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O’Hara, Robert J. 2007.
Against theme halls. Student Affairs Leader, 35(22): 1–2.
Against Theme HallsRobert O’Hara
Consider these recent developments in the world of residential life:
A Virginia university, under the auspices of a campus diversity program, sets off a special wing of a dormitory and makes it available only to female engineering students.
A top-fifty California university designates a special residential area for students with an academic interest in “interpersonal relationships.”
A Massachusetts university tells all its first-year nursing students that they must live together in a single residence hall.
A large Midwestern university opens a new multimillion-dollar residential complex to great acclaim, but scientists need not apply: it’s just for arts and humanities majors.
Theme halls like these—dormitory spaces that bring together all the art students or all the science students or all the athletes or all the nurses—have been proliferating in American higher education for a number of years.
Born of a desire to repair the social decay that has spread through campus life since the 1960s, these well-intentioned programs are better than the status quo that has long existed on many campuses, and they are certainly better than nothing.
But theme halls are misguided, and there are intellectual and practical reasons to reject them.
Why they are a bad idea
Theme halls are intellectually misguided because the aim of higher education should be to integrate, not segregate. Universities should work to ensure that students reap the benefits of living in a diverse environment; they should not suppress those benefits by putting already like-minded people together and screening them off from people who think differently.
It is fundamental to the education of free citizens that people with different interests and backgrounds be encouraged to get to know each other so they will be able to learn from their differences. Theme halls stand in the way of this. Grouping like with like is easy to grasp and easy to sell, but especially in education, what’s easy isn’t always best.
If we segregate students according to interest, who will play Mozart in the athletes’ hall? Who will write epic poetry in the science hall? Who will program computers in the arts hall? Would you want to be treated by a nurse who spent four years in college living only with nurses and no other kinds of people?
Theme halls also create practical problems that give rise to administrative bloat and student disaffection. What should be done with students who switch majors or change interests? Are they required to move and disrupt their social network? If not, do they prevent another student interested in the theme from being admitted? And who polices all this to make sure everyone is keeping with the program?
We should be encouraging students, especially freshmen, to explore all the intellectual offerings their universities provide, not discouraging them from doing so out of fear that intellectual exploration might disrupt their living arrangements.
It may be argued that theme halls can be configured so they don’t really present a barrier to anyone: if a science student wants to join the arts hall, she is allowed to do so. But then why bother with the theme at all?
On some campuses, students may well have a legitimate complaint that there aren’t enough opportunities to get to know other people with similar academic interests. If that’s so, then the problem needs to be addressed within the academic departments. Does the university have a biology club and a philosophy club and a nursing club and an English club with regular meetings? Does each department host social events for its students?
The academic departments, not the campus residential areas, should be the primary places where students with similar academic interests are brought together.
An alternative arrangement
Is there an alternative to theme halls? Yes: permanent, fully cross-sectional, faculty-led residential colleges that provide the advantages of a small college within the context of a larger institution. This is the organizational model of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain and as such is one of the oldest educational arrangements in existence.
Residential college systems based on these models are appearing at more universities every year, and I chronicle this international movement on my website “The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life” (http://collegiateway.org).
Unlike theme halls, cross-sectional residential colleges—called “houses” at some institutions and familiar to many people through the fictional house system of the Harry Potter novels—are designed to integrate rather than segregate. They bring students and faculty from all departments and disciplines together into stable permanent educational societies.
The residential college system now being planned for the University of Mississippi, for example, was consciously set against the idea of theme halls. “We made a decision not to do ‘thematic housing’,” says Provost Carolyn Staton, “because engineering students (for example) are with other engineers all day long in the classroom. They wouldn’t get the richness of meeting other people from a wide variety of disciplines.”1
And this is not just an American view, nor is it restricted to secular public universities. Looking back in 1946 on a hundred years of residential college life in Australia, W.R. Barrett recognized that
“It has been for the good of all that students from various faculties [academic divisions] should be thrown together in the various associations and activities of [residential] college life. In that atmosphere and environment nothing is exempt from the test of criticism and experience; opinions are sifted and convictions hammered out; men learn from the interplay of thought and action; character and faith are developed; and men are saved from narrowness and exclusiveness, receiving a wider vision for their life’s work.”2
Theme halls have emerged in part from the student-as-customer model of education. If you ask (inexperienced and unreflective) students whether they want to live with other people like themselves, most will say yes. And if that’s what our customers want, then that’s what we should give them.
But students are not customers, and what they want is not always what they should be given. In creating theme halls, we are teaching students the wrong lessons: we are teaching them that different branches of knowledge don’t connect, that liberal education is impossible, and that they should only associate with people like themselves. Theme halls are better than nothing, but they aren’t the best we can do.
1 Castens, E. (2007). “Residential colleges to transform Ole Miss experience.” Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, July 26, 2007.
2 Barrett, W.R. (1946). “The warden’s letter.” Pp. 7–8 in: The Wilfridian: Special Issue to Commemorate the Centenary of Christ College (C.C. Cowling, ed.). Hobart: University of Tasmania.
Robert J. O’Hara is an evolutionary biologist and the author of “The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life” (http://collegiateway.org).
© RJO 1995–2016