Dormitory system, hubs alter living on campus

The Daily Pennsylvanian
September 09, 2003

ITA, RA, GA. These are all familiar acronyms to the typical Penn undergraduate. They're also integral parts of the College House System, a prominent, yet fairly recent, feature of Penn daily life.

The implementation of the College House System roughly five years ago under the tenure of University President Judith Rodin converted campus housing into a series of "college houses" equipped with academic and other support services for students and faculty living together.

It "interweave[d], as a 24/7 experience, the intellectual life of the University with a warm and engaged intergenerational college house family," Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, who helped design the system, wrote in an e-mail.

While its implementation was recent, the idea of the College House System was not. Indeed, the first thematic "college houses" were actually created in the 1970s -- DuBois, Stouffer, Hill, Ware, Van Pelt and Modern Language, both now parts of Gregory, were "free-standing college houses" which comprised a minority group within the greater housing system, according to Robert Lucid, then-chairman of the Council of Faculty Masters from the six houses from 1979 to 1996.

In the 1980s, said Lucid -- who is now faculty master of Gregory College House -- "we became evangelical. We tried to colonize." His targets: the Quadrangle, the high rises and Kings Court/English House.

"We thought we were giving a good deal to students, and they were not," he said.

Indeed, at that time the housing experience for the typical undergraduate "was complicated and confusing," said David Brownlee, an Art History professor and faculty master of Harnwell College House, who was instrumental in the design and development of the College House System. "Informed choice wasn't possible."

With the ideas already in place, Rodin made it happen, Brownlee said. "In her presidency, Penn became a place where we stopped talking about things and actually started doing things."

In 1994, Lucid, Brownlee and others convinced Rodin and then-Provost Stanley Chodorow -- who were already planning renovations of the dormitories -- to reorganize them as well. Hence, the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience was born to "try and sell the rest of the campus," Lucid said. Since the new College House System would become involved in the educational process of every student, "we had to persuade the undergraduate schools that this was a good thing."

In 1996, a committee of five members -- including Brownlee, McCoullum and English professor and former Van Pelt faculty master Al Filreis -- began developing blueprints for the College House System.

And over a year of discussions, the College House System was born in fall of 1998, along with the Wheel program, offering around-the-clock academic and technical support to students within their residences, and the creation of several "hubs" --"stand alone, non-residential, non-affiliated entities run by students and faculty," according to Filreis, who was highly active in their development.

The initial changes were structural. New computer labs and staff apartments were built in the dormitories. The rest would come later with the renovations planned for the Quad and high rises.

As the new housing system developed, demand for on-campus housing increased. According to Brownlee, the renovations have and will increase the number of beds available. Already, Mayer Hall has been converted into an undergraduate dormitory to help meet demand.

"We have a waiting list of people trying to get in, whereas before the College House program was implemented, we had hundreds of empty beds," Faculty Director of College Houses and Academic Services Philip Nichols said.

One of the key features of the system, according to Brownlee, was the reshaping of undergraduate advising through the creation of the house dean, a 24-hour adviser available to students, as well as resident advisers and graduate associates on each floor.

The other was the decentralization of academic support. Under the new system, math and writing support were offered in each house. The Penn mentoring program was created. And each residence was equipped with a team of student information technology assistants.

"It revolutionized computer support," Filreis said. Rather than lugging a computer to a single, centralized location, help was now available to students 24 hours a day in their own home.

Initially, student support for the new College House System was varied. "Everyone had a slightly different vision," Brownlee said. But that is what he expected -- the point was to "create a system that allowed various degrees of participation."

Residential programs were created for students who wanted to more actively participate in specialized programs within their college houses. In his own Harnwell, Brownlee pointed out, the arts house and international floors, for example, were created for students, allowing for more active and ordinary student life to live side by side. Nevertheless, "just having them here makes the whole house more active."

These residential programs help link the college houses to the hub system. As the College House System developed, the expansion of hubs was another means of increasing support and options for students, according to Brownlee. Students interested in community service, for example, could choose to live in a community service program, or become a part of Civic House.

Hubs were also a recognition of the fact that roughly 40 percent of undergraduate students live off campus, said Brownlee.

They "create that sense of intimacy and community found within the College House System, but more focused," said Filreis, who helped create and is faculty director of Kelly Writers House. "It is a second way to have a home away from home."

Kelly Writers House, begun in 1995, was intended for the use of both Penn and the Philadelphia community for writing support across disciplines. According to Filreis, roughly 500 people a week use Writers House. It was also a model for the creation of Penn's two other hubs -- Civic House, a community and service learning collaborative which opened in September 1998, and Weiss Tech House, which opened its doors in May 2003.

Like the College House System, hubs "allow student and faculty to be involved to the degree they want to," Filreis said. They are "not so narrow that it's a clubby place."

"Tech House is a forum for students to come together with other students around technology," Weiss Tech House Director Anne Stamer wrote in an e-mail. "We also want to expose students to the house that might not normally be interested in technology."

While the implementation of the programs designed by the 21st Century project are far from complete, almost all agree that it has been a success.

"We were worried there would be resistance to change at first, but today the system has become naturalized," Filreis said.

Nichols acknowledges that "there are miles to go, but given the age of the program, it is miles ahead of where anyone thought it would be."

He added that "in a decade or two, the college houses will be considered one of the more remarkable achievements of President Rodin's remarkable tenure."

Brownlee continues to live with his wife in Harnwell after nearly six years.

"We are beginning to see and feel a different spirit in the different houses," he said. "That's a product of the diversity of the people in the system, making their own mark."

With the College House System, "we want to create a place where smart people can informally teach each other," he continued. "We are as much students as teachers, and gee, isn't that the way it should be?"