New Program Encourages Professors To Live With Their Students

College dorm life can be a rich and challenging experience: plastic cups of lukewarm beer, wafts of cheap weed, and doodles of genitalia on your dorm door's white board. But Clemson University has introduced a new element into the mix: your professor.

This is the inaugural year of Clemson's faculty-in-residence program. In the last few decades, colleges across the country have introduced similar schemes, breaking down the barriers between teacher and student. The idea is for professors to serve as mentors, offering their young neighbors advice on everything from classes, majors, and career paths to friendship feuds and family problems. These initiatives also speak to a more fundamental shift in understanding what higher education should be: an immersive living-learning experience.

John Brown, an associate professor of music at Duke University, is living among the school's 1,600 or so freshman on its East Campus for the seventh consecutive year. He often invites students over to speak with local artists and judges, to watch political debates (most of the students don't have cable), or to eat brownies and watch "Family Guy," a show that he has grown to appreciate thanks to his 18-year-old dormmates.

"I like to know what's on the students' minds," Brown says. "The media machines will have you believe one thing or another, but the best way to know -- I'm listening to this, I'm watching this, I'm thinking about this -- is from the horse's mouth."

Carol Bakhos was at Middleberry before she came to UCLA, where she's now an associate professor in the Jewish Studies department. She craved the sense of community she'd left behind at a small liberal arts college. "UCLA is this massive research institution that also caters to undergraduates," she explains. "Classes tend to be, in general, quite large and one-on-one interactions with students in smaller settings aren't what you usually find."

Now Bakhos regularly eats with students, discussing their struggles, particularly with faith, as they transition from home and childhood to the independence of college. Recently, she brought an imam, a rabbi, and a reverend to campus to have for conversation with undergraduates on the subject of "Finding God at UCLA."

"You appreciate the students more," she says of her live-in situation. "In the lecture hall, they're warm bodies, looking up at you, taking exams." Now Bakhos has backstage access. "They're surprisingly brighter than I thought, more involved socially, more thoughtful."

When Hwansoo Kim, a professor of Buddhism and Korean culture and history, spent a year at Duke previously, he lived in a gated apartment away from campus, and felt isolated from the rhythms and routines of college life. Now his 5-year-old daughter, 3-year-old son, and wife, the university's Buddhist chaplain, live in Few Quadrangle, along with the Phi Delta Theta and AEPi fraternities. He hosts a weekly evening "snack attack" with, he is careful to emphasize, non-alcoholic beverages, and once invited an interior decorator to campus to help the students beautify their dorm rooms.

The experience as faculty-in-residence has changed the way Kim teaches. Buddhism is about suffering, and how to overcome it and reach enlightenment, he explains. These days he personalizes his seminars. "Does anyone have a serious anxiety or concern about life?" he'll begin. "How did you overcome that difficulty?"

Outgrowing Oxbridge

Professor-student cohabitation is not a new idea. Its origins date to almost a millennia ago, at the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge. "Have you seen 'Chariots of Fire?' " asks John Thelin, the author of "A History of American Higher Education" and a professor at the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. "It's a very good depiction of how the English universities had this notion of living and learning being combined."

Oxford and Cambridge were built as idyllic Gothic quadrangles, which integrated dorms, lecture halls, and faculty suites. Students and professors ate together, although the latter on a raised platform. The faculty didn't live with the students to fulfill an egalitarian intellectual utopia, but in part, at least, to supervise and control.

The early colleges of the American colonies, like William & Mary and Yale, imitated this idea. "They were private colleges with religious origins," says Vernon Burton, the director of the Clemson Cyberinstitute, professor of history and computer science, and one of three professors serving as guinea pigs in Clemson's new program. This close-knit and highly ordered structure, he says, reproduced "an old patriarchal idea of society and community."

This understanding of higher education began to erode as colleges expanded. For its first couple of centuries, higher education in the U.S. was an intimate affair; the largest university in 1910 had a head count of just 6,000. But they began to grow rapidly in the late 1920s, and more so in the 1960s, as baby boomers came-of-age. Many Midwestern universities in particular began to balloon to the point at which building in a community became almost impossible. "They wanted to be residential campuses, but they just kind of outgrew them," says Thelin.

Kids Grow Up

In the 1960s, there was a movement to restore the living-and-learning experience and re-personalize university life. UC Santa Cruz became a prime example of such a "cluster college," built as eight distinct village-like residences modeled after Oxford and Cambridge -- with professors attached to them, teaching classes across departmental lines, and on a first-name basis with students. The atmosphere was so relaxed that students nicknamed UCSC, "Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp."

Fifteen years later, the experiment was declared a failure. Declining student enrollment, high attrition, and a more career-oriented student body pushed the university to sweep away some of its more radical designs.

One of the first moves against the experiment came in 1967, when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan fired the University of California system's president, Clark Kerr, as part of a campaign to pacify the raging student activism of UC campuses.

1960s upheaval fortified the wall between professor and student in another respect. With 18-year-olds dying in South Vietnam, those entering college were seen as increasingly worthy of grown-up privileges. The voting age moved from 21 to 18, and in many states 18-year-olds were also allowed to drink, at least for a time.

"There was a move away from the parental control and old, hierarchical, patriarchal structures of early American culture," says Burton. Dress codes and curfews became relics, as universities perceived students less as youths to be supervised and more as adults with an autonomy to be respected. At some state universities, there is a tradition, and in a few cases a policy, that faculty should't even step inside student dorms.

The recent popularity of faculty-in-residence programs is not a return to old traditions, though. The live-in professors usually have no disciplinary role; they are there to nurture, not nanny. But still, it's a model with many precedents. In Thelin's words: "It's an ideal that American colleges rediscover from time to time."

The Revolution Will Be Discussed

Ben Ward fell in love with the blending of academic and residential life at Yale, where he served as dean of one of its residential colleges. When he arrived at Duke in 1980, he founded its faculty-in-residence program in the hope of re-creating some of this experience. He invited professors and students to meet in his apartment, and threw piano jams after dinner. The plan worked, and now most Duke freshmen share their dorm with at least one professor. "It was a revolutionary idea when I came," Ward says.

Burton realized the power of the learning-living community while a graduate student in the 1960s, where he was able to head one of Princeton's residential colleges in a job "with a rather unfortunate name for a Southern white man -- master." There, he developed close relationships with many faculty members and students, including future Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who in her commencement address this year at the University of South Carolina described Burton and her mother as the two most influential figures in her life.

As a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Burton would go hiking with students, and take them to the theater.

"We would go see 'Gone With the Wind,' and discuss afterwards what it meant to different groups of people," he says.

Burton's unorthodox pedagogical style may be one of the reasons that he was named the U.S. Research and Doctoral University "Professor of the Year" in 1999. Clemson students will now be able to spend evenings in their dorm talking race relations with a man who grew up in a segregated South Carolina cotton-mill town, became an activist in the Civil Rights movement, and penned the award-winning book, "The Age of Lincoln."

"We define education wrong," Burton says. "We should be talking about how people learn. Outside of the classroom is an important setting for a broader education."

This question of learning will become increasingly relevant with the expansion of online courses. Watching a video of a lecture may be less engaging than experiencing it in person, but the very real possibility that we could watch all the world's most distinguished academics share their thoughts for free means that a reexamination of the true value of the four-year college is all the more urgent.

"The campus is still built around the lecture," Shai Reshef, the founder of the University of the People, a non-profit, tuition-free, online university, said at a conference last week, sponsored by The Economist. "The lecture is the least interesting thing."

The successful colleges of the future, he continued, would be the ones that "afford the application of knowledge, that afford conversations."

The Price Of Progress

Faculty-in-residence programs could be seen as the first steps toward such a vision, although there are certainly hurdles preventing even this smallest of radical reforms. Not the ones we might expect, however.

"Every Friday you can imagine, there are a lot of parties going on in the dormitory," says Kim, "and I have two kids who go to bed at 7:30." But whenever there's music playing too loudly, Kim just sends the students an email.

"They're so responsive," says Kim. "They're aware of the needs of our family."

It's not the drugs; it's the money. At Duke, for example, the live-in faculty members receive free housing, $750 a year in event allowances, a $500 meal allowance, heavily subsidized parking, and a semester sabbatical after their three-year term. With, say, 30 professors, we're talking way over half a million dollars in extra costs, and that's one prof per 208 undergraduates.

"There are universities 10 times that size," Thelin calculates. "If you were to keep replicating close contact, it would become prohibitive."

Most events also have to fit in with the college student schedule, where it's morning until mid-afternoon, and evening until early-morning. Brown has to throw most of his functions at 10 p.m., and runs a weekly jazz jam until midnight.

"That takes it off the table for some professors right there," he said.

The extracurricular activity may be too much of a commitment for many professors under the publish or perish pressure of today's academia. Every hour munching brownies and watching "Family Guy" is an hour away from research and writing, the keys to promotion and tenure.

"I'm late enough in my career that I can afford this," says Burton.

Living in a dorm means professors also sacrifice a substantial amount of privacy. "I'm going into the parking lot and I can't honk or start cursing because there might be a student in front of me, and I'm a role model," says Bakhos. "But that can be challenging, because I'm also a human."

We're talking about a university too, which means an epic and tangled bureaucracy, especially when it's a school steeped in old world ways.

Woodrow Wilson was perhaps the most fearless fighter for unified living and learning. As president of Princeton in the early years of the 20th century, Wilson introduced the idea of the "discussion section," substituting rote memorization with intimate small-group debates. Wilson then took his crusade to Princeton's eating clubs -- notoriously elitist residential houses -- hoping to build Oxford-Cambridge-like quadrangles in their dust. He failed, but became a radical social democrat in the process, and ended up shepherding the Progressive Era from the White House. According to Burton, Wilson once said: "It's easier to do something as president of the United States than as the president of a college."

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