Residential Life Goes West

 

Duke trustees approved three key changes to current residential-life policy aimed at improving undergraduate life on the university’s main campus. The resolution, adopted at the trustees’ quarterly campus meeting in May, calls for moving all sophomores to West Campus by 2006, initiating links between designated East Campus and West Campus residence halls, and reconfiguring residential space on West Campus to create a central corridor of independent housing while moving fraternities and selective dormitories to outer quadrangles.

The shifts in residential-life policy stem from a task force convened by President Nannerl O. Keohane in the spring of 2000 to address campus-climate issues. Significant modifications planned for West Campus architecture, including the new 350-bed West-Edens Link dormitory scheduled to open in the fall of 2002 and the renovation of main- campus residence halls through the spring of 2006, prompted the task force to place particular emphasis on that campus’ residential life.

The task force’s report, released in February, recommended the three changes as part of a comprehensive effort “to make West Campus look more like the student body as a whole” and “to achieve a campus climate that will respect the diverse lifestyles that exist among students, ensure fair treatment of all groups, and build traditions of continuity and community” in campus housing.

“I think the driving force of the report is to create a coherent and consistent plan for Duke’s residential life,” said William Chafe, vice provost for undergraduate education and task force chair, when the report was submitted to the board of trustees’ Student Affairs Committee. “We boast about our commitment to diversity. We need to support that goal in terms of our housing options.”

The residential experience for freshmen “has been a stunning success” since the 1995-96 initiative to house all first-year students on East Campus, according to the task-force report. Freshman classes develop cohesion and unity, crossing racial and ethnic lines, by sharing a common living experience.

But “that sense of community begins to fragment” in the second semester of freshman year, the report states. That is when first-year students begin looking for housing space on West Campus, often by rushing a fraternity or selective house, and trying to avoid an assignment to Trent Drive Hall, “a symbol of second-class housing” for the more than 300 sophomores who end up living there.

The current residential distribution of students produces “a serious demographic imbalance,” especially along racial and ethnic lines, on West Campus, according to the task force. While 31 percent of students living on East Campus are minorities, that figure dips to 25 percent of main West Campus residents and to 10 percent of fraternities. In addition, some female students have complained of “not feeling comfortable” when walking along main West.

“The result is that West Campus residential life is today far less representative of the diversity of the Duke student body than is the case on East Campus,” the report notes.

The recommended changes in residential-life policies are part of a comprehensive effort begun by Duke administrators in the mid-1990s to develop a more academically and socially engaged academic community. Following the inception of the all-first-year East Campus, attention turned to establishing a new undergraduate liberal-arts curriculum. Curriculum 2000, adopted in January 1999, is designed to foster depth and breadth of knowledge by developing critical thinking, problem solving, and other traditional skills of liberal education. Last spring, the Arts and Sciences and Engineering faculty councils met jointly to begin promoting an increased campus focus on academic-integrity issues.

All three of these efforts, including the residential-life changes, “are consistent with goals outlined in ‘Building on Excellence’ [the university strategic plan adopted in February], including goals of promoting diversity in all aspects of university life and nurturing the personal and intellectual growth of students by building community in social, civic, and academic realms,” says the resolution adopted by the board of trustees.

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