A Housing Dialogue

 

Plan to link social and academic life under review

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Leo Pando
 

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Illustration by Leo Pando
In an effort to link academic and residential life at Colby more formally, a form of housing based on students' shared interest in broad academic topics or themes, such as the environment or social justice, has been proposed.

Those two examples of potential Dialogue Houses were suggested as pilots by the Trustee Working Group, a committee of trustees, faculty, students and administrators that was formed to consider, among other issues, a proposal for multicultural housing at Colby. The group found the multicultural housing proposal "too narrow in scope, too potentially fragmenting, and based too exclusively on non-academic rationale," according to a report released January 20. The proposal for Dialogue Housing will be discussed on campus during the spring semester and could be instituted in 2005-06.

The Dialogue Housing proposal was to be aired in a variety of forums on campus beginning in February, said President William D. Adams. "We want to gather as much reaction as we can about the proposal and see what interest there might be," he said following the January meeting of the Board of Trustees.

This latest proposal emerged from a conversation that began in 2001 when some faculty members said they saw a need to link Colby's academic and social spheres more closely. While that observation did not lead directly to thematic housing proposals, Adams said he agreed in principle. Discussions of "learning communities" occurred at that time, and the Strategic Plan for Colby includes an initiative to "Integrate students academic, residential, and social experiences."

In the fall of 2002 students from underrepresented groups called for Colby to implement multicultural housing, a more specific form of specialty housing. That plan was prompted by some gay and lesbian students who said they felt uncomfortable and even unsafe in conventional housing and by some students of color who said they wanted to live in a residential environment that stresses support of diversity.

The College Affairs Committee and the Academic Affairs Committee subsequently devised a modified plan for multicultural housing. Even in that carefully crafted form, however, multicultural housing "continues to be a place that the institution . . . does not choose to go," Adams said. "I think there is an understandably raw nerve about any kind of housing that suggests separations along either racial and ethnic lines or ideological lines." There is no room for negotiation on multicultural housing at Colby, he said. "The door is closed on that."

A door is open, however, to a plan that would permit students to live together based on shared academic thematic interests. A number of students have said that they feel a disconnect between their lives in the classroom and their lives in the dormitories. It is this separation that Dialogue Housing would help to bridge, Adams said.

While this is not an issue for all students, the College has identified a need to provide opportunities to intensify and broaden the academic experience for students who want to extend their intellectual inquiry even further.

"The notion there, going back to the strategic plan," Adams said, "was to afford these moments of connectivity around academic issues that were broad and far-reaching in their implications and, so, rather inclusive, and to do it in very carefully limited circumstances. So you could imagine a part of your Colby experience being shaped in this way but not all of it or even the primary part of it."

Under the proposal, the College would designate the two pilot houses (a social justice house and a "green" or environmental house) for 2005-06. Proposals for other future Dialogue Houses would be submitted to the College Affairs and Academic Affairs committees. The houses would need to have a minimum of 20 residents, a faculty leader and a clear plan for academic and civic activities. Group identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, major, religion, participation in athletics) could not serve as an organizing theme for a Dialogue House. Students could live in Dialogue Housing for only two semesters at Colby. First-year students would not be eligible.

Vice President for Student Affairs Janice Kassman said she and others involved in development of the Dialogue Housing concept considered several different versions of special housing in use at other colleges. "This [Dialogue Housing] seemed to combine all of the elements we wanted to achieve," Kassman said.

Discussions of the proposal are expected to gauge interest among students and faculty and to flesh out more details of how the system would operate. Kassman stressed that the College is not seeking a referendum on the proposal but an indication of whether there is sufficient interest in the Colby community to warrant moving ahead with the plan. Approval of the formal proposal would require assent from the Board of Trustees.