Bringing the magic to university life

hogwarts-houses-200.jpgWhat do Harvard, Rice, the University of Central Arkansas and Hogwarts School have in common? They all have “house systems” – a network of residential colleges that help to establish a sense of community and continuity among students and improve the quality of academic life.

Evolutionary biologist and residential-college advocate Robert O’Hara discussed his experiences with co-founding on a shoestring budget a residential college at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro – and how these faculty-led societies help bring the advantages of small colleges to large university communities. His talk, “Why Are We Here If We’re Not Magic?,” opened the Gartner Honors Lecture Series for 2007-08. Read more.

To an audience of SMU students, faculty and staff, O’Hara recounted his experiences as a co-founder of Cornelia Strong College, a residential college on UNC’s Greensboro campus named for the university’s first astronomy professor. With a budget of around $3,000 per year, the house organized a coffee bar, group cookouts and art shows, a weekly newsletter, a printed facebook of all its members, monthly parties, annual sporting events and “The Cornelian Prize,” an annual award for poetry. Some of the house’s expense money came from members’ donations of spare change.

“Food is the currency of all social transactions,” O’Hara said, and pointed to the College’s weekly tea as its anchor event. Students added special events seamlessly into the weekly schedule after the continuity was established, he says, including holiday-themed parties.

The nonthematic nature of a residential college system is its strongest component, O’Hara says. “Ideally, in a fully implemented system, students are assigned to their houses at random, by lottery,” he says. “Rather than self-segregating by interest, these students enjoy a true cross-section of college life. The artists, the athletes, the musicians, the cooks, the computer wizards, the naturalists and every other type of interest and personality live and work together.”

Strong College’s bottom-up operation is not the only model, although it is much easier to implement than campus community members may know, O’Hara says. The residential college systems of Harvard and Yale were established campuswide in the 1930s as alternatives to the private clubs that tended to segregate students by wealth and social status, he adds.

Read more about the history and philosophy behind residential college systems and how institutions currently implement them at O’Hara’s Web site,

Other Gartner Honors Lectures scheduled for this year include:

  • “Making Sense of Making Millions,” David Nasaw, City University of New York, Oct. 18.
  • “The Legend of the JFK Assassination,” Tom Stone, SMU History Department, Feb. 20.
  • “Iconicity and Advertising: Shanghai, Mukden, Tianjin and the Modern Girl Icon,” Tani E. Barlow, University of Washington, Feb. 25.