Almost two years ago, then-University President Lee Bollinger cemented his legacy as a master planner with the release of the Report of the President’s Committee on the Undergraduate Experience. The 99-page report, which was published in October 2001, is larded with policy initiatives to improve undergraduate life at the University. From the creation of a center for undergraduate intellectual life to reshaping the sophomore experience, the report aimed to dramatically restructure every aspect of University life. While the committee began its report in the heady days of the Internet stock bubble, when the University was flush with capital, the proceeding years have seen the University’s financial outlook dramatically worsen and, as a result, there have been few substantive attempts to implement many of the report’s most significant reforms.
One aspect of the undergraduate experience suffering from near perennially neglect is the housing situation at the University. Singled out as a key means for improving undergraduate life, the residence halls have escaped the type of far-reaching restructuring envisioned in the report. One of the main policy points of the report, to “build and adapt residence halls to function more like residential colleges,” has not been implemented.
Eight months after the sudden departure of Housing Director Bill Zeller, the University now has an opportunity to return to the principles articulated in the undergraduate report. A new committee, chaired by Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper, recently began the process of finding a replacement for Zeller. Last Friday, the committee had its first meeting and used the opportunity to hash out revisions to the housing director’s responsibilities and begin the process of reviewing potential housing directors. The committee would be well served to keep the mission of the undergraduate report at the center of its search for the next director.
The vision articulated by the report is significantly different than the current housing environment. The report sought to extend the University’s learning communities and to increase the faculty presence in the residence halls. This would transform the residence halls into vibrant communities. Indeed, the report recommends improving the housing system so that sophomores remain in the University’s housing system in greater numbers.
Harper has created a search committee in order to select a new housing director. The committee plans to bring three or four finalists to campus for public evaluation. This evaluation process should spark a campus-wide debate about the future of University housing and how best to enact the recommendations of the undergraduate report. This important assessment of the undergraduate experience is in danger of becoming irrelevant and forgotten.
Housing is an integral part of the University experience. With more than 98 percent of freshmen living in residence halls, this issue deserves the attention of administrators and students alike. There are few influences on the character of the University as important as its housing system.