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On the College House System: Report to Council

I am going to be introducing Dr. Phil Nichols, professor in the Wharton School and faculty director of the College House Program. But I want to do so by way of saluting him and the people who work in the College Houses for the extraordinary effort that they have been putting in, not only this year, but over the last several years in trying to achieve the aspirations we have, that our residences also pay dividends to our students and indeed to faculty and staff enriching the educational experience of undergraduates and a good many graduate students.

—Peter Conn, Interim Provost


Presentation on the College Houses

by Phil Nichols
March 16, 2005

Penn has 11 independent College Houses with space for about 5,600 students. Tomorrow we celebrate the renaming of one of those Houses as the Riepe College House, in honor of Jim and Gail Riepe’s many contributions to the University. We are operating at close to 100 percent capacity, which means that we house about 56 percent of our undergraduate students.  To put that in context, most of our peer institutions house between 80 and 90 percent of their undergraduates, and then the “big two” house 99 and 98 percent respectively. Every College House has a faculty master. The faculty master is a tenured member of the standing faculty at Penn. Every faculty master works closely with faculty and senior fellows, who are members of the standing faculty, persons with a teaching appointment at the University, or administrators and staff whose role at Penn includes significant involvement in the lives of undergraduate students. Among our residential faculty are chaired, full, associate, and assistant professors; chairs and former chairs of departments; undergraduate chairs and former undergraduate chairs; directors of research centers; winners of research awards, book awards, paper awards, and numerous teaching awards of all sorts.  They constitute a good cross-section of the excellent faculty at Penn—very active scholars and very engaged teachers. The residential faculty work closely with House Deans. The House Dean is the senior academic administrator in each College House; our House Deans possess a superb variety of skills and experiences and each of them serves as an academic advisor in the College. The House Dean supervises a staff that includes graduate associates, residential advisors, student managers, and information technology assistants. 

One of the goals set out for the College House system at its inception six years ago was to facilitate interaction among faculty and students. There are exactly 33 residential faculty, and this merry band of 33 has generated more than 17 thousand contacts with students right where they live. That figure is extrapolated from our annual survey for 2004. What this number does not include are the casual interactions: the conversations in the stairwell, dinner—most of us eat dinner with our residents in the dinning halls. It doesn’t include the time spent hanging out and watching TV together, and it doesn’t include going to basketball games, concerts and community events. It doesn’t fully reflect the sharing of our lives, which is what our residential faculty do—which one hopes all members of our College House communities do.

Non-residential faculty are also a very important component of the College Houses. So far this year, around 250 non-residential faculty have visited the College Houses. They’ve done so in the context of dinners, dessert and coffee hours, presentations, and all kinds of informal ways in which faculty and students can meet and interact outside of the classroom.

A second goal that was laid out for us six years ago was to bring the academic mission of the University to the lives of the undergraduate students—to bring academia to where they live. One way in which we accomplish this is through our Residential Programs. Residential Programs consist of groups of students who have a common intellectual interest, who live together in adjacent floors and engage in activities around that interest. There are over 30 such programs, encompassing a wide variety of interests. One of the advantages that Penn has over our peer institutions is that here, a student can apply to live in a different College House every year if they choose (though often residents enjoy a loyalty to a single House). Over the course of four or five years, therefore, a student can take advantage of a great number of these Residential Programs.

From the outset, it was determined that certain services would be delivered throughout the Houses by something called The Wheel, a program which predates the current College House system. The name is intended, I believe, to evoke an image of a hub, with services distributed outward like spokes on a wheel. Math tutorials, writing advising, library services, language support—­these services are all delivered inside the College Houses. Computing, career services, student financial services, other services that support the academic mission of the students are also delivered in this way.  In cooperation with the Weingarten Learning Resource Center, we offer mentoring on a number of subjects including chemistry, computer science, economics, operation and information management, and the number of courses for which these services are offered grows almost every year.

There are many other ways in which College Houses accomplish this goal. So far this year, there have been about 500 House events that would be considered academic. Houses actively support undergraduate research. We work closely with the Penn Humanities Forum to identify quality undergraduate research and award fellowships. Individual Houses support research through grants and awards. Some Houses hold symposia for residents who are conducting research. One of the duties of faculty and senior fellows is to mentor undergraduates within the Houses for scholarships and fellowships. Moving forward, we hope to use our faculty and senior fellows to create a culture among our younger students in which they are aware of these scholarships and fellowships—in which they know what they need to do to qualify for them—and most importantly, we want to create a culture among our undergraduate students in which it’s considered normal to apply for fellowships, in which it is part of the course of your experience at Penn.

Our academic mission includes the arts. Music lessons are available to all residents at a reduced fee. Working in cooperation with the music department, we subsidize lessons in piano, voice, violin, guitar and more. Houses hold recitals throughout the year for the entire campus to enjoy. With a generous grant from the Spiegel family, every College House now holds what is called a private party after hours, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where the residents get a guided tour and live jazz afterwards. The Provost mentioned the current show by post-minimalist artist Barry Le Va. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a fantastic show and for some of our residents it was their first visit to ICA.

A third goal that was set out six years ago is the creation of community. The idea was to move Penn away from being the ‘Commuter Ivy’ and to create discrete communities within the University. Penn is great at forming very small communities, the paradigmatic Penn community possibly being the a cappella group. Penn is great at creating one giant overarching community: One University. The idea with respect to this goal was to create something in between.  I frankly admit that this is the hardest goal that the College Houses has been tasked with, because it means effectuating a real change in culture and that is not an easy thing to accomplish. One means by which the College Houses are attempting to accomplish this is by giving the direction of each House to its residents. As of this year, every one of our College Houses has a House Council, a student leadership organization. This year we also reinvigorated the Residential Advisory Board, which is an overarching group of student leaders drawn from each of the College Houses. 

Programming continues to be an important way in which community is fostered within the College Houses. This year we will offer more than 100 inter-house programs. This year saw the inauguration of the College House Intramural Cup, which is an intramural sports series. There are literally thousands of smaller programs offered within the Houses, at the House level, at floor level, at a pod level, at a Residential Program level, at a section level. There is not a single night at the University of Pennsylvania in which there is not some activity being offered somewhere at a College House.

Finally, if you want to fall even more in love with the University, and there are so many ways to fall in love with Penn, but if you want to fall even more in love—go to the various College House websites and scroll through all of the activities, news and programming. The things you will see are iconoclastic, they’re idiosyncratic and they’re beyond charming. There are countless ways within our College Houses that Penn people interact with one another on fun and deeply meaningful levels. Apart from all the numbers I have already mentioned, that is what I really want to report about the College House System at Penn.



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 26, March 29, 2005


March 29, 2005
Volume 51 Number 26


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