Living To Learn
Southern Methodist University is embarking on a residential college program to use housing as another tool to educate well-rounded young adults.
In fall 2014, Southern Methodist University’s Dallas-area campus will commence a housing program that will put the private institution’s housing in league with Oxford, Cambridge and such esteemed American universities as Harvard, Duke and Vanderbilt. SMU will soon begin its residential college (RC) program, in which students will be divided among 11 residential commons where they will live for at least the first two years of their college career. In one of the largest construction projects to date in SMU’s 100-year history, five new buildings have been erected, and six have been retrofitted — all by the Dallas-Fort Worth office of architecture firm KSQ — to pave the way for this new route to learning. Student Housing Business spoke with Dr. Lori White, vice president for student affairs, about the origins and hopes for the new residential model.
SHB: How many beds total is SMU building?
White: There will be 1,250 in the new buildings.
SHB: Do you house any of your upperclassmen?
White: We haven’t had the capacity. Until now, we have housed about 30 percent of our students. With the new housing, we’ll accommodate about 60 percent.
SHB: What are your most recent enrollment numbers?
White: For 2012-2013, we enrolled approximately 11,000 students, 6,000 of whom were undergraduates. Every year, we admit a first-year class of approximately 1,450. We don’t envision growing much larger than that, at least at the undergrad level. We like our medium size, it works well for us.
SHB: When did you arrive at SMU, and how did the RC model evolve?
White: I arrived at SMU in 2007, as did our provost, Paul Ludden. When we arrived, there were a number of conversations going on about the SMU undergraduate experience, which all coalesced in some wonderful ways to lead us to recommend this idea of the Residential Commons. When the provost and I arrived, there was a group of faculty that had been working on an honors task force. The focus of that task force was to discuss ways in which we could continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest students at SMU. There was also a group tasked with determining whether we should recommend that students live on campus longer than one year. We historically had a one-year residency requirement for first-year students. There was another group that was looking at substance abuse prevention on campus, and one of the things that group talked about was how to bring into balance both our wonderful social atmosphere at SMU and our academic life. We needed to make sure those two things are complementary and balanced. When the provost and I arrived, and had the opportunity to look at the work that had been done by those three groups, he and I sat down and agreed that yes, we think it’s important for students to live on campus for longer than one year, because the research is consistent about the positive impact of students living on campus in terms of their engagement with their classmates and the university, and it positively impacts retention. We also thought that faculty should have the opportunity to live together with students, which was one of the recommendations of the honors task force. The provost and I agreed that we didn’t think this model should be reserved solely for honors students. We think all of our students are honors students, not just a select group of them. So we think it’s a good idea for faculty to live on campus with students. Let’s make that opportunity available for all students who live on campus. Through this idea of balancing our social and academic life, we thought, what better way to bring those things together but in the residential setting? That’s how we arrived at this recommendation that we build this residential commons model at SMU.
SHB: Describe the physical scope and timeline of this project.
White: By fall 2014, we’ll have 11 residential commons. We’re building five new buildings, and we’re retrofitting six existing buildings. Transforming them into residential commons means that there will be a live-in faculty member residence in each of these 11 buildings. The residence is a very nice two- or three-bedroom apartment, with a living space conducive to entertaining groups of students. Each individual commons will have classrooms or shared classrooms, meaning there will either be a classroom in each building or a classroom in one building that will be shared by two others, with the idea that we’ll be able to offer a range of courses in the buildings where students live.
SHB: How will students be assigned to their RCs?
White: We’re not doing it by major. We made the decision that we wanted each residential common to be a microcosm of the SMU student population. So students will be what we’re calling ‘distributed’ based on this principle that each residential common will represent the whole of SMU. So they’re not by major or by interest. We’re not putting all of the engineers together, we’re not putting all of the athletes together, we’re not putting all of the people from California together in one res hall. For example, 50 percent of our students are from Texas and 50 percent are from outside Texas. Each residential common will replicate that. We have lots of different majors on campus, so we want a sprinkling of each of those different majors in each residential common. Instead of students choosing where to live, we will choose for them. That’s the way Rice distributes students to their residential colleges, I’m sure that’s what Harvard and Yale do. The idea is that you want each of the communities to really be a smaller subset of the larger university.
SHB: Describe the construction, costs and financing of this project.
White: We started actual construction in 2012. The planning started in 2007 in terms of our vision: Where to build the commons, designing the buildings, etc. The overall cost was approximately $150 million. It was the largest construction project at the university to date. In addition to the five new buildings and retrofitting the other six, we had to build dining commons and parking. It’s a huge investment on the part of the university. We bond-fund residence halls on campus, then students’ rent pays the bond off over time.
SHB: What were you going for in the look and design of the RCs?
White: At SMU, we have a beautiful campus. The architectural style is collegiate Georgian, in our new buildings, old buildings and retrofitted buildings. They are spectacular looking. Inside, key features of a residential common include a place for a faculty member to live. So we’ve built very nice spaces to attract our best faculty to be interested to live with students and to create a space where they can entertain students and visit with them in their homes. We have great community spaces for students to gather — lounges and study nooks and of course classroom spaces.
SHB: Did you build them suite style?
White: We decided not to do that for the new builds because we really wanted to facilitate community, and community happens in hallways and in informal settings. We make sure we have a good student-to-bathroom ratio, because students are used to having their own bathrooms and bedrooms. Lots of students don’t want to share a bathroom with 50 other students, so we made sure to have an eight-to-one ratio, both in new and retrofitted buildings.
SHB: How has the traction been so far among faculty?
White: It’s been great. We appointed the faculty a year ago this spring. We wanted to be able to work with that group of faculty for a full year in preparation for 2014. A few of the apartments in the buildings that were retrofitted were finished at the end of last summer, so we have three faculty members who are already living with students. That’s been great. They’re having a wonderful experience, and they’re able to figure out what kinds of things are working well, what kinds of things they want to try or do differently. They’re able to provide some good advice and counsel to the faculty that will be moving for the first time this summer. Understanding that not every faculty member may want to live-in but still want the opportunity to connect with students, we also have a faculty affiliate program. In any give residential common, we have five to 10 faculty affiliated already with each one of these buildings. We give them a meal card so they can have lunch with students in their common; they’ll be invited to the programs that are hosted by the residential staff in their commons. That’s another way to engage faculty. Another important feature is each common will have both first- and second-year students living together so students will live in the same common for two years and then maintain their affiliation with their common throughout their time at SMU. If I move into Armstrong Commons my freshman year, I’ll live in Armstrong for two years and then when I’m a junior, if I live off campus, I’ll still be affiliated with Armstrong, so if they have a commons dinner or speaker, I’ll still be invited back to participate in that program. We want our sophomore students to assume leadership positions in the common, so they’re mentoring our first year students. We’ve identified a number of formal positions for our sophomore or upper-class students. We’ve got some who are serving as peer academic leaders or other types of peer advisors. There is lots of opportunity for our upper-class students to mentor our first-year students. We think that’s going to be a great model as well.
SHB: In your opinion, what is uniquely 21st Century about this model of mixing housing with learning?
White: Long, long ago when dorms were first built, I think the idea was just to provide students with a place to live. I don’t think way back in 1926, when our first residence hall was built, did they think about creating intentional learning opportunities for students. I think they just were trying to find a place to house students. But I also think they discovered that when you bring together, 24/7, students, many of whom come from different neighborhoods, states, countries, ways of looking at the world, all kinds of wonderful learning happens. You discover that maybe not everyone thinks like everyone in your neighborhood did. You get to spend time figuring out how to navigate adulthood for the first time, living on your own. I think those are the things that over time, those of us who are educators have discovered about the wonderful value of having different kinds of students living together 24/7.
— Lynn Peisner