Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

Faculty Senate accepts plan for greater oversight of academic theme houses


The Faculty Senate on Thursday endorsed a proposal aimed at bolstering the educational mission of academic theme houses, but members were split on renaming such houses Language and Culture Residences.

While no formal Senate action was needed to implement changes in how academic theme houses are run, the Committee on Undergraduate Studies presented the findings of a report prepared by the Subcommittee on Residential Education and Advising.

The chair of the committee, Russell Fernald, psychology, said the reason for the subcommittee's work was "a certain cynicism in students about how one gets into" academic theme houses. "We wanted to dispel the notion that these are just nice houses on the Row, but that there actually is an intellectual and academic emphasis for those houses."

Related Information:

In a memo to the Senate, the Committee on Undergraduate Studies' noted that the review of theme houses was carried out "because of persistent reports that in some cases neither the intent nor the explicit guidelines [for such theme houses] was being followed." During the Senate discussion, ASSU President Mike Levin said that while he had lived in La Casa Italiana even some of its staff could not speak Italian.

Most of the academic theme houses are in prime campus locations, making it tempting for students to attempt to live in them even if, for example, they are not proficient in a foreign language or don't have a particular interest in the given theme. The houses are American Studies, EAST (East Asian Studies Theme), Haus Mitteleuropa, La Casa Italiana, La Maison Francaise and Slavianskii Dom (Slavic theme house). Through the housing draw the houses can be 100-percent filled by students expressing interest in those academic themes. By comparison, in "focus houses" 30 percent of spaces are allotted to students interested in a particular area. American Studies is changing next year to a focus house, Fernald said.

Members of the Senate supported many of the changes recommended to academic theme houses. Those include creating an oversight committee for each of the houses that would set the intellectual agenda for the house and do things such as scheduling seminars and other theme-related activities. Such a committee also would set criteria for obtaining a place in the house.

In addition, each academic theme house would include a residence for a relevant member of the academic staff, who could help the house concentrate on the educational component and provide an additional opportunity for student advising.

The committee also has recommended that theme houses be reconsidered for renewal every four years, and that reapproval be contingent upon a demonstration that the house contributes significantly to the intellectual life of its residents. Theme houses that had problems filling up their residences could be assigned smaller houses.

While those changes are significant, what divided members of the Senate was the renaming of academic theme houses to Language and Culture Residences and the requirement that students in such houses be proficient in the relevant foreign language or concurrently enrolled in language instruction.

Fernald said the change was desirable because speaking a foreign language was a logical way of integrating academics with a residential situation. Speaking up in favor of the proficiency requirement, Meredyth Krych, ASSU representative-at-large, noted that as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania she lived at a house where at meals different tables were set aside for speakers of different languages and that a short essay was required of students who wanted to live there.

But several faculty members spoke against renaming the houses because that would exclude the prospect of other groups coming together to form houses based on academic interests other than foreign languages.

"It doesn't have to be languages, it could be culture, or science, or many other things," said Ewart Thomas, psychology.

"I like everything else about the proposal and the way that it increases the rigor of these as academic houses. But I think it should be open to other disciplines," said John Rickford, linguistics.

In the end, a straw poll was conducted, by voice vote, to determine how the Senate felt about changing the name of the houses to Language and Culture Residences. The results appeared to be about 50-50.

"It demonstrates a house divided," said Senate Chair Mark Zoback.

The debate on theme houses was preceded by a more general discussion on residential education, including the new Freshman/Sophomore College and the creation of all-sophomore Toyon Hall.

"I am convinced that we have incredible potential to really use the residences to support the academic mission of the institution," said Jim Montoya, vice provost for student affairs. "These two particular programs I think present two interesting models. They are pilot programs and we will continue to assess them, with the hope that we have a better understanding as to which models indeed will bring us closer to the ideal." SR