What do you do as Principal (Head) of a residential college?

Chris Massey (Director of Student Residences, and Master, University Hall, University of Western Australia)

Taking up the role of Principal of Currie Hall (The University of Western Australia owned and operated Hall of residence for 250 students) in late 2006 came with many challenges. Being recruited from outside the tertiary sector, and coming into a community which had only always previously appointed academic staff as Principal, presented me with a unique career experience…. an experience which I have thoroughly enjoyed!  In fact, I can’t imagine not working in the residential student environment. However, more than eight years on, there is still one question which I hesitate to answer, and I never think I do the question justice. The question? What do you do as Principal (Head) of a residential college?

Sure, it’s an easy enough question to answer amongst others in residential colleges, where we understand the demands, rewards and challenges of our role, but something I have always found difficult to articulate to friends and colleagues of the wider university. Can anyone really understand the role unless they are immersed in the residential college? If that is difficult, how do we convince decision makers of universities regarding the value of residential colleges and subsequently gain approval for requests of resources and support? I even hesitate to know what to write when asked my occupation on documents! The ‘mysterious’ role as a Head of College intrigued me so much that I am now undertaking a Doctorate of Education, investigating the functions and associated issues with being a key decision maker within a residential college.

Despite evidence suggesting there is a renewed emphasis on the value of the collegiate experience, as well as literature pertaining to the benefits of residential colleges from a learning and engagement perspective, I have found little research since commencing my thesis on key decision makers within residential colleges. It’s somewhat obvious that the residential experience for college students has evolved over time (certainly it has at UWA) and therefore the nature of employment and services in residential colleges has also needed to change.  Do we provide a service for students, manage the affairs of the students, develop the student, or all of the above? With an increasingly diverse global college population, increasing and different expectations of students, and increased accountability from the university, the need for Heads of Colleges with suitable skills is obvious.  If our role is to support student success, with academic achievement as the highest priority, then residential colleges must provide an educational environment with leaders able to develop supportive community environments and maximise the educational value of the students residential experience. Therefore it stands to reason that in a residential setting where there is an absence of a Head, there will not be the same student experience compared to student accommodation which does have this leadership. I would suggest that the two models of student accommodation can operate together within the same university (and do), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince sceptics of the importance of the Head of College role in a world where cost cutting involves merging colleges, constructing large scale commercial student accommodation options, and where the view of many is that the role of Head is ‘out dated’.

The lack of awareness regarding the potential benefits of a Head of College was highlighted to me recently when I spent 6 months in the UK working within a very different student residential setting from that of my home university. Here at University of Western Australia we have what would be described as a very traditional collegiate model.  That is, separate independent colleges each with their own Head of College, who is essentially the key decision maker of the college. My experience in the UK was very different. There,  the student accommodation was on a much larger population scale with the student experience agenda ‘centralised’ and occurring very much on the institutional campus, without educational leadership occurring within the residences.  I am happy to confess that both models have strengths and weaknesses. Student satisfaction surveys indicate as much. However, what did occur to me is that at both Universities there is a lack of genuine choice for the student. Here at UWA that is partly due to history and a lack of development funding over the years. At the UK institution concerned, it was a case of having consciously moved away from the Head of College model some time ago. Why? I think for maybe two reasons. One was perhaps as a result of poor performances by some Heads of Colleges, which caused a review and inevitably a restructure. Secondly, and more in relation to this blog, there appeared a lack of understanding, or acknowledgment, of what a Head might be able to offer to positively enhance the student outcomes of the university. Given my already declared difficulty explaining the Head of College role, it was a difficult debate to undertake with the UK institution and what facts did I have anyway?       

I am delighted that I will be able to attend the Collegiate Way 2014, to discuss residential college best practice and ways in which we can better articulate what we do and why we do it. Maybe then I will know what to write down when I fill out my form at customs and immigration……

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