For those who haven’t heard the news or the gentle rumble of bulldozers, residential buildings on campus are being revamped – starting three years ago.
Members of the Undergraduate Residential Experience Committee (UREC) held a town hall meeting in the shiny new Shepard Hall in mid-October to talk about what residential life might look like on campus from here on out.
Around 7:15 p.m., after select Northwestern administrators gave an overview of the new residential model, the committee fielded questions from the 30-or-so audience members.
Never has anyone shown so much interest in a PowerPoint presentation.
The formal Q&A stretched across almost two hours. A handful of students stayed even longer, peppering committee members with more questions as they left for the night around 10:30 p.m.
“You’re trying to tell us that we’re having control over it when we have absolutely no control,” a student remarked in one of the evening’s first feedback comments.
“The RC ain’t broke. Don’t fix it!” another student later chimed in from the back row.
After the UREC answered the first concern, one member asked, “Are there any other questions?” The room shared a chuckle. At any given time during the evening, at least 10 hands were raised and waving.
The UREC, a committee summoned by the Office of the Provost and Department of Student Affairs, is following a Housing Master Plan (capital letters and all) to execute their vision. The basic premise is this: Residential buildings will be either knocked down or gutted and renovated to form “residential neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood will include about three residential buildings, which would all contribute something unique to the cluster. This year serves as a test run for Northwestern’s first residential neighborhood, composed of Shepard Hall, Allison Hall and the residential community formerly known as Public Affairs Residential College, Ƭ̵̬̊. And apparently pronounced “1838 Chicago.”
These three buildings share facilities: Allison’s dining hall, 1838 Chicago’s fitness center (which makes Blom look like a pile of hot garb – oh wait) and Shepard’s engagement center (which sounds like a glorified study lounge named by people who use words like “synergy” but is actually so, so much more. It’s got private and group study spaces. It’s got classrooms. It’s got a demo kitchen fit for Ina Garten. It is the real life manifestation of your wildest academic-and-recreational-facility-related dreams). Neighborhoods will each have faculty who live in their own apartments within the residence halls, and they will program special, non-academic events like movie nights.
The objectives of this Extreme Home Makeover-esque renovation plan are manyfold. Among the most emphasized by the committee include providing all students with equal access to the programming found in the current residential college model and integrating academic and co-curricular pursuits. The committee also wants to provide students with a nice place to live and a warm community to come home to when the administration’s two-year on-campus living requirement takes effect likely for the class of 2021. This new rule mandates undergraduate students live in a Northwestern residential facility, including PHA and IFC Greek housing, during their first two years on campus.
Weinberg senior, Residential College Board president and UREC member Dominique Mejia, along with many other students in the town hall meeting, shared concerns that the campus-wide implementation of a residential neighborhood model would alter and detract from the smaller, intra-building communities she says makes the RC system special.
“As a community gets bigger, it gets a little harder to maintain that community,” she says. “If you can’t build a community within 100 residents, how can you do that within 300?” Mejia was a resident of Chapin, one of Northwestern’s smallest residential colleges, her freshman and sophomore years. She is currently a non-resident member, meaning she pays a fee at the beginning of the year for a key to the building and access to all of Chapin’s programming.
“The neighborhood does not wash away what’s happening more locally,” said Brad Zakarin, director of residential academic initiatives, at the town hall. He explained that the addition of a neighborhood level allows Paul Riel, assistant vice president for residential and dining services, to provide amenities and facilities (like engagement centers and fitness equipment) that would not otherwise be available to smaller buildings.
From what Zakarin says, an evening with the new setup might go like this: The facilities in the Shepard Engagement Center are built to allow various discussion sections and small classes to be held there. Students who live in the residential neighborhood, he suggested, might sign up for a discussion section close to home. Members of a discussion section who also live in the same neighborhood would then become a few more familiar faces outside the classroom. Then, after discussion one day, some of those faces might decide to get together to form an informal study group. During the study session, they inevitably get distracted from talking about diminishing marginal returns and the invisible hand. They start to talk about what if there really were a giant human hand that controlled all the money in the whole world and there were a huge scandal by the government to cover it up and no one knew about it? Or about their weekend plans or something.
Either way, the connection shifts from academic to social, and these classmates become people to sit with in the dining hall and to play with in the game room with after their midterms are over. A connected community emerges, Zakarin says, adding that studies on similar campus residential models have shown this kind of environment encourages students to be happier and more engaged.
Shepard Hall’s new facilities make such a vision not just easy but exciting to imagine. The lower level of the engagement center has private study booths that are practical, but also sleek and made of glass. It has chairs that look like the egg chair in Norris, but they’re suspended from the ceiling! Students have access to a fitness center mere feet away, and it’s not made up of two broken ellipticals like the exercise equipment in some other RCs! Wandering through the building makes someone want to chop off their right arm on the spot and offer it up in exchange for a room on one of Shepard’s study-lounge-equipped, washer-and-dryer-equipped, flat-screen-TV-larger-than-a-human-wingspan-equipped floors.
With all these renovations, though, the way the residential college system functions will necessarily be different. The UREC has discussed changing or adding certain RC themes to fit modern academic curricula.For example, Ayers CCI, the College of Commerce and Industry, might morph into a more entrepreneurship-focused theme to approach students’ changing interests.
“We’re giving permission: Think anew,” Zakarin says. “There are plenty of faculty members who would be involved in a res college if there was a theme that spoke to them. There are plenty of students who would probably want to be a member of a res college if there was a theme that spoke to them. We want to get there.”
But Mejia worries that the UREC is placing too much emphasis on this massive facilities upgrade and not allocating enough thought to the preservation of the communities the members of each RC have built and maintained over the system’s 44-year lifespan. A laptop bar might be a great replacement for eight rickety chairs in a fluorescent-lit conference room, but Mejia doesn’t want the committee to overlook the possibility that restructuring might erase traditions beloved by RC residents.
And there are many. Every residential college has its own traditions that have, in some cases, occurred since the genesis of the system in 1972. The early 70s saw the dawn of the infamous Frances Willard Party, a night of debauchery and aggressive drinking held in Willard to commemorate the birthday of its prohibitionist namesake, banned in 2003 by fire officials who claimed the building was unfit to “host dozens of krazy kids at such a freakin’ rager” (while not their exact words, it was due to fire code violations). Willard also created an unofficial mascot called Ralph the Dog, named not for an actual dog but for the ritual of vomiting – ralphing – after nights of excessive alcohol consumption. Since 1988, the Communications Residential College has hosted a 50-hour radio show called Radiothon, a tribute to deceased former CRC resident William Arnold benefitting the American Heart Association, complete with a drag show and pornographic after-hours content. Slivka, where students clamor to live all four years of their college career, holds an annual bachelor auction to raise money for its Dance Marathon team. Just like Chapin’s Cinema Club screenings aren’t just movie nights, IM games aren’t just exercise outlets; they’re what make the RCs close-knit and carefully crafted communities.
Another student summed up the general sentiment among many of the students who attended the town hall meeting: “I think what a lot of us are feeling is that we’re scared to lose something that we so desperately love.”
“We’re not blind to tradition,” said Zakarin, who declares himself a proud faculty fellow of Willard RC. He and Riel maintain, however, that though the current RC model does work, its programing is not scalable. They say that the current RC system is flawed because it is only offered to the select group of students who live in residential college buildings.
To some students, however, this is not a flaw at all. Weinberg senior Elisa Meyer lived in Ayers CCI her freshman year, and she says the structured, leadership-based nature of res college activities made the sense of community there seem forced.
“It felt like living in a club,” Meyer says. “With the meetings and the outings and stuff, it felt like living in a business club, and I just felt like that is for a different place and not for my dorm.”
Upon learning the UREC intention to use residential neighborhoods to integrate students’ academic and co-curricular pursuits, Meyer says: “I don’t want my academics to follow me everywhere. I think there’s enough of that at Northwestern, and when I go to my dorm, I just want to be kind of separated from that.”
The students at the town hall meeting echoed this sentiment.
“Some people really want to be part of the residential college system, some people really want to be a part of Greek life,” a student said. “But one of the reasons why Plex is so popular is because it’s composed of singles, and people don’t want a community where they live.”
Meyer’s sentiments have been expressed not only by other current students but also by students from decades past. Some students and alumni view the 70s and 80s as the RC heyday (ah, that quaint bygone era when residential college traditions included filling dormitory bathtubs with wine for parties). But according to a 1984 report written by former student Scott Westrem (WCAS ‘85), this perspective might simply be a glorification of previous years.
“History shows that [residential colleges] have always had particular qualities and always had certain problems … trying to encourage faculty associate attendance at events, developing an effective communication and liaison systems with the associates,” Westrem wrote. “Knowing some of this history underscores the happy fact that – at least for residential colleges – there has been no golden age to hamper the sense that things are in fact getting better.”
If that’s not enough, consider the events of Jan. 23, 1992, when, according to The Daily, six residents of PARC seceded “to form the Anarchy Residential College as a protest against what they consider too many philanthropy events.”
The prospect of expanding the residential college model campus-wide has raised countless other questions about feasibility, sustainability and practicality. If the RC model is expanded campus-wide, will the autonomy of each RC decrease? How will community-building programming in every building affect the students who would otherwise choose to live alone in a quiet space? This, the committee agreed, is what the town hall meetings are for. They say all of these questions are up for discussion among faculty and students alike, and they emphasize that the UREC is eager to listen to student suggestions for the new RC model.
With that in mind, the clear takeaway here is that if students band together and sign this petition at change.org – titled “Dylan Sprouse for ISRC Live-In Faculty Member!” – maybe they can get Dylan Sprouse (of Suite Life of Zack and Cody fame) to be the new live-in faculty member of Intertational Studies Residential College. What’s he got going on these days anyway?
It’s not not feasible.