Residential Colleges as incubators for problem-solving

Professor John Hutchinson, Rice University

One of the great strengths of a residential college system is the creation of many great opportunities for student leadership development.  Students can serve in various college government roles including the presidency of the college.  They can manage large budgets.  They can create and enforce the rules of the college.  And they can represent their constituency to university leaders and administrators.  In all of these roles, the students benefit enormously in personal growth and skill development.

At Rice, we have also leveraged this student leadership as partners in problem solving for major issues which arise on campus. By asking and allowing our college leaders to take ownership of an issue, we get buy-in and wider acceptance of changes which need to be implemented. I will cite a few examples where we believe the residential college system has produced much improved outcomes than we could have achieved otherwise.

At campuses everywhere, abuse of alcohol by students is a major health and safety concern. At Rice, we created an Alcoholic Beverage Policy Advisory Committee (ABPAC) to discuss improvements to our policy governing alcoholic beverages and to our enforcement of that policy.  ABPAC was dominated by representatives from our eleven residential colleges, with each college represented by at least one member, either a president, a chief justice, or a college master.  The committee’s recommendations were bold but, because of the ownership of those recommendations by the student leadership, they were widely supported by the student body and the student media.  The implementation of those recommendations resulted in dramatic reductions in the abuse of alcohol, medical issues and problematic behavior.  It is, of course, quite unusual to have the support and agreement of the student community for tighter control of the use of alcohol on a college campus.  This level of cooperation between the university administration and the student body was directly attributable to our college system.

Similarly, we have engaged the leadership of the colleges in creating civility and respect amongst our students on our campus.  On occasion, we, like all universities, have an issue arise from individual behavior or speech which is, intentionally or not, offensive to our community.  The challenge is to respond to restore a shared sense of mutual respect.  During these times of stress and controversy, we turn to our student leadership.  The participation of the community leads to a broader understanding of the need to change behaviors and to speak out against behaviors which are unacceptable.

We have also asked our students to serve in leading roles in academic advising for their college mates.  We know that students discuss academic choices with one another, often without insufficient or inaccurate information to give good advice.  At Rice, we have implemented through our colleges a system of Peer Academic Advising, where some of our best academic students step forward to become fully trained in the rules and in the philosophy of advising.  The PAAs serve a vital role in complement and support to our faculty advisors and are amongst the most respected and appreciated members of the colleges.

And, of course, the students who lead these initiatives develop confidence in themselves as agents of change in their communities.

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