Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Creating Colleges


At Texas A&M, the Aggie Ring is a big deal for undergraduates. On the ring there are five stars, symbolizing development of mind and body, spiritual attainment, emotional poise and integrity of character. That sounds a great deal more like formation than simple technical education. But I am afraid that well-rounded sense of formation has largely been lost at our massive technical university.

We have our share of sharp students, but one would be flabbergasted to overhear in the dining hall, "After four years of study, I'm only now beginning to really grasp the meaning of the medieval synthesis." Love of learning rarely goes that deep. In spite of all the talk about "honor, the guiding star" around here, any TA or professor can tell you that cheating is no less common here than at most state universities. And while tens of thousands of Aggies go to church each Sunday morning, as many or more stay home and nurse their hangovers. Something is lacking.

While chewing on this problem, it occurred to me that formation is very difficult in a school this big, in part because it is no longer really residential. A number of students live on campus; a good many live in officially sanctioned private off-campus dorms, while others still live in various apartments, duplexes and houses throughout the area. The result is that there is no single shared life among Aggies. So far as I can tell, there is very little guarantee that two Aggies took the same courses (much less with the same professors), lived in the same building, engaged in the same extra curricular activities or knew the same people. (This explains, by the way, much of the appeal to the Corps of Cadets. In a sea of 48,000 students, these 1,700 or so students lead a tightly disciplined life which forms a shared experience.) This is not unique to A&M; it is a fact of life at any university with this many students.

But what, I thought, if we had residential colleges? This is the arrangement found at the ancient universities, which are federations of various autonomous colleges, each having their own students and faculty members. Departments, which focus on a single field, cut across the various colleges and include people from all of them (though certain colleges are known for strengths in certain areas). Why not create a collection of colleges here?

(To avoid confusion of terms, we could simply force the "colleges" as they now exist, such as the College of Liberal Arts, to become "faculties," thus the "Faculty of Liberal Arts.")

Within the broader context of the university, its history and its rules, imagine twenty autonomous colleges, each of about 2,400 students. The Corps of Cadets could have their own Military College. But an invitation could be made for proposals for the other 19 colleges, each with a unique character and certain strengths. All would be non-profits, and each could require 2 years of physical residency, as well as whatever other requirements the particular college thought necessary. They could be funded through a mixture of university fees and particular college fees (encouraging, by the way, competition, since who wants to join the most expensive college?). I can easily imagine the Diocese of Austin sponsoring a St. Mary's College. Indeed, there are so many Catholics here perhaps SOLT or the IVE would found one too. Other religious communities would be welcome to do likewise. Philanthropic donors could as well; I see no problem with a Gates College and its neighbor, Buffett College.

Of course, at a school as tradition-conscious as Texas A&M, such a scheme would probably be eschewed as too innovative and an attack on the Aggie spirit. And then there is the practical problem of all the land swaps that would be needed, selling or renting existing dormitories (along with many of the affiliated facilities for dining and recreation) to the new colleges, constructing more buildings near campus, etc. Still, it seems to me an idea with real value. This is, after all, the basic concept behind many schools trying to create an "honors dorm," though that strikes me as a half measure. Go all the way, I say, and return some focused character to American mass education.
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