Cornell committee releases report on campus residential communities

A Cornell University faculty and student committee is recommending that all freshman students have similar residential experiences as members of relatively small campus communities, including program houses.

This final, substantially revised report by the Residential Communities Committee recommends that Cornell continue to guarantee housing to all freshmen; that faculty actively be engaged in the life of the residence halls; and that the university develop a program that allows students to become members of smaller communities in their first year. The committee's charge was to develop ways to ease the transition to Cornell and generate a greater sense of community at all levels of campus life.

The committee was chaired by Jennifer L. Gerner, professor of consumer economics and housing and a faculty member in residence. The final report was released today (Jan. 24) unanimously. When a draft report was released for campuswide review in October, four members of the committee released a dissenting opinion questioning whether program houses should be a housing option for freshmen. Cornell's 10 residential program houses, some of which have specific academic links, include: Risley Hall, for the creative and performing arts; Ujamaa, for issues involving underdeveloped nations and African-American culture; Akwe:kon, for Native American issues; and Ecology House, among others.

There are two key differences between this report and the earlier draft, Gerner said. First, the new report focuses on specific, positive steps designed to generate a greater sense of community and a common residential experience. The earlier draft pointed to the differences in various kinds of residential experiences without suggesting specific ways to reduce the differences.

Second, the earlier draft recommended limits on the number of freshmen living in program houses. There are no limits in the new report, which also recommends development of theme communities with specific focus but not necessarily an academic link; and small living communities with no specific focus.

"This report truly reflects a consensus view of the committee. The discussions with members of the campus community last fall helped us solidify and focus our efforts on ways to make improvements in our residential communities," Gerner said.

"The committee and I are very pleased with this report and hope the recommendations will be adopted." The recommendations will be considered by President Hunter Rawlings, Provost Don M. Randel and Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan H. Murphy. They will formulate specific policy to govern residential life to present to the Board of Trustees at its March meeting.

"I am very grateful for the hard work of the committee, especially since they issued their draft report," Murphy said. "During the past two months, they met with many members of the campus community and read the comments and concerns of scores of others. This final report provides us with a useful road map for linking the academic and residential lives of students, giving all students, especially our first-year students, an opportunity to connect to Cornell."

The committee recommends that all students share the experience of being members of smaller residential communities their freshman year. Each of those communities, the report suggests, should:

  • Have some upperclass students to act as mentors and leaders in the living unit;
  • Be small enough in size so that supportive community can exist;
  • Have a governance structure and program in which students are invested; and
  • Have faculty who can help mentor students and build community and links to the academic life of the university.

Further, the report suggests that students be allowed to choose such communities from among those closely linked to academic programs, such as program houses; from theme houses; or from those that have the elements listed above but no programmatic focus.

The report stresses the importance of links between academic life and residence life and recommends that both the Dean of Students Office and Campus Life be closely involved in residence life and in programming for freshmen during orientation and throughout the year.

The report also affirms support of the Greek system at Cornell, saying it "fosters the mentoring and student- initiated community building that the committee finds so vital to the undergraduate experience."

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