Dean of Residential Education: Students should learn life lessons while living in Stanford dorms

As Stanford prepares to welcome 1,697 freshmen and 23 transfer students, Deborah Golder, the new dean of residential education, talks about life and changes in Stanford’s residences.

L.A. Cicero Deborah Golder

Deborah Golder

Data shows that Stanford students love their residential experience, but that is not enough for Deborah Golder, associate vice provost and dean of residential education.

"I want more. I want them to love it, but I want to know that they are learning something," says Golder, who joined Stanford in January. As head of the Student Affairs division responsible for the policies, programs and staffing within Stanford’s 78 undergraduate residential facilities, Golder adds, "Community is inherently dynamic. Universities are bureaucracies where it is easy to stay the same. We want to build an organization that evolves just as students evolve."

Golder came to Stanford from Drexel University, where she served as associate dean of students. She also held residence positions at Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland-College Park, and says she was drawn to Stanford by the unique residential system, especially the role of the faculty members and senior administrators living in the residences as resident fellows.

"The opportunity to take good organizational values and core concepts and work to enhance what is already a dynamic, evolving, cutting-edge program in higher education was appealing," she says, adding, "Then I came to campus and saw how passionate, committed and smart the people are—and, well, it was a given that I would want to join the Stanford community."

Golder calls the potential for improving the residential experience at Stanford "profound."

"We can harness these pockets of excellence further and ensure that every student at Stanford has a good residential experience — and that many have a great one," she says.

As Stanford and Residential Education prepare to welcome 1,697 freshmen and 23 transfer students, Golder answers questions about changes in the residences, alcohol policies and the evolving role of her department.

Q. What are the big changes in the residences this year?

A. The biggest change this year is that two-thirds of the incoming freshmen will be living in Wilbur and Stern halls. That will be an energy-filled environment. Upperclass houses that have been tight have a lot more breathing room. There is also an effort to bring back some social space.

This is all a result of the housing master plan rolled out by Residential & Dining Enterprises. It improved the physical environment of the residences. The improvements have a significant impact on the learning environment we help create. If you have three people squeezed into an area designed for two, it makes building community harder.

We were also partners with Housing in changes made to room selection. The Draw this year was cleaner and clearer. The outcome is that more sophomores are in places with resident fellows, and more  juniors and seniors are in places that offer independent living, which makes sense.

Q. How would you describe the Stanford residence system, and how does it compare to those of our peers?

A. It is diverse. And almost all students live on campus for four years, so we can engage them in multiple ways. About half of our houses have resident fellows, who are senior faculty and staff committed to living in community with students. That fact alone speaks to the values of the institution.

The other half of our houses feature independent living and include about a quarter of the population. It is unusual to find students living independently in the safety and sanctuary of the university campus. They are still part of the community, but they get an opportunity to exercise responsibility, from being kitchen managers who must follow county code to helping set standards for behavior. There are universities that have some of that kind of housing, but none has it to the degree Stanford does.

Within these two environments are layer upon layer of programs. Throughout a student’s four years, he or she can walk in all these different worlds. That is very congruent with how I have come to understand the diversity of Stanford in general.

Q. What is your vision of education and learning inside the residences?

A. I think of learning broadly. There is formal learning, programmatic learning, intellectual learning and interpersonal learning.

Learning happens formally in the classroom, but we expand and extend its meaning in our residences. For instance, there are great minds and former world leaders at Stanford who enjoy the intimate student contact of the residence.

There is also learning that happens in community about one’s self: How do I advocate effectively with my roommate around the fact that I like the window open when I sleep? That learning allows the development of life skills. Students also learn how to build interpersonal skills — how to knock on a door to ask someone to turn down the music rather than send a text message. This is also an environment where student staff and resident fellows help with issues around identity, cultural awareness or responsibility to other human beings.

If, during these formative years, we have engaged them in ways that help them understand their impact on others — and if, someday, those lessons play out in their lives — well, that’s pretty exciting.

Q. Every college and university deals with the challenge of alcohol. What is Stanford’s approach?

A. One of the things I enjoy about Stanford is that we respect our students and treat them as adults. We expect them to be thoughtful decision makers. We begin with a premise that is not punitive, but rather educational. We have faith that our students will make good choices. Sometimes they won’t. Then we intervene with educational resources so that they don’t make the same mistakes again. Alcohol is a part of college culture in the United States. If it compromises health, safety or community in the residences, we get involved.

Q. What do you want faculty and staff to know about Residential Education?

A. We are changing and exploring how residential education can be an even-more active contributor to the undergraduate experience. We do a disservice to our students if we want Residential Education or any other part of Stanford to be what it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I invite the community to help us define residential education of the future, grounded in our values of the past.