been given in the creation of "campus community."

Concerns about the deterioration of campus community have been around for some time. In the early 1990s the Carnegie Foundation published two works, based on a single study that addressed these concerns. Both books are still timely. In fact, they may well have been the inspiration for, and even provided the template for, later studies on the same theme, including Binge and Inside the Top Colleges, which were cited in the most recent posting. To judge from these later studies, the Carnegie findings have held up very well. The Carnegie books also provide more statistical data on the questions than either Binge or Inside the Top Colleges.

Campus Life: In Search of Community (CL), a special report of the Carnegie Foundation, was published in 1990. It was commissioned by Ernest L. Boyer (1928-1995), one of the mandarins of higher education who was president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at the time. Creating Community on College Campuses (CCCC), which was published two years later by the SUNY Press, was written by Irving J. Spitzberg and Virginia V. Thorndike, the two researchers who designed and conducted the Carnegie study.

The Carnegie study's cross section of American higher education included 18 institutions falling into the major categories of the 1994 Carnegie classifications of institutions of higher education at the time: community colleges, comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, and research universities. Because the study aimed to draw a picture of campus life as it was experienced at the time by the overwhelming majority of students nationwide, the study sample included more public than private, and more large than small, institutions. The Carnegie study also included a representative distribution among urban, suburban, and rural institutions (CCCC xvi). In contrast, Binge and ITC looked only at elite institutions, and their mix of large versus small and public versus private institutions was less representative of American higher education.

Carnegie found widespread disappointment and concern among faculty, students, and college presidents about the state of "community" on their campuses. It found that institutions scored poorly on the level of interaction among faculty and students, and that the majority of students had become "less engaged in all aspects of academic and nonacademic campus life" (CCCC 6).

Some Interesting Carnegie Findings: Students, Faculty, and College Presidents

The Students

Reports vary considerably about how hard college students study these days. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in a 1987 work also entitled Campus Life, argued that, beginning in the 1970s, increased competition had turned students into "grinds." However, this assessment has not been confirmed by other studies.

According to the 2007 Annual Report of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the number of hours full-time students spend studying per week has remained constant since 2001 at about 13-14 hours. This is only about half what many faculty say is necessary to do well in their classes. These numbers have actually been trending steadily downward since the NSSE surveys began in the mid-1960s.

The Carnegie study reported similar findings when it published its study in 1990. Spitzberg and Thorndike (CCCC 111-12) had this to say about the many students they interviewed:

We did not find that traditional-age students study a great deal, nor that they place a higher priority on academics than on having fun. … Students we spoke with were committed to having fun. A central component of having fun is partying. It begins Thursday night and runs through the weekend. Heavy drinking is the norm. Except at elite institutions, academics are completely back burnered until Monday morning. In our informal conversations with students about the amount of time spent on academic work we found few individuals who averaged twenty hours a week. One hour of study for each hour of class was the norm.

More recently, the Higher Education Research Institute's (HERI) 2003 Your First Year in College (end-of-freshman-year) survey found widespread disengagement on all counts by college freshmen:

findings suggest that many remain disengaged from their coursework: over half "frequently" or "occasionally" came late to class; almost half turned in course assignments that did not reflect their best work or felt bored in class; and approximately one-third skipped class at least "occasionally" in the first year.

These declines in academic engagement track significant declines in student academic engagement in high school, where the bad habits and attitudes are already in place. According to Alexander Astin, HERI's reported national norms for its annual "American Freshman" survey for Fall 2001 found that in their senior year in high school:

students spent less time studying and doing homework, with only 34.9 percent of entering students reporting studying or working on assignments for six or more hours per week in the past year. This marks the lowest figure since this question was first asked in 1987, when 47 percent reported studying six or more hours weekly.

Although students are spending less time studying, their high school grades continue to soar with 44.1 percent of freshmen report earning "A" averages in high school, compared to 42.9 percent last year, and a low of 17.6 percent in 1968.

"The combination of academic disengagement and record grade inflation," says Astin, "poses a real challenge for our higher education system, since students are entering college with less inclination to study but with higher academic expectations than ever."

There are exceptions to the rule. Some college students do study hard, but for the most part those who do are required to do so by the courses and majors they elect. Unfortunately, decisions to elect the more demanding majors and classes are driven increasingly by credentialing and career-advancement concerns. When students feel they have to study hard to get into advanced or professional programs to advance their careers later in life, they will do what they deem is required. Students making different choices do a minimum of studying. Due to grade inflation, the amount of studying that is required of these students is already low and steadily declining.

The Faculty

The Carnegie study found low levels of faculty-student interaction on campus. Many critics of higher education, like Charles Sykes, the author of Profscam, would be inclined to attribute this to a tacit agreement between students and faculty to make undergraduate education less demanding. The main motive for the faculty in this conspiracy, on this view, is to carve out more time for themselves for publishing and research. This is now a very widespread view of the faculty, so it is of some interest that the Carnegie study arrived at a rather different picture. Carnegie found a surprisingly high level of interest in teaching on the part of many faculty members (CCCC 127-131). This was true even at the research institutions. The level of interest in teaching at comprehensives, two-year community colleges, and liberal arts colleges was even higher.

Many faculty at all types of institutions did feel, however, that teaching was undervalued on their campuses, because tenure decisions and other professionally relevant reward structures were heavily biased in favor of publications and research. This view wasn't confined to the research institutions. Faculty at the comprehensives and liberal arts colleges reported that this was increasingly true for them. Many faculty members who felt that teaching was undervalued on their campuses believed the bias toward publication and research over teaching came more from ambitious deans, presidents, and administrators than from the faculty. Only faculty at the two-year community colleges felt that good teaching was rewarded appropriately and accorded the importance it was due at their institutions.

The Carnegie study also noted that building a vital or even viable intellectual community on campus is made more difficult by the widespread perception on the part of faculty that students who matriculate are ill-prepared for college work and uninterested in academic learning for its own sake.

Administrators and College Presidents

Carnegie found that maintaining a sense of campus community was a major concern of college presidents and administrators. Presidents at research institutions, because of their size and complexity, felt this problem the most, but it was a major concern for the presidents of all Carnegie classification institutional types.

Apathy on Campus and the Importance of Sub-Communities

When there is a weak sense of academic community on campus, it is predictable that there will be widespread apathy in campus student activities. Such apathy has been widely reported. When they were asked to name the matter of greatest concern to them on their respective campuses, campus presidents ranked "student apathy" among the top five. The top concerns were:

Substance Abuse (primarily alcohol)
Student Apathy
Campus Security and Crime
Inadequate Facilities
Interracial/Intercultural Relations
CL 39)
SOURCE: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education, National Survey of College and University Presidents, 1989 

Carnegie found that a majority of the presidents in all five Carnegie classification categories thought that "few students participate in campus events." In the following table (CL 48), note that this was the majority view even at the Research and Doctorate Granting institutions-arguably the most elite ones.


  All Institutions Research & Doctorate Granting Institutions Comprehensive Liberal Arts Two-Year
Few Students Participate in Campus Events 76%  52% 78% 70%  82%

SOURCE: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education, National Survey of College and University Presidents, 1989

Spitzberg and Thorndike, plausibly enough, attribute student apathy to the lack of student interest in learning as an end in itself. Most students, Carnegie found, were interested only in getting a degree (credentialing), so there was little feeling of campus-wide academic community. Most students relied instead on various kinds of sub-communities on campus to connect with their peers:

Many students, perhaps most, experience the academic community in only marginal and momentary ways. The common ground they share with others is the wish to get ahead, the goal of getting a credential, acquiring a degree. As a sophomore at a huge university in the Southwest said: 'Yes, I think of this school as a community. People have common goals. Everyone's here to get a degree.'"…Students did, however, cite with satisfaction their membership in sororities and fraternities, the women's center, the student union, the newspaper, sports teams, the radio club, and the jazz club-groups that help them feel connected. [CCCC 151-52]

Like Carnegie (CCCC 148), Barrett Seaman found a good deal of almost frenetic participation in student activities on campus. The Carnegie Campus Life study, however, found that this was confined to a relatively small minority of students on the campuses they canvassed. Since the Carnegie study was based on a more representative and systematic sample of students nationwide, it probably gives a more accurate picture.

Reliance on sub-communities to provide the needed connectedness for students is regarded as insufficient by most campus observers, and is problematic as well. Large, complex campuses like the research and doctorate granting institutions must rely on sub-communities to build a larger sense of campus community. The problem, though, is that strong commitment to sub-communities can actually make the creation of a larger sense of campus community more difficult. This, it is felt, is particularly true of the "Greeks." On many campuses, fraternities and sororities provide the main source of social interaction for students, but the cliquishness of the fraternity and sorority culture is often found to be in conflict with the interest of colleges and universities in creating a wider sense of campus community. Abuse of alcohol continues to be the most significant challenge and problem on campus according to college presidents, and much of that problem centers on the Greeks.

The "Just" Society: Interracial and Intercultural Relations

As we have seen, college and university presidents listed "Interracial/Intercultural Relations" as one of their greatest concerns. Spitzberg and Thorndike themselves regarded racial and ethnic pluralism as the greatest challenge facing the higher education community at that time of their study (CCCC 50). More recent campus reports, like Binge and ITC, have found that interracial and interethnic relations on campuses continue to be a serious problem.

Reports of campus climate have found little or no evidence of outright racism, though reports of unpleasant incidents, thin skins, and perceived slights and insensitivities are fairly common. There is also plenty of what the Carnegie study calls the "silo effect" -- voluntary self-segregation by the various racial and ethnic groups on campus. Race and ethnic-specific dorms continue to exist. No one on campus seems to be very happy about this, but minority students and their advocates maintain that bonding of this kind is needed in order to survive in what for many is a new and alien environment.

Spitzberg and Thorndike found that the greatest conflict on campuses was between African-American and other organized student groups, especially Jewish groups (CCCC 41). They also noted conflicts and tensions between Arab and Jewish student groups. This is a continuing concern. Anti-Semitism appears to be recognized as a serious problem even at very left-leaning campuses like U Mass Amherst, which created an Office of Jewish Affairs in 1995 in response to the concerns of Jewish students there about anti-Semitism.

The Carnegie study's attitude towards conservative critics of the university scene was mostly critical and defensive. It specifically mentioned the Dartmouth Review as a publication that had attacked "affirmative action," and noted the "challenge posed by this publication" and the "great tension on the Dartmouth campus" that it had created (CCCC 41). No effort was made in the study to meet the objections that critics had raised even then to preferential forms of affirmative action, nor are such efforts being made currently. A conference of Res Life and student affairs professionals that Barrett Seaman attended is no doubt typical. Seaman reported that participants at the conference discussed ways to "fend off the scourge of well-financed right-wing provocateurs" like David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights campaign, and F.I.R.E. "If they continue to make inroads," said one dean, 'It could get ugly.'" (Binge 255).

A Healthy Campus Community Must Be a Healthy Learning Community

One of the great strengths of the Carnegie study is that it recognized-indeed emphasized-that a college or university is essentially about teaching, learning, and research. Because a college or university is essentially an intellectual or academic community, a sense of campus community must be built, first and foremost, in the academic arena.

Of the three elements of academic life -- teaching, learning, and research -- the study found that the last component was in pretty good shape, but that the first two were not. Spitzberg and Thorndike found no great interest or expectation on the part of students or faculty in student-faculty contact outside the strictly academic arena (CCCC 115-16). Both faculty and students did feel that more should be done to strengthen their campuses as learning communities, but they did not seem have any clear idea about how this was to be accomplished.

The recommendation to improve teaching and learning by lowering class size was made with some frequency by students and faculty who were interviewed and surveyed in the Carnegie study. However, even here the picture is mixed. Spitzberg and Thorndike themselves (CCCC 119-20) cited conflicting research on this question. Some research found that the "weight of evidence clearly favors small classes," but one study (at the University of Washington) found that students actually preferred large classes with enrollments of seventy-five or more. So far as teacher effectiveness was concerned, students in the U Washington study felt that the best large classes were as good or better than the best small classes. This makes perfectly good sense, if the comparison is simply between a large lecture class and a small one. Other kinds of learning, like collaborative learning and tutorials that are not based on the lecture format, require smaller classes or one-on-one instruction, but wholesale replacement of the lecture-based system of teaching is not in the works on campuses anywhere.

Spitzberg and Thorndike also recommended that campuses of all types create a "minimalist" core set of courses that all students take and that all faculty teach from time to time as a way of sustaining and promoting campus community (CCCC 171). As they point out, the concept of the core curriculum is an old one, with the roots of the idea in the trivium and quadrivium of the medieval European university, but very few colleges follow this model. Spitzberg and Thorndike cited a NEH study that found (1991-02) that only 2 percent of colleges and universities had a core curriculum. The Association for Core Texts and Courses had 66 institutional supporters in 2007. While it is unlikely that this list exhausts the category, the percentage of such institutions remains small.

One reason might be that the idea of a core curriculum is more attractive than the reality. For example, the Greenes' study, Inside the Top Colleges, found that students gave core curricula mixed reviews. One of the things that students at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago most wanted to do to improve the university was to "review and change the core curriculum"(ITC 224-28).

These findings make one wonder just how popular core curricula are or would be with most students and faculty. Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago do not have anything as ambitious as a four-year core curriculum -- at most, they have general education requirements, concentrated in the first two years of undergraduate education. Nor are core curricula or general education courses popular with faculty, who prefer to teach specialized, upper division courses. The creation of even a very modest core curriculum also faces serious political obstacles on campuses, since political power at the faculty level is concentrated in departments, which have no interest in the creation of such courses and out of self-interest typically oppose them.

If Not the Faculty, Who?

Since a college or university is essentially a learning community, built around teaching, learning and research, the primary responsibility for the creation of campus community lies with the faculty and students. The problem is that in the U.S. the teaching and learning components of the "learning community" are weak.

For a variety of reasons, faculty members are focused on other concerns (research and publications), and students for the most part are not interested. Most students remain focused on narrow career and professional interests, if that. For too many students, college is seen as an extension of high school and as a gateway to better-paying jobs and careers. For a full-time student at a four-year residential college, that gateway (unfortunately) involves about 10 hours of week of class time and about 13-14 hours per week of study outside class. All the rest of the time is devoted to extracurricular activities, few of which are in any sense remotely academic. On this view, the four-year residential college-at least so far as the purely academic part of it is concerned-is little more than a highway through some rather unpleasant and uninteresting territory, and as a tedious rite of passage to adult life.

With the decline of faculty-student interaction and the integrity of the campus as an academic community, the task of maintaining "community" has fallen increasingly to student affairs and Res Life professionals. Barrett Seaman was surprised to see how heavily the campuses he visited relied on student affairs and Res Life divisions to create a sense of campus community. But Carnegie had noted this trend a decade before Seaman, and explained it in the following way (CCCC 22-23):

During the time between the Civil War and World War I, as faculty began to undertake specialized scholarship and research endeavors, and as coeducation made new demands on the university, the student affairs profession emerged. To free research-minded faculty from the work of student caretaking and of institutional management, colleges and universities began creating administrative posts such as registrars, vice-presidents, business officers, and deans… As the tradition of moral tutor faded from the faculty culture, student services professionals faithfully maintained their commitment to educate the whole person. They further professionalized and diversified their own ranks, creating student health and counseling centers, testing services, and career counseling and placement services.

But Res Life and student affairs professionals have clearly failed to fill the breach, which was predictable, given the nature of colleges and universities as essentially intellectual and academic enterprises. No amount of support given to non-academic professionals can substitute for faculty engagement. As Sue Wassiolek, Dukes' veteran dean of students told Seaman (Binge 265): "We're managers. We're administrators. We're not scholars. That's something only faculty can do-and that's missing."

Rogue Res Life programs like the ones that have come to light at U Delaware and U Mass Amherst represent the fissiparous tendencies of modern American life as they are reflected inside the college or university. Absent any vital sense of campus community as an academic enterprise, a vacuum is created in which all the racial and ethnic and political tensions in American life are allowed to play themselves out, in many cases without any counterbalancing force in the form of a respect for academic integrity and the life of the mind. The vacuum is also an open invitation for political activism that fails to respect such norms.

Maintaining a sense of campus community is a difficult task these days, and getting harder. If the American residential college and university fails to meet the current demands and challenges, it will likely find itself increasingly vulnerable, for economic and socio-cultural reasons, to online, virtual universities that abandon the in loco parentis principle altogether. In such an arrangement, it would be left to students to create their own social and personal connections and environments, both in cyberspace and in the "physical" world, leaving the college and university itself to devote all its energies and attention to academic and professional learning, with all the economic advantages that such specialization confers.


CL: Ernest L. Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Campus Life: In Search of Community. 1990. (Copies available from Princeton University Press).

CCCC: Spitzberg, Irving J. and Virginia V. Thorndike: Creating Community on College Campuses (SUNY Press, 1992)

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