The University Record, April 2, 1996

Task force will consider increasing living-learning programs 

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

According to recently published studies from Stanford University and U-M data, living-learning communities can improve retention rates and academic achievement for all students, and particularly for minority students and women in the sciences and engineering.

Consequently, a University task force is studying the possibility of expanding the U-M's living-learning options so that more or even all first-year students could enroll in a community of one kind or another.

The University currently offers a range of such programs to students, including the Pilot Program, the Residential College, the 21st Century Program and the Women in Science and Engineering Program. Next fall, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program will offer a small residential program, and the 21st Century Program will double in size.

The U-M is not alone in this trend. Interest in living-learning communities is spreading nationally.

Last month, David Schoem, LS&A assistant dean, and Mary Hummel, director of the 21st Century Program and of WISE, co-chaired the fourth annual National Conference on Residential Colleges and Living-Learning Communities.

Held on campus, the conference was attended by about 150 program directors, students and faculty from 50 colleges and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley. All were considering whether to expand their living-learning programs.

Developing and maintaining living-learning communities is extremely rewarding but not easy, according to speakers at the conference's panel on "Looking to the Future: Residential Colleges and Living-Learning Communities in the Year 2000."

The academic component is critical, noted panelists from the Bradley Learning Community at the University of Wisconsin. Wisconsin opened the Bradley pilot program with 244 students in fall 1995.

"We discovered that such programs need an academic anchor a substantial shared academic experience, which requires real collaboration between faculty and staff," said Aaron Brower, director of the Bradley Learning Community. The Bradley staff expect to build up the academic component in the future.

The rest of the program is thriving, however. "In 29 years of working in residence halls, I have never seen a residence hall that looks and feels like Bradley," said Marian Laines, another staff person. "There is an immense amount of student energy and enthusiasm."

"There is a great spirit of community," agreed Brower. "We counted over 200 spontaneous events developed for and by the students ranging from 'Donuts and CNN on Saturday Morning' to Shakespeare festivals to splashing paint on a canvas to create a 'Jackson Pollack painting' after viewing a video on the artist."

Older, established communities have their own problems. They require a renewal of commitment and energy from the faculty, according to panelists from James Madison College at Michigan State University now in its 30th year.

Faculty burnout and limited opportunities for research plague established programs, they noted, so it is critical to bring in new faculty to take up the cause.

Students from James Madison College also stressed the need for a facility that provides an attractive hang-out with good food in the residence hall where students can socialize. They also noted that non-academic events were just as important as academic events, from the student's point of view.

The U-M task force is studying the living-learning option from all points of view and plans to issue a report later this year.